Scientific Study Looks at What Made Freddie Mercury Such a Brilliant Singer (WARNING: Math Ahead!)

Few singers in the history of rock had the vocal range of Freddie Mercury, which some say extended over four octaves. But how did he do it? Science has the answer.

A team of authors from Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden launched a study of Freddie’s voice using selected recordings and a live singer who can imitate Freddie quite well. Their findings were published Friday (April 15) in Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology. The article, “Freddie Mercury–acoustic analysis of speaking fundamental frequency, vibrato and subharmonics,” begins with this abstract.

Freddie Mercury was one of the twentieth century’s best-known singers of commercial contemporary music. This study presents an acoustical analysis of his voice production and singing style, based on perceptual and quantitative analysis of publicly available sound recordings. Analysis of six interviews revealed a median speaking fundamental frequency of 117.3 Hz, which is typically found for a baritone voice. Analysis of voice tracks isolated from full band recordings suggested that the singing voice range was 37 semitones within the pitch range of F#2 (about 92.2 Hz) to G5 (about 784 Hz). Evidence for higher phonations up to a fundamental frequency of 1,347 Hz was not deemed reliable. Analysis of 240 sustained notes from 21 a-cappella recordings revealed a surprisingly high mean fundamental frequency modulation rate (vibrato) of 7.0 Hz, reaching the range of vocal tremor. Quantitative analysis utilizing a newly introduced parameter to assess the regularity of vocal vibrato corroborated its perceptually irregular nature, suggesting that vibrato (ir)regularity is a distinctive feature of the singing voice. Imitation of subharmonic phonation samples by a professional rock singer, documented by endoscopic high-speed video at 4,132 frames per second, revealed a 3:1 frequency locked vibratory pattern of vocal folds and ventricular folds.

Uh, okay. The study also contains passages like this:

Vibrato extent (i.e. the modulation amplitude) is typically expressed in semitones or cents, where one octave equals 12 semitones or 1,200 cents (11). For the purpose of this analysis, the frequency values of the fundamental frequency contours were converted to cents relative to middle C as

where f0[i] is the fundamental frequency estimate at time index i, and f is the fundamental frequency of middle C (C4), calculated as 440 × 2^(–9/12) ≈ 261.63 Hz. The average musical pitch c of the f0 contour, expressed in cents from middle C, was then computed as

 Finally, the average absolute deviation from the mean musical pitch Δ c, representing vibrato extent, was computed as

Right. Of course.

Cutting through all this, Alpha Galileo, a media resource for things beyond the media’s paygrade and education, sums the report up this way:

In many ways, this deeper scholarly interest and analysis of Mercury’s voice moves to affirm many of the singer’s stage persona traits. In particular, the study examined the intentional distortion Mercury used to produce so-called ‘growl’ sounds. With a rock singer imitating this special type of singing, the authors filmed his larynx with a high-speed camera at over 4,000 frames per second, giving them an understanding of what Mercury would have done physiologically while singing these ‘distorted’ notes. The authors could thus reconstruct how Freddie Mercury, in his flamboyant and eccentric stage persona, drove his vocal system to its limits

What they found was an intriguing physical phenomenon called subharmonics. This is seen in a more extreme way in Tuvan throat singing where not only the vocal folds vibrate, but also a pair of tissue structures called ventricular folds, which are not normally used for speaking or classical singing. Mercury’s more fragile side is also fitting with his hallmark vibrato (a rapid, slight variation in pitch). Most pop/rock singers maintain a regular vibrato, whilst his was more irregular, and unusually fast.

Bottom line? Freddie, a natural baritone who chose to sing tenor, had a voice belonging to a normal, healthy adult that was nonetheless “a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane.”

(Thanks to Moe for the link.)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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