It’s hard to find an adjective that hasn’t already been applied to Freddie Mercury’s voice. So, now we’ve turned to science for help.
Well, not quite. But the late singer’s inimitable voice was the subject of a study by a team of Austrian, Czech and Swedish authors who set out to analyze Mercury’s voice from archived recordings to figure out exactly what made it so memorable.
What did they discover? Well, first of all, they cast doubt on a commonly-recited fact: that Mercury had a four-octave singing voice. “This could not be substantiated by the study,” the abstract reads, with Austrian voice scientist Christian Herbst declaring that Mercury’s voice range was “normal for a healthy adult – not more not less.” The late singer was “probably a baritone who sang as a tenor,” meaning his beautiful upper register and fluttering falsetto were the result of exceptional control over what singers call their “head” and “chest” voices and his ability to blend them.
The authors’ methodology was also unique: They used a high-speed camera filming at over 4,000 frames per second to record a rock singer imitating Mercury’s singing style (in particular the “growling” or intentional distortion he would use to color some of his vocals) to give them an idea of how Mercury’s voice would have worked.
And without getting too science-y (and the full study gets very science-y, if you’re into full-spectrum frequency analysis and things like that), they found that Mercury’s singing voice – when he’s using his “growling” tone, which you can hear when he really busts loose (like during the “Why can’t we give love that one more chance” lyrics heard in “Under Pressure”) – produced a sonic phenomenon called subharmonics. (A “subharmonic” is a frequency produced below the fundamental frequency or given note or pitch produced by an instrument. You can hear a grating demonstration of it here.)
Here’s where things gets weird (and also awesome): This phenomenon is also seen in Tuvan throat singing, where not only the vocal folds of the larynx vibrate, but so do a pair of tissue structures called ventricular folds – which aren’t normally used for speaking or classical singing. Mercury’s voice didn’t produce quite the same level of subharmonics as Tuvan voice singers, but it’s one more bit of the mystery of his voice unlocked.
You can’t stop him. Not now, not ever.