Queen's Freddie Mercury had the best pipes in rock music, and now science is explaining just what made the legendary singer's voice, once described as "a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane," so remarkable
Researchers from Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden recently set out to examine Freddie Mercury's voice in all its wonder. They examined recordings of him both speaking and singing, the vocal chords of a rock singer imitating him, and considered anecdotal evidence regarding his vocal range, Consequence of Sound reported.
Their conclusions: He was likely a baritone, though he was known as a tenor; he used subharmonics; and his vocal chords vibrated faster than anyone else's.
First, they considered Freddie Mercury's vocal range. According to People, they couldn't confirm a piece of rock legend -- that he had a four-octave singing range, said voice scientist Christian Herbst.
His range was actually "normal for a healthy adult – not more not less." Researchers believe that Freddie Mercury sang as a tenor despite being a baritone, a possibility suggested by the following story: The singer once turned down an opera duet because he didn't think fans would recognize his lower voice.
Scientists also examined six interviews and analyzed his median speaking fundamental frequency, which they found to be 117.3 Hz, or in the lower range. In other words, when Freddie Mercury left his "base range" to hit the high notes, he easily controlled his "head" and "chest" voices to blend them into a beautiful tenor.
Since Freddie Mercury died in 1991, researchers weren't able to test their theories on a living subject, and so brought in professional rock singer, who does an excellent imitation. While he sang like the rock legend, scientists filmed his larynx to uncover how he managed those growls and vibratos (like in the line "Why can't we give love that one more chance" in "Under Pressure")
Freddie Mercury was capable of something called subharmonics, which are most famously used in Tuvan throat singing (considered a more extreme version of the ability). In subharmonics, the larynx's vocal chords vibrate alongside the ventricular folds, a pair of tissue structures not usually used in talking or singing.
His vocal chords were also natural wonders. According to Phys.org, most rock singers can handle a "regular vibrato," while Freddie Mercury's was "more irregular, and unusually fast."A run-of-the-mill vibrato is somewhere between 5.4 Hz and 6.9 Hz; Freddie Mercury's was 7.04 Hz. In a more scientific description, the perfect sine wave (a smooth repetitive oscillation) has a value of 1. Luciano Pavarotti could achieve a 1. Freddie Mercury's sine wave averaged 0.57.
"He was vibrating something in his throat even Pavarotti couldn't move," according to Sound writer Ben Kaye.
Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in the British Protectorate of Zanzibar; his parents were Parsis, from India. He took music lessons as a child, and left Zanzibar for England at age 17. He formed Queen in 1970 and after a career that cemented him as a music legend, and, of course, rock music's most remarkable singer, died in 1991 from complications associated with AIDS.
He was recently back in the news over a controversy brewing over the production of a film biopic of his life. Sacha Baren Cohen was slated to play Freddie Mercury, but he was shelved from the project due to a spat with Queen guitarist Brian May over the singer's portrayal.
"Sacha became an arse," May said. "We had some nice times with Sacha kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened."
Cohen claimed that the band wanted to sugarcoat Freddie Mercury's story.
Perhaps it's for the best -- science has made it clear Sacha probably doesn't have the vocal chops for the part.
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]