Freddie Mercury is widely regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of rock. In fact, The Guardian once described his singing voice as “a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane.” But what made it so incredible? Was it years of practise or simply good luck? Well, it seems that a scientific study has now proven that the Queen frontman had a particularly distinctive attribute which helped him to achieve such greatness.
First, however, it’s worth learning more about Freddie Mercury. Before he was known by his stage name, you see, Mercury came into the world in Zanzibar in 1946 as Farrokh Bulsara. He subsequently grew up in India, but as a child he immersed himself in the world of Western pop. Then, in his late teens, he and his family fled the Zanzibar revolution to England, where he would later study graphic art and design. And after graduating from Ealing Art College, Mercury performed in several bands, including Sour Milk Sea and Ibex.
It wasn’t until 1970, though, that Mercury joined forces with drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May – and their band would later become Queen. Bassist John Deacon bolstered their line-up, too, and the group began to make waves in their U.K. homeland. In fact, Mercury’s sense of showmanship, versatile voice and fondness for eyeliner and nail polish soon helped them to stick out from the crowd.
So Queen went on to enjoy global success with their pair of 1974 albums, Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. But it was the following year’s A Night at the Opera that truly elevated them to superstar status. Its lead single, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a six-minute genre-spanning epic penned by Mercury, also became the band’s signature hit.
Of course, Mercury then went on to write several other massive hits throughout the 1970s, including “Somebody to Love,” “We Are The Champions” and “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Towards the end of the decade, though, he abandoned the glam rocker look and reinvented himself as a short-haired mustachioed man. He also briefly ventured outside the band by performing on stage with the Royal Ballet.
Mercury and Queen then consolidated their status as a rock greats in the 1980s thanks to albums such as The Game and A Kind of Magic. The frontman also stole the show at Live Aid with a memorable performance that became the stuff of legend. And having previously released a single under the guise of “Larry Lurex” early in his career, Mercury then attempted a solo career proper.
Released in 1985, the album Mr. Bad Guy saw Mercury eschew the rock theatrics of Queen for a disco-inspired sound. Yet although it reached the U.K. top ten, it failed to make much of an impression elsewhere, peaking, for example, at a lowly number 159 on the Billboard 200. His signature solo hit came two years later, in fact, with a cover version of The Platters’ “The Great Pretender.”
Mercury’s second album outside of Queen was even more of a musical departure, though. Merging pop with opera, Barcelona actually left critics a little confused on its 1988 release. Its title track, however, was a duet with soprano Montserrat Caballe and became one of Mercury’s most popular anthems. In 1992, in fact, the record was chosen as the official theme to that year’s Summer Olympics.
But Mercury returned to his day job again in 1989 with Queen’s The Miracle, which was followed up two years later by Innuendo. Tragically, though, the latter proved to be Mercury’s swansong, as just nine months after its release, the rock icon passed away. In the end, Mercury died from a condition related to AIDS less than 24 hours after revealing to the world that he had the disease.
Rumors about Mercury’s health had circulated for several years beforehand, though. In 1986, for instance, British tabloid The Sun claimed that the singer had been examined for the AIDS virus at a London clinic. And a year later Mercury had even refuted rumors that he’d been diagnosed with the disease. Yet Queen’s absence from the live circuit and the star’s increasingly frail look also added fuel to the gossip fire.
Mercury actually made his final stage appearance at the 1990 BRIT Awards, where Queen received the Outstanding Contribution to Music award. And his last appearance on camera came in May 1991 for the “These Are the Days of Our Lives” video. The star then retreated to his London home to see out his final months.
Yet although Mercury had denied that he had AIDS to the press, he had already told his nearest and dearest. In fact, in 1993 Brian May revealed that his bandmate had disclosed the news to the rest of Queen years beforehand. Mercury had also been supported by his ex-partner Mary Austin as his health began to rapidly deteriorate.
Mercury had dated Austin at the beginning of the 1970s. The couple had spent several years living together, in fact, before the star revealed his attraction to men. However, the pair had stayed friends, with Mercury even penning several songs about Austin, including “Love of My Life.” In 1985 the Queen frontman even reportedly said, “To me, [Austin] was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage.”
Mercury’s only other long-term relationship had been with Jim Hutton. The singer started dating the hairdresser in 1985, in fact, and the pair spent the following six years together. Hutton also helped to nurse Mercury as his health worsened, and he was there when the star passed away too.
Mercury’s relationship with Hutton had not been immediately obvious to the public, mind you. And the star’s sexuality had actually been a source of speculation ever since he’d shot to fame. In fact, the NME asked Mercury as early as 1974 whether or not he was gay. Yet some believe that his relationships with both Austin and Hutton prove that he was bisexual.
But regardless of his sexuality, Mercury eventually decided to go public about his AIDS diagnosis on November 22, 1991. In an official statement, he said, “I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth.”
And as mentioned, Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia caused by AIDS just one day after this statement was issued. Then, several days later, his family and 35 of his dearest friends attended a West London funeral service for the star. As Mercury wished, Austin was also given his ashes and buried them in a location that remains undisclosed to this day.
Of course, Mercury’s legacy continues far beyond his tragic early death. In the spring of 1992, for instance, a Wembley Stadium tribute concert featuring the remaining members of Queen and several of Mercury’s peers was staged to raise funds and awareness for an AIDS charity. And a year later Mercury posthumously topped the U.K. charts with a remix of “Living on My Own.”
In 1995 the surviving Queen members also used previously unreleased Mercury recordings to create the Made in Heaven album. Alongside the singles “Heaven for Everyone” and “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” the LP further featured Mercury’s final ever studio vocal, “Mother Love.” Several compilations, including 2000’s extensive The Solo Collection, also helped to showcase Mercury’s work outside the band.
Mercury was even posthumously entered into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. In 2002 he was also named as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a poll conducted by the BBC. And nine years later he was crowned as the second-best lead vocalist by readers of Rolling Stone.
So in 2016 a group of scientists decided to investigate why Mercury was able to make such a colossal impact with his voice. Published in the Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology journal, their subsequent report was titled, “Freddie Mercury – acoustic analysis of speaking fundamental frequency, vibrato and subharmonics.” And their findings proved that the Queen frontman truly was out of the ordinary.
“Freddie Mercury was one of the 20th century’s best-known singers of commercial contemporary music,” the report begins. “This study presents an acoustical analysis of his voice production and singing style, based on… publicly available sound recordings.”
The study was actually undertaken by a team hailing from Sweden, Austria and the Czech Republic. As stated above, they used archival recordings of Mercury’s voice to help with their findings. And they also adopted a technique typically associated with testing for larynx cancer.
But the team first tracked down another rock vocalist, Daniel Zangger-Borch, who could replicate Mercury’s signature style. They then attached a high-speed camera to a malleable tube which journeyed through his upper respiratory tract. The camera, which ran at over 4,000 frames per second, could in this way monitor how his voice box worked.
And this unusual approach yielded interesting results. For one thing, the researchers discovered distinctive undertone frequencies whenever Zangger-Borch growled in the same way as Mercury. Tuvan throat singers, who hail from Mongolia, also generate similar results with their unique vocal style.
Dr. Christian Herbst, a voice specialist from the University of Vienna, further explained the frequencies in the study. “Their occurrence aids in creating the impression of a sound production system driven to its limits, even while used with great finesse,” he wrote. “These traits, in combination with the fast and irregular vibrato, might have helped create Freddie Mercury’s eccentric and flamboyant stage persona.”
The study also claimed, “Perceptually, Freddie Mercury’s irregular… vibrato is clearly audible in the sustained notes of famous songs such as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ [This] appears to be one of the hallmarks of his vocal style.” News of the World single “We Are the Champions” was further cited as an example of the frontman’s unusual vibrato.
The team was also able to determine more information about Mercury’s voice by analyzing a cappella recordings and interviews. The scientists therefore claimed that the rock icon had a median frequency of 117.3 Hz when he spoke. This meant that Mercury was officially a baritone, rather than the tenor many would have assumed.
However, the truly amazing findings emerged when it came to his singing. The team discovered, you see, that Mercury’s range could go from 92.2 Hz all the way up to 784 Hz. This means that he could impressively reach both the resonant low note of F#2 and hit the piercing G5, essentially spanning three octaves.
The study also found that Mercury was capable of modifying his distinctive voice much faster than fellow rock stars – and even some classical vocalists. “Usually, you can sing a straight tone,” Dr. Herbst told NPR. “But opera singers try to modulate the fundamental frequencies.”
“So they make the tone, if you like, a bit more vibrant,” Herbst continued. “Typically, an opera singer’s vibrato has this frequency of about 5.5-6 Hz. Freddie Mercury’s is higher, and it’s also more irregular. And that kind of creates a very typical vocal fingerprint.”
Dr. Herbst later told Science Focus why he and his team decided to conduct the study. He said, “I’m both a graduated voice pedagogue and biophysicist. I’m very interested in how the singing voice works on a physiological/physical level, and how good singing can be taught efficiently.”
“Freddie Mercury was an incredibly skillful and versatile singer, capable of a wide range of artistic vocal expressions,” Dr. Herbst continued. “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.”
Dr. Herbst also admits that his love of Freddie Mercury’s music influenced him to undergo the research. “Queen has been one of my favorite bands since my teens,” he told Science Focus. “And that certainly was an additional incentive for conducting this study.”
The study does concede that the fact that Mercury is no longer with us was something of a hindrance. And despite the use of a soundalike, it admits the pitfalls in obtaining data from a vocalist “who would not be available for further data acquisition.” But the team are still confident in concluding that “Freddie Mercury was rather skillful in adapting his laryngeal configuration to musical needs.”
Dr. Herbst also told NPR that he couldn’t say for sure whether Mercury knew what he was doing. “From my experience, most singers, most good singers, do not know what they are doing and how they do it,” he said. “And I think that’s the way it should be, actually.”
Of course, Mercury’s incredible talents took center stage again in 2018 when Bohemian Rhapsody hit theaters. This Queen biopic follows the band’s fortunes from their early 1970s beginnings right up to their iconic Live Aid showing in 1985. And it quickly became the most successful musical biopic in box office history.
Interestingly, Sacha Baron Cohen had initially been cast as Freddie Mercury. But after leaving the project due to a creative rift, the comedian was replaced by Rami Malek. And the Mr. Robot actor ended up winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his portrayal of the star.
Malek also provided some of the vocals for the film, alongside renowned Mercury soundalike Marc Matel. However, the official soundtrack consists entirely of Queen songs. It also allowed the band to return to the upper reaches of the Billboard 200, peaking at number three.
And while promoting the film, Malek told NPR how awe-inspiring he found Mercury’s voice. “What I quickly realized was no one can sing like Freddie Mercury, and nor can I. It’s very difficult to get my voice up to those high notes, and at some point, my voice breaks. And it breaks pretty quickly when I’m trying to ascend [to] what Freddie Mercury can do.”