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

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Fred­die Mer­cury and David Bowie on the Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track for the Queen Hit ‘Under Pres­sure,’ 1981

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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