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Pianist Profiles: Freddie Mercury & the Piano, Born to Perform

Charmaine Li  /  Profiles / Sep 5

Anyone who has seen Freddie Mercury perform the piano opening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” at Live Aid will understand the impact Freddie has made on pianists.

The intro to the rock anthem is iconic. In fact, our “Bohemian Rhapsody” tutorial on Pianote is one of our top lessons.

Freddie was a delight to watch on stage…and poetic to watch in the studio. In this month’s profile, we’ll take a deeper dive into Freddie Mercury’s composing style. And we’ll see how the piano played a role in one of rock history’s greatest songwriters.

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Biography

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar. His family was Parsi and they practiced Zoroastrianism. Freddie spent the majority of his childhood at a boarding school in India, then moved to Middlesex, England in 1964.

While studying graphic design at the Ealing College of Art, Freddie met Roger Taylor and Brian May. Their band, Smile, would later become Queen. The members of Queen (Freddie, Roger, Brian, and later John Deacon) would not change for 20 years.

Queen became one of the biggest rock bands in history. Sadly, the man most responsible for their image, Freddie Mercury, passed away in 1991. He suffered pneumonia as a complication of AIDS, and the 45-year-old had just publicly announced his diagnosis 24 hours before his death.

Today, Freddie’s legacy lives on. His stage persona, powerful voice, and epic songwriting continue to inspire musicians young and old.

I am not going to be a star. I am going to be a legend.

Freddie Mercury (source)

Influences and Style

Of the 17 songs on Queen’s best-selling Greatest Hits album, Freddie wrote ten. He was responsible for some of Queen’s most memorable hits: “We Are the Champions,” “Somebody to Love,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to name a few.

Freddie Mercury and the Piano

Freddie Mercury’s relationship with the piano started when he took lessons at age seven. He played piano for his first band, The Hectics, when he was just twelve years old.

But Freddie never identified as a keyboardist. In fact, he would often hire keyboardists to play the piano parts for him on stage. Perhaps he chose to focus on his vocals and stage presence instead, skills for which he is best known for.

Still, the piano served as an invaluable songwriting tool. Rumor has it that Freddie put a piano on the headboard of his bed so he could test out his ideas as soon as they came. Brian May claims “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was written while Freddie was in the bathtub. He had a piano pulled into the room and composed the song in less than ten minutes.

Writing “Bohemian Rhapsody”

When “Bohemian Rhapsody” came on the radio, listeners had never heard anything like it. The song was strange, theatrical, and long — and it had opera! Yet people couldn’t get enough of it.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a culmination of its influences. It came on the heels of experiments made by the Beatles and the Beach Boys — then went further. The hit mashes disparate genres — opera, ballad, hard rock — into the same song.

And somehow, it totally works. In fact, some experts see “Bohemian Rhapsody” not as one song but as a suite of five songs:

  1. A capella Intro
  2. Ballad
  3. Opera
  4. Hard Rock
  5. Ballad

What’s interesting is that “Bohemian Rhapsody” lacks a chorus, which is a core element of most popular songs. It’s totally memorable, though, perhaps relying on its famous piano intro.

Their pop rock opera songs . . . are both sophisticated yet entertaining; they’re both complicated but easy enough to understand.

Ben Aaron

Producing “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Producing a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” was an art form on its own. Today, music producers can easily cut and fix mistakes within a digital interface.

But in Freddie’s time, the band would have had to manually fix mistakes on a tape. This required a higher level of commitment from musicians, especially if studio time was limited by financial constraints.

Luckily, Freddie had a reputation for being well-prepared. He was said to have had a complete vision of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by the time he got to the studio.

Unforgettable Performances

Many rock stars have a reputation for being eccentric, and Freddie was no exception. As a performer, Freddie interacted with the crowd and was not afraid to be dramatic, showy, and humorous.

He also played piano with a distinct style. To guitarist Brian May, Freddie played piano like a drummer—very precise, dramatic, and metronome-like. And while he technically didn’t play with the right technique (he played with drooping wrists!), his playing style somehow gave his sound more power.

Freddie was unique, one of the biggest personalities in pop music. He was not only a singer but also a fantastic performer, a man of theatre and someone who constantly transformed himself. In short, a genius.

Lady Gaga (source)

Legacy

Freddie Mercury remains one of the most beloved musical figures in recent history. His musical prowess is evident, but Freddie Mercury the man also inspired people.

Some fans see him as a queer icon and as a celebrity who humanized AIDS. Recently, Freddie’s South Asian and Zoroastrian heritage — perhaps obscured by his anglicized chosen name — has instigated discussions on race and pop culture. Lady Gaga’s stage name is inspired by “Radio Gaga,” and the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody earned actor Rami Malek an Academy Award.

Today (at least in the English-speaking world), if you put “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the car stereo, chances are at least one passenger will erupt enthusiastically into song.


Sources and Further Reading


Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note.

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