Encore: The Science Of Freddie Mercury's Voice NPR's Kelly McEvers talks with professor Christian Herbst, who was part of the team that released a study that explores the science behind Freddie Mercury's amazing voice.
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Encore: The Science Of Freddie Mercury's Voice

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Encore: The Science Of Freddie Mercury's Voice

Encore: The Science Of Freddie Mercury's Voice

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If "Bohemian Rhapsody" comes on while you're in a car with family or friends, it's quickly apparent who can carry a tune, but no one can match Freddie Mercury. Earlier this year, Kelly spoke to an Austrian researcher about that distinctive voice.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

You can hate Queen, you can love Queen, but almost everyone agrees Freddie Mercury had a set of pipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

FREDDIE MERCURY: (Singing) Mama, didn't mean to make you cry. If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on as if nothing really mattered.

MCEVERS: The late frontman for the legendary group died almost 25 years ago, yet he is still regarded as one of the best rock singers ever. What made him so great? Well, a research team in Europe wanted to figure out the science behind his voice. Christian Herbst was part of the team who just released a study on Freddie Mercury, and he joins us now via Skype from Salzburg, Austria. Welcome to the show.

CHRISTIAN HERBST: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here.

MCEVERS: So whose idea was this, and why did you choose Freddie Mercury?

HERBST: Well, it was my idea. The Austrian radio asked me to give an interview about Freddie Mercury and tell them some bits about his singing some six years ago, and this kind of developed into a larger project. And the other reason, of course, is Freddie Mercury's a most exquisite singer with a fantastic singing technique. And as a singing teacher and biophysicist, that, of course, intrigues me.

MCEVERS: And so what did you discover? I mean were there any surprises?

HERBST: The most important thing, I think, is what we found about his vibrato. Usually, you can sing a straight tone, but particularly opera singers - they try to modulate the fundamental frequencies. So they make the tone, if you like, a bit more vibrant. Now, typically, in opera singers, this vibrato has a frequency of about 5.56 Hertz. And Freddie Mercury's is higher, and it's also more irregular. And that kind of creates a very typically vocal fingerprint.

MCEVERS: We actually have a clip of him singing "We Are The Champions" without the full mix, just the isolated voice. Would that be something we could listen to and hear that?

HERBST: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS")

MERCURY: (Singing) I've paid my dues...

HERBST: You heard it right there.

MERCURY: (Singing) ...Time after time...

HERBST: And again.

MERCURY: (Singing) I've done my sentence, but committed no crime.

HERBST: And again, very Pronounced.

MERCURY: (Singing) And bad mistakes - I've made a few.

MCEVERS: Oh. So, like, on crime and - yeah.

HERBST: Yeah.

MERCURY: (Singing) But I've come through.

QUEEN: (Singing) We're ready to go on and on and on and on.

MERCURY: (Singing) We are the champions - my friends...

MCEVERS: Wow. That just gave me chills.

MERCURY: (Singing) And we...

MCEVERS: I mean, like, I feel like I'm listening to it in a different way.

HERBST: Exactly. And once you're tuned into that, you cannot get rid of it.

QUEEN: (Singing) No time for losers 'cause we are the champions...

MERCURY: (Singing) ...Of the world.

MCEVERS: You know, after all this research, did Freddie Mercury know that this was what he was doing?

HERBST: I didn't know. From my experience, most singers - most good singers - do not know what they are doing and how they do it. And I think that's the way it should be, actually.

MCEVERS: (Laughter)

HERBST: Because, for them, it destroys the magic.

MCEVERS: Right.

HERBST: It's just for science to mop it up and to explain it, in a way, and for pedagogues, actually, to - for singing teachers, actually, to understand how it's done.

MCEVERS: Christian Herbst, thank you very much.

HERBST: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Christian Herbst is an Austrian voice scientist. He's also one of the authors of a recent study analyzing Freddie Mercury's voice. It was published in the journal Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, and here's some more of Freddie Mercury's vibrato, just for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

MERCURY: (Singing) Somebody to love.

QUEEN: (Singing) Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love.

MERCURY: (Singing) Find somebody, somebody, somebody, somebody to love.

QUEEN: (Singing) Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love.

MERCURY: (Singing) Find me, find me, find me, find me somebody to love.

QUEEN: (Singing) Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love. Find me somebody to love.

MERCURY: (Singing) Somebody, somebody, somebody, somebody to love. Anybody, anywhere, anybody find me somebody to love, love, love, love, love, love. Find me, find me, find me...

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