Why did Freddie Mercury sound so good?
New study finds Queen frontman “rather skilful in adapting his laryngeal configuration to musical needs.”
Queen are probably one of the greatest ever rock bands to hit the world stage (scientific fact that), selling way more than 100 million records and releasing such iconic hits as Bohemian Rhapsody and I Want To Break Free. Much of their success had to do with the epic vocal abilities of their frontman Freddie Mercury, and a new study has sought to find out why the singer, born Farrokh Bulsara, had a voice described as “a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane.”
Published in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, the study analysed video interviews with Mercury and a capella tracks from the star’s back catalogue to isolate the frequencies that he spoke in and the range he was able to hold a note at. The results were, obviously, most impressive.
When he spoke he had a median frequency of 117.3 Hz giving him a rich baritone voice, but the extraordinary results came when the singer opened up his throat and started to belt out hit after hit. The study confirmed that his range went from about 92.2 Hz to 784 Hz, meaning he was reliably able to hit notes from the booming low of F#2 to the high pitch G5 – that covers a full three octaves! It is possible to hear higher/lower notes when listening to the recordings, but the team behind the study found it an unreliable indicator of his true range (it could have been Brian May’s epic guitar solo for instance).
Range is one thing, but the rate at which Freddy Mercury could modulate his voice, the vibrato, was significantly faster than other rock stars and even professional classical singers. Because it wasn’t as true a vibrato as someone like Pavarotti, the speed and sound was distinctive, all adding to the singer’s magical voice.
“I’m both a graduated voice pedagogue and biophysicist, and I’m very interested in how the singing voice works on a physiological/physical level, and how good singing can be taught efficiently,” says lead-author Dr. Christian Herbst.
“Freddie Mercury was an incredibly skilful and versatile singer, capable of a wide range of artistic vocal expressions. Naturally, I was interested in objectively describing his singing style with adequate empirical methods: not only on an acoustical level, but also attempting to understand what went on in the larynx.”
When it came to analysing how the Queen legend’s vocal chords (or vocal folds as they are more scientifically known) might have worked the study admits that although they used a professional rock singer to imitate style, there are obvious flaws in gathering data from “a singer who would not be available for further data acquisition” (Mercury died in 1991 of AIDS-related Bronchopneumonia). Nonetheless, they were able to “conjecture that Freddie Mercury was rather skillful in adapting his laryngeal configuration to musical needs.”
We think that might be something of an understatement, but hey, any excuse to listen to our favourite musicians - a sentiment that isn’t lost on Herbst:
“Queen has been one of my favourite bands since my teens, and that certainly was an additional incentive for conducting this study.”
[This article was first published in November 2016]