A real time MRI machine was used by scientists to reveal the mysteries of beatboxing.

We guess you’ve ever encountered someone trying to mimic how Obama, Beyoncé, or Taylor Swift speaks, how cute — what about Trump? Yikes! Beatboxers, however, take it to a whole other level, realistically producing every bass beat, snare hit, record scratch, and melody line in a single track, all with their voices. Indeed, just a single beatboxer can be a band on his own. A new research from the University of Southern Carolina sought out to know how they do what they do with the aid of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, and the results were astonishing.

Related media: How to Make Basic Beatbox Sounds


The Vocal Instrument

For the records, beatboxing might sound weird for a scientific research, but that’s what science is all about. Researchers from the University of South Carolina’s Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge Group (USC-SPAN), sphere headed by Professor Shri Narayanan, had three questions they wanted to know about this mystery art.

One, beatboxing is produced by the same linguistic tools — the mouth, tongue, larynx, trachea — but not the same regular words we normally speak. The researchers wanted to better understand how human communication starts as a mental representation and becomes a produced sound. Second, observing several beatboxers, the team would be able to study whether people use different means of producing similar sounds. And finally, researchers can use it to study how people learn to use this vocal ability to help people speak again after losing their speech in the future.

Beginning in 2006, the researchers started placing experienced beatboxers inside a real-time MRI machine in order to observe what happens within a beatboxer’s vocal tract when they perform. They started with one opera singer and one beatboxer, and over the course of the years had the opportunity to observe different beatboxers with different skills and experience.

The research was quite a scientific feat: The machine scanned the beatboxers at a rate of 83 frames per second while an audio recording captured the sounds they made. This needed some high tech noise cancellation, said Timothy Greer, a Ph.D. student in computer science and a researcher on the team.

“That was done because the inside of this scanner board sounds like a jackhammer,” he told Curiosity. “It’s really hard to hear what the beatboxer is doing as that sound is going on.”


Peeping Into A Vocal Jukebox

You might ask, what was their discovery? Unsurprisingly, it turns out that beatboxers create a range of sounds similar to the ones you’d notice in natural human language; but remarkably, they’re also able to create some sounds you’d never notice anywhere.

One peculiar sound that you’d notice common to both natural language and beatboxing is what linguists call an “ejective” — a popping consonant produced when both the mouth and the vocal folds cut off air flow, and the larynx rises to push air through the vocal closure. It seems you’d notice these sounds mostly in Native American and African languages, and not so much in English — although they pop up occasionally. In theory, beatboxer create the sounds of kick drums, hi-hats, and other explosive effects.

“But we also observe that some beatboxers make sounds that you don’t find in language at all,” said Reed Blaylock, a Ph.D. student in linguistics and researcher on the project.

The “inward K,” is one of those peculiar sounds which beatboxers produce by breathing in while making a “crisp, percussive sound.” Beatboxers breath in to produce certain sounds that assist them keep the beat going without taking a breath.

“That kind of sound doesn’t exist in language,” Blaylock said. “There are a few other ones, too, where the sound that a beatboxer uses uses some pattern of coordination, some breathing style, or some other type of closure that we haven’t observed in any language so far.”


The Biological Melodies

The team also found that any two beatboxers might make the same sound in different ways, especially if one is more experienced than the other. Here, again, ejectives played a prominent role. “It seemed that the advanced beatboxers had a better, more controlled use of ejectives,” said Nimisha Patil, a former undergraduate research assistant on the project and beatboxer in her own right.

The discoveries the team has already made suggest there’s exciting potential in beatboxing as a way to not only answer scientific questions but also to give beatboxers and vocalists a novel glimpse into their art form and give doctors and clinicians new ways to help their patients. To see more of their work, check out their website where you can compare and contrast different beatboxing sounds.

“It kind of takes the mystery out of what people do inside the mouth, which is like amazing,” Narayanan said. “It’s a vocal dance that you can see.”

Source: University of South Carolina.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Jan 12, 2019.


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