Beatboxers have invented whole new ways of making sounds, scientists say

In an MRI study of five beatboxers, researchers found unprecedented patterns of movement

In an MRI study of five beatboxers, researchers found unprecedented patterns of movement

Beatboxing — the punchy, aggressive, percussive vocal artform — can mimic the beat of a drum or the scratch of a turntable with just the artist's body. (David Becker/Getty Images for Global Citizen)
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Researchers using MRI to study five beatboxers have found that when making their characteristic percussive sounds, the volunteers were doing things with their vocal tracts not seen in any human languages.  Essentially, they were inventing new ways to produce sound.

"There are sounds in beatboxing you won't find anywhere," said Reed Blaylock, a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Southern California who was part of the research team.  

Beatboxers produce punchy, aggressive, percussive sounnds that mimic the beat of a drum or the scratch of a turntable with just the vocal tract.

[Beatboxers] are pretty much using all the moving parts of their vocal tracts and coordinating them in these extra fast ways and in a much more finessed way than usually found in language.- Reed Blaylock

Using real-time MRI, researchers were able to track the movements inside beatboxers' vocal tracts while they performed, to better understand how the different parts work together to produce the unique sounds.

According to Blaylock, they use the same speech articulators — tongue and lips — to make sounds. But while some of the sounds they make are found in language, others are completely new.

Brand new sounds

The spit snare and inward click roll – lip roll are two sounds observed in the study that the researchers believe are unique.

The spit snare mimics the short, crisp sound of a hand clap. It's created by raising the tongue to the palate, puffing out the cheeks, and swiftly pressing the air out between the tongue and cheeks.

Beatboxing is a musical art form in which performers use their vocal tract to create percussive sounds, and a team of researchers is using real-time MRI to study the production of beatboxing sounds. (Timothy Greer )

The inward click roll – lip roll, on the other hand, is much harder to create. It requires the beatboxer to make the lip trill, and the rolling 'r' simultaneously, and inhale instead of exhale throughout.

"[Beatboxers] are pretty much using all the moving parts of their vocal tracts and coordinating them in these extra fast ways and in a much more finessed way than usually found in language," explained Blaylock.

The beatboxing sounds were collected at the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory by Dr. Shri Narayanan and his team. 

Beatboxing and language

One sound in beatboxing that does overlap with language is the kick drum sound. It's found in most beatboxers' repertoire, and can also be heard in languages like Georgian and Armenian.

Linguists call it a "bilabial ejective" in speech, and it's created by closing the lips and the vocal folds, and pumping the larynx upward to pop air out through the lips.

"Beatboxing tells us what the human vocal tract is capable of," said Blaylock. "When we look at it through the lens of beatboxing, you can see all the possibilities that we never use in speech. It also helps us figure out which parts of speech are special to speech and which parts are part of a broader cognitive system that we as humans have."

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