Rock and roll hagiography presents us with a canon of instrumental saints, guitar gods, drum demiurges, bass demons. It’s true, the frontman has often enjoyed a near-messianic status (it’s almost always been a man), but rock history has granted less authority to the voice as an instrument and allowed for all kinds of non-traditional—and not always particularly pleasant or accomplished—voices. The influence and imitation of folk and blues and the rise of punk and metal has given rock singers plenty of license to growl, howl, mumble, scream, and moan instead of singing in any classical sense.
But then there’s Freddie Mercury, who elevated rock vocals to operatic heights. Whether you love his intense, soaring vibrato or not, there’s no denying his unmatched virtuosity. Now---as they often do when it comes to music---scientists have “confirmed the obvious,” as Consequence of Sound puts it: Freddie Mercury’s voice was something special.
The specific findings of a new study, however, tell us things we probably didn’t intuit. Like Tuvan throat singers, it seems that Mercury’s singing and speaking voice vibrated both ventricular and vocal folds, creating rich subharmonics and a vibrato faster than that of any other singer.
To put that in plainer terms, researchers found, Consequence of Sound writes, that Mercury “was vibrating something in his throat even Pavarotti couldn’t move.” That is indeed surprising. But we must be cautious in interpreting the results obtained by this group of Austrian, Czech, and Swedish researchers, who published their study on April 15th in the infelicitously named journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology. Since Mercury died in 1991, the scientists were unable to gather what they refer to as “physiological or biomechanical data of vocal fold vibration” from the subject himself. Instead, they examined, among others, recordings from The Acapella Collection, a bootleg compilation of isolated Mercury vocal tracks, and attempted to correct for studio manipulation.
You can hear a few of those amazing recordings here (“We are the Champions” at the top, “Somebody to Love” below it, “Keep Yourself Alive” further down, “I Want to Break Free,” above, “I Want it All” below, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the bottom.) To examine Mercury’s speaking voice, they analyzed samples from six different interviews. To get a further sense of how Mercury made the sounds he did, the team used a ringer, a Mercury imitator named Daniel Zangger-Borch. As he duplicated Mercury’s vocals, they filmed his larynx at 4,000 frames per second to visualize how the Queen singer might have employed his own instrument.
But of course, this is only an approximation, and—given that Mercury’s voice was in a class of its own—it’s difficult to understand how another singer could have recreated his one-of-a-kind technique. In any case, the research conclusions are intriguing, especially since the study suggests that not only did Mercury’s vibrato and subharmonic technique create his thoroughly unique vocal sound, but that they also may have contributed to his “eccentric and flamboyant stage persona.” The researchers were unable to substantiate, however, the popular idea that Mercury’s voice spanned a full four octaves. You can read the full study, in all its minute technical detail, here.