The amazing voice of Freddie Mercury

A simple request: please don’t stop after the second paragraph, specially if you are a fan of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Last week, the late rock icon suddenly got back in the news after researchers concluded he had a voice unlike anyone in rock ‘n’ roll, and even implied he did things that even the great operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti didn’t manage.

Conducted by a group of Austrian, Czech and Swedish musicologists and voice-culturists, the study was published in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology . Now, if those three words sound so complicated, what would the actual analysis be like? Words like ‘sub-harmonics’, ‘ventricular folds’, ‘median speaking fundamental frequency’ and ‘Tuvan throat singing’ were regularly used.

Never mind what these terms mean, but let’s analyse Mercury’s voice in simple terms. While the researchers couldn’t confirm the general assumption that his voice spanned a full four octaves, they essentially said something most rock fans believed for years. He had among the most special vocal chords in the world.

Hailing from an Indian Parsi family, Mercury was born in Zanzibar, studied in Panchgani (a few hours away from Pune), and made his career in the UK. Many rock buffs know his hits ‘I Want To Break Free’, ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, ‘Radio Ga-Ga’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Bicycle Race’. Hardcore fans would know the rarer gems.

Now what makes his, or anybody’s voice, really stand out? Let’s think from a lay-listener’s viewpoint. While many technical studies have been done across genres and languages, let’s consider specific examples of male rock and pop singers, using common words.

Like many others, Mercury’s voice had pleasantness, adequate training and practice, tone, technique, depth and modulation. He was aided by good compositions and musical arrangements. Yet, two qualities helped him develop an X Factor. These were range and timbre.

Unlike opera or choir singers, who specialise in specific ranges, pop and rock vocalists traverse a wide spectrum. Some sing similar to their natural spoken voice, while others use an artificial ‘falsetto’. Some use a combination of both.

The range involves an ability to sing various notes effortlessly and expressively. If one closely listens to Mercury, he did that easily. Unlike many singers who excel in either lower, middle or higher registers, but rarely in all three.

The timbre makes any voice unique, and applies to all genres. It is like a signature. Though a distinct timbre is no guarantee for success or greatness, it’s definitely an advantage.

Many male pop, rock, jazz and blues singers have possessed a trademark timbre. Besides Mercury, examples include Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, Cliff Richard, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Greek legend Demis Roussoss, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Richard Hawley. The list is endless.

So why is Mercury exceptional? That’s where the recent study comes in. The research team brought in rock singer Daniel Zangger-Borch to imitate his voice, and also checked recordings of the Queen star’s original spoken and sung voices. We will skip the technical details, but the conclusion was that his voice moved faster than many of the known greats. That also helped him in his stage showmanship, which was of another class by itself. We’re sure his fans are rejoicing over these findings.

Published on The Hindu

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