Space & Innovation

Freddie Mercury's Incredible Singing Voice Explained

An analysis of Mercury’s speaking voice suggests that he was a baritone who could sing as a tenor.

An in-depth scientific analysis has studied the distinctive singing voice of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

Mercury wowed audiences as Queen's lead vocalist for just over two decades before his death in 1991. Now, a team of researchers have performed an in-depth analysis of his vocal talents and have published their results in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology.

Led by Christian Herbst, a voice scientist at the University of Vienna, the researchers analyzed "Freddie Mercury: The Solo Collection," as well as 23 commercially available Queen recordings. The scientists also used an endoscopic video camera to study a rock singer brought in to imitate Mercury's singing voice. Additionally, the experts analyzed a series of interviews given by the late Queen lead singer.

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An analysis of Mercury's speaking voice suggests that he was a baritone, according to the research. A-cappella recordings of Mercury highlighted "a surprisingly high mean fundamental frequency modulation rate (vibrato) of 7.0 Hz, reaching the range of vocal tremor."

The scientists also identified "subharmonic vibration" in Mercury's singing voice that likely created his famous "growl."

"Their occurrence aids in creating the impression of a sound production system driven to its limits, even while used with great finesse," the paper said. "These traits, in combination with the fast and irregular vibrato, might have helped create Freddie Mercury's eccentric and flamboyant stage persona."

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The study, however, was unable to prove claims that Mercury possessed a four-octave singing voice. The analyzed data, it said, could not conclude nor rule out that "such a phenomenon existed in Freddie Mercury's voice."

Nonetheless, the scientists stated that "it is not too far-fetched to conjecture that Freddie Mercury was rather skillful in adapting his laryngeal configuration to musical needs, thus exhibiting a great variability of sound timbres for enhanced musical expression."

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Freddie Mercury wowed audiences as Queen’s lead vocalist for just over two decades before his death in 1991.

Music choices can vary per person, but they also seem to vary per species, according to recent studies. Often the findings are unexpected, such as that dogs in kennels benefit from listening to audiobooks over all other types of recordings. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, found that listening to actor Michael York's reading of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" relaxed and interested dogs more than pop and even classical music (in this case, "The Best of Beethoven"). Tamara Montrose, who is program manager of Animal Behavior and Welfare at Hartpury College, told Discovery News that she and co-author Clarissa Brayley "we were surprised that audiobooks appeared to be more beneficial than classical music, due to the positive effects of classical music that have been documented in a range of other species." As of now, it's unclear if the audiobook reader's gender, age, accent and properties of the narration matter to dogs. It could be that certain dogs prefer to hear human male voices, while others prefer women's voices, based on prior life experiences. The listening dogs tended to show calm behaviors, such as reduced pacing, barking and standing. The dogs even slept more soundly after listening to an audiobook.

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Cats have a reputation for being finicky. When presented with music choices, most felines looked completely disinterested at best, or at worst could not wait to escape or even attack the source of the noise. Charles Snowdon, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tried a different approach. His colleague, composer David Teie of the University of Maryland, created "cat songs" designed for the feline sensory system. Cats, for example, vocalize one octave higher than people. "So it's vital to get the pitch right," Snowdon said. "Then we tried to create music that would have a tempo that was appealing to cats." One sample was based on the tempo of purring; the other on the sucking sound made during nursing. Among the listening cats, many would purr, walk toward the speakers and would even rub against them. Loud and frenetic music, on the other hand, led to hissing, arching of their backs and their fur standing on end. Montrose suspects that cats might benefit from listening to audiobooks for similar reasons to dogs, given that the recordings potentially provide "the illusion of company and comfort," she said.

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Chimpanzees prefer listening to West African Akan tunes and North Indian raga music over listening to silence, according to research by primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University published by the American Psychological Association. De Waal and his colleagues suspect that the chimps' reaction has to do with the ratio of strong to weak beats in the music. During dominance displays, de Waal explained, chimps loudly stomp, clap and/or bang objects in predictable rhythmic patterns. Many Akan and raga songs only have a strong beat for every 31 weak beats. Typical Western songs might have a strong beat for every one to three beats.

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Parrots, like humans, have varied musical tastes, but most seem to dislike electronic dance music, according to another study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science. Parrots and people react to music in similar ways. Some parrots will bob their heads and legs in time with the music, and others will even sing, that is squawk, along. One parrot was found to enjoy mellow folk tunes. Another responded favorably to classical. Still another loved U2 as well as reggae music. As for electronic dance music, it led to distressed parrot screaming.

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Common songbirds, such as sparrows, respond emotionally to music in ways that humans do. Researchers at Emory University discovered this after monitoring biochemical pathways in sparrows. The birds appear to prefer acoustically harmonious sounds versus those that are discordant. The former activated brain reward pathways. The researchers also found that breeding cycles can influence a bird's reaction to recorded songs.

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If elephants could control the radio dial, they would select classical music, studies show. Montrose said, "Classical music has been shown to be beneficial in reducing abnormal behavior in Asian elephants." In one experiment, members of Belgium's Royal Chamber Orchestra rehearsed in front of elephants at the Pairi Daiza zoo. The elephants paid close attention and began to sway their trunks in time with the music. Lions at the zoo, however, moved away from the music. When the musicians entered a monkey enclosure, one climbed on a violin and tried to forcibly stop the person from playing.

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Fish not only listen to music when it is presented to them, but they can also distinguish one composer from another, according to research in the journal Behavioral Processes. Keio University's Kazutaka Shinozuka told Discovery News that "goldfish could detect complex properties of sounds, such as pitch and timbre." The "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" by Johann Sebastian Bach and "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky were played for the fish. The researchers concluded that the fish prefer Bach. Prior research on pigeons found that they too preferred Bach's music. "These pieces can be classified as classical (Bach) and modern (Stravinsky) music," Shinozuka said. "Generally speaking, modern music includes much dissonance."

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Montrose said, "Classical music has also been shown to be beneficial in reducing abnormal behavior in gorillas, although another study found naturalistic sounds more beneficial." That second study, conducted by researchers at Queen's University Belfast, found recorded rainforest sounds led to "fewer behaviors typically associated with stress," such as aggression and abnormal behavior, wrote lead author Deborah Wells and her team. For yet another study, researchers Lindsey Robbins and Susan Margulis, of Canisius College came to a similar conclusion after playing three kinds of music for adult gorillas at the Buffalo Zoo: rock, classical and a collection called "Sounds of the Rainforest." The rock music led to frequent hair plucking. Classical didn't seem to have much of an effect. The rainforest sounds compilation, however, again resulted in increased relaxed behaviors and even improved digestion. Gorillas tend to vomit and re-ingest food a lot, and particularly when stressed. They did less of that after hearing the classical recordings.

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Rodents have been shown to exhibit the "Mozart Effect" after listening to the melodies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The musical stimulation seems to help rats solve maze challenges faster and more accurately. Scientists have for many years debated the effectiveness, and reasons for, the Mozart Effect in animals, including humans. Suffice it to say that no person has ever become a genius after just listening to hours of any classical composer's music.

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When it comes to horses, country music holds the magic touch. During a study on stabled horses, jazz and rock music led to stressful behaviors such as stamping, head tossing, snorting and whinnying, researcher Linda Greening of Hartpury College said. Her colleague Clare Carter added that jazz was the most irritating music style of all for horses. She thinks that might be due to its frequent minor keys and varying, often fast, tempos. Music recorded by singer Hank Williams Jr., though, seemed to calm the horses, as did listening to compositions by Beethoven. The research was presented at a conference of the International Society for Equitation Science. For all animals, low volume is important, researchers add. Most have keener senses of hearing than humans, so a little volume goes a long way.

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