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This Is What Happens Inside a Beatboxer’s Mouth When They Perform

MRI scans of vocal percussionists show that beatboxing takes the vocal tract beyond human language

Doug E. Fresh, beatboxing pioneer, lays it down. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Anyone who’s tried imitating the talent of a pro-beatboxer knows the art of vocal percussion is much harder than it seems. Producing all those trills and pops takes a lot of practice and a really toned vocal tract. But just how those sounds are produced isn’t well understood. Veronique Greenwood at The New York Times reports that’s why researchers recently watched five beatboxers perform their art while being scanned by an MRI machine in an effort to understand the mechanics of the vocal tract and how language is produced.

For the study, recently presented at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, the team recorded beatboxing by two professionals, two novices and one intermediate performer. In all, the team examined each musician for 30 to 90 minutes as they produced 30 beatbox sounds from the tsk tsk tsk of a snare drum to the deep thumps of the bass drum.

The idea isn’t really to understand the mechanics of beatboxing. Instead, the interdisciplinary team is interested in understanding the relationship between language and music as well as the mind and body. Beatboxing is a great stand-in for learning a new language.

“Beatboxers have learned to produce a stunning array of sounds that no one ever taught them. Learning to beatbox is like learning a new language, except that there are no words—only sounds,” computer scientist Timothy Greer of the University of Southern California and his colleagues write on the group’s website. “By analyzing the movement patterns beatboxers use, we can better understand how the human body learns and produces coordinated actions. That information tells us more about other behaviors like speech and dancing, and it all comes together to uncover the mysteries of the human mind.”

In a previous study looking at a beatboxer, researchers hypothesized that the performer could only produce sounds that already exist within human language. But the new study shows that’s not always case. Instead, the scans showed beatboxers are using their vocal tracts in ways unrelated to speech.

“They’re coming up with ways to create these really complex acrobatic sounds by taking approaches drawn from different parts of the mouth that they don’t use in any language, and nobody uses for any language,” Greer tells Greenwood.

For example, Greer tells Brandon Specktor at LiveScience that the “inward click roll” used by beatboxers is produced by curling the tongue back and exhaling to cause a trill, a technique not used in any known language. Performers then string together these types of techniques and phrases to produce their music, similar to the way phonemes, words and sentences come together to form language.

So if the beatbox canon doesn’t stem from language, where do all the sounds come from? Primarily, the researchers say, through mimicry since much of beatboxing is an attempt to replicate parts of a drum kit with the human vocal tract.

“A good comparison might be how we learn to make an elephant noise,” Greer tells Specktor. “We put our lips together and blow out. We don't learn that from the English language — that’s not in our canon — but we figure it out through mimicry.”

USC engineer and the team’s leader Shrikanth Narayanan tells Charlie Wood at Popular Science that, besides building a vocabulary of beatbox sounds, they haven’t made any linguistic breakthroughs with the research though they hope to examine the skill more deeply to see if beatboxing has developed its own linguistic rules or grammar.

The research should also help in teaching beatboxing, which for many is simply a process of trial and error. Undergraduate team member Nimisha Patil, who is also a beatboxer that underwent the MRI, says seeing the images have already helped her better understand her craft.

“Just seeing the different tongue movements,” she says. “There are so many things going on that I didn't even know I was doing.”

Luckily for aspiring throat-thumpers, the team has put their beatboxing vocabulary online, though it may take a lot of study to reach the heights of beatboxing.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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