What Made Freddie Mercury the Greatest Vocalist in Rock History? The Secrets Revealed in a Short Video Essay

I wasn’t always a Queen fan. Having cut my music fan teeth on especially downbeat, miserable bands like Joy Division, The Cure, and The Smiths, I couldn’t quite dig the unabashed sentimentality and operatic bombast. Like one of the “Kids React to Queen” kids, I found myself asking, “What is this?” What turned me around? Maybe it was the first time I heard Queen’s theme song for Flash Gordon. The 1980 space opera is most remarkable for Max von Sydow’s turn as Ming the Merciless, and for those bursts of Freddie Mercury and his mates’ multi-tracked voices, explosions of syncopated angel song, announcing the coming of the eighties with all the high camp of Rocky Horror and the rock confidence of Robert Plant.

As a frontman Mercury had so much more than the perfect style and stance—though he did own every stage he set foot on. He had a voice that commanded attention, even from mopey new wave teenagers vibrating on Ian Curtis’s frequency. What makes Mercury's voice so compelling—as most would say, the greatest vocalist in all of rock history? One recent scientific study concluded that Mercury’s physical method of singing resembled that of Tuvan throat singers.




He was able to create a faster vibrato and several more layers of harmonics than anyone else. The video above from Polyphonic adds more to the explanation, quoting opera soprano Montserrat Caballé, with whom Mercury recorded an album in 1988. In addition to his incredible range, Mercury “was able to slide effortlessly from a register to another,” she remarked. Though Mercury was naturally a baritone, he primarily sang as a tenor, and had no difficulty, as we know, with soprano parts.

Mercury was a great performer—and he was a great performative vocalist, meaning, Caballé says, that “he was selling the voice…. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colour or expressive nuance for each word.” He had incredible discipline and control over his instrument, and an underrated rhythmic sensibility, essential for a rock singer to convincingly take on rockabilly, gospel, disco, funk, and opera as well as the blues-based hard rock Queen so easily mastered. No style of music eluded him, except perhaps for those that call for a certain kind of vocalist who can’t actually sing.

That’s the rub with Queen—they were so good at everything they did that they can be more than a little overwhelming. Watch the rest of the video to learn more about how Mercury’s superhuman vibrato produced sounds almost no other human can make; see more of Polyphonic’s music analysis of one-of-a-kind musicians at our previous posts on Leonard Cohen and David Bowie’s final albums and John Bonham’s drumming; and just below, hear all of those Mercury qualities—the vibrato, the perfect timing, and the expressive performativity—in the isolated vocal track from “I Want to Break Free” just below.

Related Content:

Scientific Study Reveals What Made Freddie Mercury’s Voice One of a Kind; Hear It in All of Its A Cappella Splendor

Watch Behind-the-Scenes Footage From Freddie Mercury’s Final Video Performance

Queen Documentary Pays Tribute to the Rock Band That Conquered the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Joe Sycamore says:

    Freddie Mercury was never the greatest vocalist in Rock History, he was the greatest showman who happened to have a very good voice. There are many other vocalists whose range and talent rivalled and indeed surpassed Freddie but they lacked the sheer charisma and stage presence of Mercury.

    The greatest vocalist in Rock history is Paul Rodgers formerly of Free.

  • Bill W. says:

    Roy Orbison had the best voice in Rock music.

  • Billy Mills says:

    Really, no. An over-hyped, not untalented band who appeal to a taste for music-hall showmanship.

  • Mr Mycroft says:

    Greatest singer oh please.

  • Kitsen says:

    And what is Paul Rodgers’ range? How technically adept is he? Is he also capable of singing opera? Show tunes? Other melodic genres? And who are these others who surpassed Mercury in those areas? Whether or not Freddie made you feel it isn’t what’s being discussed here. Nobody had his technical artistry or control. Nobody else can or could move from baritone to soprano and back without the slightest wobble or catch. You’re coming in as a listener and not as a singing professional. Those of us who’ve actually studied voice on a formal basis know what is meant by this article. It’s fine that Mercury wasn’t your favorite, but that is not indicative of anything that changes a word of what this article says. He was a virtuoso. Rodgers is not.

  • Bohemian says:

    people don`t understand this.it`s not only about range.it`s about being able to perform with no difficulty at any register any kind of song and even being able to change your notes very effortlessly like Freddie Mercury did.and add to these his emotional singing which he did like nobody else.there are many singers with higher ranges but they can`t hit the notes Freddie hit and can`t change or merge the different registers like he did , having for each one of them a special coloratura and vibe.also did you know about vibrato of Freddie being higher (7.2) than Pavarotti`s (5.04)? he was not just a showman, being a showman and a unique entertainer came because of his charisma and limitless energy which was just a bonus to his infinite talents in singing and great composing as well.Freddie was a multi talent and could use all of these very beautifully in a multi disciplinary way like no one else.I so agree with you Kitsen.And if you have no information on Freddie Mercury you must study more then come here and write just superficial facts. i can suggest you hear about Freddie from Montserrat Caballe, one of the greatest sopranos. Robert Plant and many other great singers have said superlative words on Freddie.he was the best vocalist of all times for sure.and greatly missed.Thanks for sharing these openculture:)

  • Rhapsody says:

    people don`t understand this.it`s not only about range.it`s about being able to perform with no difficulty at any register any kind of song and even being able to change your notes very effortlessly like Freddie Mercury did.and add to these his emotional singing which he did like nobody else.there are many singers with higher ranges but they can`t hit the notes Freddie hit and can`t change or merge the different registers like he did , having for each one of them a special coloratura and vibe.also did you know about vibrato of Freddie being higher (7.2) than Pavarotti`s (5.04)? he was not just a showman, being a showman and a unique entertainer came because of his charisma and limitless energy which was just a bonus to his infinite talents in singing and great composing as well.Freddie was a multi talent and could use all of these very beautifully in a multi disciplinary way like no one else.I so agree with you Kitsen.And if you have no information on Freddie Mercury you must study more then come here and write just superficial facts. i can suggest you hear about Freddie from Montserrat Caballe, one of the greatest sopranos. Robert Plant and many other great singers have said superlative words on Freddie.he was the best vocalist of all times for sure.

  • Chazzan says:

    Use of the ventricular folds has been common in folk and indigenous vocal styles (and their descendants such as rock) for centuries. Polyphonic’s videos tend to make my teeth itch with pedantic twaddle such as this – he lectures with an annoying air of authority while (needlessly?) manipulating facts to support his thesis.

  • William Rowland says:

    I would think that the greatest vocalist in rock history would be either Aretha Franklin or Grace Slick.

  • Glen says:

    Ironically, the narrator has one of the worst and most annoying voices I’ve ever heard.

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