Watch: Bizarre MRI Video Shows How Beatboxers Make Sounds

Beatboxing is a musical art form that involves performers using their vocal tract, mouth, lips and tongue to mimic sounds—usually percussive instruments such as drums.

In an attempt to understand how exactly beatboxers recreate beats or make melodies without singing, a team of researchers, led by Shri Narayanan from the University of Southern California (USC), has been peering inside the body using advanced real-time imaging techniques. The results have provided fascinating new insight.

“Our interdisciplinary team has been working for over 20 years developing novel technologies to peer into the human vocal instrument in action—to see what it does when we speak, sing and make other sounds,” Narayanan told Newsweek.

One of the team’s interests is understanding how we learn to use the “vocal instrument,” Narayanan said, whether it’s a child learning to speak or an adult acquiring a new skill, such as singing or beatboxing.

“Beatboxing provides a novel platform to explore how humans learn to implement new sounds with their vocal instrument,” he said. “Many scientific questions of interest arise: how do these sounds and mechanisms compare to what has been attested in the sounds of the world’s languages; how flexible are individuals in creating similar soundscapes; and how do things change as people learn to master producing sounds?”

In research presented at the Acoustical Society of America's 176th Meeting in Victoria, Canada, the team investigated how beatboxers produce sounds, with the help of real-time magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

This technology essentially allows scientists to look inside the body and observe the workings of the vocal tract as sounds are produced. This process has resulted in some bizarre videos, such as the one above.

The team also developed an algorithm to analyze the movements of all the various body parts involved in the production of sound, such as the tongue and roof of the mouth.

“We used expert linguistic-phonetic methods to analyze and catalogue the sounds using established scientific traditions,” Narayanan said. Using these techniques, the team made some interesting findings.

"We found that beatboxers can create sounds that are not seen in any language,” Timothy Greer, a researcher at USC who was also involved in the project, said in a statement. “They have an acrobatic ability to put together all these different sounds. They can hear a sound like a snare drum and they can figure out what they need to do with their mouth to recreate it."

Two examples of these sounds that are not attested in any language include the “inward clickroll” and “liproll”—videos of which can be viewed here.

morphdb_figure Stills from a real-time MRI video captured by the USC team. USC Speech and Vocal Tract Morphology MRI Database

"Beatboxers may learn something different in preparing to make a sound than they do when they're talking,” Greer said.

The research also identified different strategies that the individual beatboxers used to produce sounds, creating a variety of styles.

“Different beatboxers might make the same sound in different ways,” Narayanan said. “For example, our initial results show that artists vary in their use of specific mechanisms in producing certain sounds such the “PF snare.” This sound can be made with or without the use of 'ejectives' [a strong push/pop of air from the mouth involving rapid movement of the larynx]. One expert artist produced it with the ejective while the other did not.”

“We found that expert beatboxers might have better control over their articulators and use certain mechanisms more than novice beatboxers,” he said.

According to Narayanan, the latest research is significant for a number of reasons.

“This has implications for advancing theory in cognitive science and linguistics: it shows what the vocal tract can do when stretched to its limits,” he said. “It addresses questions like: why do some sounds exist in speech, but not others?"

In addition, providing a tool to visualize and understand the mechanisms of how the vocal tract moves during beatboxing could open up new possibilities for the performing community when it comes to learning, teaching and exploring the artform—which is still relatively new.

Finally, the direct visualization of the vocal tract in action could serve as an educational tool for speech therapists who often rely on listening to the audio of the sounds produced by their patients.

“This can inspire them in designing new therapeutic strategies to help patients trying to regain functions of their vocal tract,” he said. “More broadly the methodology we have developed can help clinicians in surgical planning—say before treatment of the cancer of the tongue—and therapists to track progress in regaining functions such as speech and swallowing during the course of therapy.”

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