The Current

Music in mind and mouth: How beatboxing is helping kids with speech problems

Kaila Mullady discovered that her incredible beatboxing skills could help her young cousin overcome a debilitating speech problem. She's been helping kids like him ever since.
Kaila Mullady shows off he beatboxing skills. Her cousin, who has speech problems, inspired her to use her talents to help others. (Submitted by Kaila Mullady )

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Originally published on April 13, 2018

Beatboxing has been a part of the hip hop world for years, but now it's being used to help kids overcome speech problems. Some neuroscientists even think it could help to unlock the brain's potential.

"Beatboxing is basically imitating different instruments with your human instrument," said world champion beatboxer Kaila  Mullady. Practitioners use their lips and tongue to turn individual sounds into music.

Mullady's 13-year-old cousin Brendan Mullady suffers from an oral motor disease called Apraxia. He was non-verbal until he reached the third grade.

Mullady used to babysit her cousin, and noticed that after a long day at school he would come home and have a session with his speech therapist. While his siblings ran off to play, Brendan was faced with flash cards.

"A lot of times he would kind of shut down, or hide under the table, or run away," she said.

Beatboxing, she said, was a way to make it fun. She worked with the therapist, adding beatboxing sounds to the letters Brendan was being asked to articulate.

When you beatbox, she explained, you articulate all the letters in your speech. It's the same emphasis as some speech therapy, but kids love it, she said. Instead of coming into a class and being told to sit quietly, they're told to make as much noise as they want.

Kaila calls it "sneaking vegetables into the fruit smoothie," because kids stop thinking of it as an exercise.

"They just think that they're practising their beats and making music," she said.

(Submitted by Kaila Mullady )

Brendan's mother Karen Mullady said that he had trouble pronouncing letters in the alphabet. After Kaila started helping him with beatboxing, his skills improved dramatically.

"He went from a non-verbal kid to complete sentences, complete talking," she said. "He can talk to his friends, he can go out and have a full life."

When Kaila realised how effective it was, she and her collaborator Mark Martin started helping other kids that suffer from speech issues.

"We can take what these kids were told they're not good at, and then we give them superpowers," Kaila said. "You could see the excitement on their faces."

History with a beat

The fun side of beatboxing certainly motivates these kids, but Daniel Levitin pointed out that Kaila's work is also teaching them the syllables they need to communicate.

"She is developing this phonemic awareness of a focus on what your mouth and its constituent parts are doing, in the service of communication," said Levitin, professor emeritus of psychology and music at McGill University.

Levitin said that cultures around the world have been practicing their own version of percussive singing for years. South Indian music has a practice known as Konnakol, the art of performing percussion syllables orally. Early examples of the origins of beatboxing also come from jazz musicians, similar to Ella Fitzgerald's experimenting with scatting.

Beatboxing and the brain

Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience who studies beatboxing at University College London, says people who can beatbox are generally self-taught.

Understanding how the brain leans this and similar skills could be applied to other speech-related problems.

It could be used, for example to help adults that may have slurred speech or are unable to talk as a result of a stroke or brain damage.

"I suspect it's going to be very, very important for work with adults," she said.

"If we can understand expertise and learning," she said, "that might help us promote expertise and learning in the brain."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Danielle Carr.