It was wonderfully entertaining, but it wasn’t quite Freddie himself. Which begs the question many are asking: Was her beautiful voice somehow aided by a genetic defect, four extra incisors: Do extra teeth equal extra reach?
It’s one of the most compelling side stories to emerge from this year’s Oscars extravaganza.
Here’s what we do know: His dental endowment (or affliction, as he no doubt thought growing up) had gradually pushed his front teeth forward as he entered his teenage years, causing many of teasing (“Bucky”) when Freddie was a boy and teenager, when he was then known as Farrokh Bulsara. He hid them behind his hand and, later, a mustache. But that never drowned out his singing.
The internet is full of tales of how the transsplendent Rami Malek prepared for his four-octave frontman role by donning a pair of custom prosthetic upper teeth to practice speaking and singing.
While Freddie’s extra teeth were unlikely due to a specific genetic disorder, at least one group of researchers has suggested another biological explanation.
Almost all monogenic conditions that have a dental component have oddly shaped or missing teeth, not extra teeth. Rare diseases that can produce an extra tooth or two are almost always a syndrome, along with other symptoms. Cleidocranial dysplasia, for example, also causes short stature, missing shoulder blades, and scoliosis. And Gardner syndrome is best known for having abundant colon polyps, but a few people who have it have extra teeth.
A number of case reports in the medical literature describe people with extra teeth, but none of them are rock stars. One person had 17 extras! A 2005 article in an oral pathology journal describes a multi-toothed parent and child, suggesting that extra teeth may be inherited.
Whatever the origin of the extra teeth, errant genes or developmental accidents, descriptions in technical articles tend to list the associated problems, not the prodigious singing ability, especially if the upper front teeth are affected. According to a 2010 literature review, extra teeth commonly lead to “oral problems such as malocclusion, food impaction, poor aesthetics, and cyst formation.”
Extra teeth are rare
Freddie’s awareness of his extra incisors was unusual, though they could hardly have gone unnoticed. More commonly, extra teeth show up as a surprise on a dental X-ray, or when they make it difficult to get braces or dental implants.
“Mesiodentes” is the term for Freddie’s oral condition, referring to more than one extra, more common tooth in the upper jaw between the two normal incisors. Men are more often affected than women. And Freddie’s extras were “conical”, the most common shape. They probably appeared before or at the same time as his normal incisors.
The overall prevalence of extra teeth is 0.09% to 3.4%, depending on the population. A small study found a prevalence of 0.72% in Iran. Freddie was born in Zanzibar, but his parents were Parsees and Zoroastrians, who immigrated from Iran to India to escape religious persecution.
And it was rare among the few – only 1% of people with extra teeth have more than two.
The first reported evidence of extra teeth was in the remains of a 5-year-old child from the Lower Pleistocene, dating to around 2 million years ago. The remains of an Australian aborigine from 13,000 years ago also had extra teeth.
A dentist weighs
In the film, Freddie attributes his pipes to a cavernous mouth chamber needed to house his extra incisors. This is all speculation, although no one can say whether his refusal to have the extra teeth removed – an often-suggested treatment – gave us We are the champions and Another one biting the dust.
Maybe Freddie just had a big mouth.
“A lot of people have supernumerary teeth, which doesn’t necessarily cause the front teeth to push forward. It has a lot to do with the anatomical size of the jaw,” said Fred Levine, a recently retired dentist from the Albany area of New York. “In most people I have seen with supernumerary teeth, the size of the jaw does not match the space needed for the extra teeth, and the extra teeth are misplaced, protruding either towards the palate or towards cheeks. Freddie Mercury’s jaw size had to be larger than normal to allow his extra teeth to accommodate a normal arch shape,” he added.
It turns out that Freddie’s voice doesn’t come from extra teeth or a big mouth, but from his use of a part of the body that isn’t usually accessible – the so-called “false” vocal cords.
Tap into an unused biological part
Freddie Mercury has achieved an amazing vibrato using, in addition to his usual vocal cords, a pair of mucous membranes that we all have protruding as folds just above the vocal cords. They are called “false” vocal cords because they are not thought to be part of the normal sounds we make, but some people may indeed use them.
Here is a video of a singer, Anna-Maria Hefele, showing how she uses both sets of vocal cords. A few minutes into the eerie duality begins, sounding a bit like Jethro Tull’s flute suddenly appearing against the bass in a song – but from one mouth.
Queen’s lead singer apparently did something similar. The result was a unique “growl,” according to “What Made Freddie Mercury’s Voice So Magical? His teeth”, an excellent article in Scroll.in.” Anvar Alikhan writes that Freddie produced and maintained a rare sound called “subharmonic vibration”. But the title isn’t quite right. It wasn’t his teeth.
The Scroll.in article is based on a highly technical report in The British Voice Association diary that features an acoustic analysis of Freddie Mercury’s voice based on interviews, extensive listening to recordings, and even the recreation of the sound of a substitute rock singer who mastered Mercury’s technique and was somehow goaded into swallowing a tiny camera so researchers can take a look at the two pairs of vocal cords in action. (I assume it was swallowed. I can’t imagine the man’s throat was slit. The article is behind a paywall and the summary lacks detail. But endoscopes I have known will in a hole.)
Examination of the interview tapes quickly revealed that Freddie was a natural baritone when speaking. Yet his singing voice showed much more. “Analysis of 240 sustained notes from 21 a cappella recordings revealed a surprisingly high fundamental frequency (vibrato) modulation rate of 7.0 Hz, reaching the vocal tremor range,” the researchers write.
Endoscope video of Freddie clone Daniel Zangger-Borchs, an authority on rock star vocals, returned 4,132 frames per second that revealed the use of real versus fake vocal cords at an approximate ratio of 3:1.
Thanks to the swallowed camera, we know Freddie Mercury used something extra, but it wasn’t his teeth. It was probably his false vocal cords. But even this analysis could not explain the range of four octaves.
Sometimes it’s better not to over-analyze things, just sing or headbang in a car, and appreciate some amazing talent that science just can’t explain.
Ricki Lewis is the senior editor of GLP which focuses on gene therapy and gene editing. She has a doctorate in genetics and is a genetic counselor, science writer, and author of The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It, the only popular book on gene therapy. ORGANIC. Follow her on her website or Twitter @rickilewis
This article was originally published on the GLP on November 18, 2018. It was updated on February 24, 2019.
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