Talented beatboxers use their vocal tracts to create a mind-blowing variety of sounds that mimic – and in some ways, surpass – those produced by percussive instruments.
And new research from the University of Southern California (USC) suggests that some of these musicians are capable of producing sounds totally unique from those used in any known language – meaning their performances go far beyond ‘boots and cats’-based emanations.
“They're learning to use their mouths and vocal tracts in ways that they have never had to use for speech, going totally outside of common articulations and airstreams and creating what we call art. It's incredible,” Timothy Greer, a computer science PhD, told Live Science
Greer is one member of the four-person USC team focused on investigating the physiological mechanics of beatboxing using real-time MRI observations and computer algorithms. In addition to being a novel and, let’s be honest, fun subject for study, the SPAN lab (for Speech Production and Articulatory kNowledge) believe that examining how beatboxers do their thing can help us understand more about how the brain learns and processes language.
These videos are from a research project being conducted Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory at the University of Southern California by Professor Shri Narayanan and his team with support from the NIH and NSF.
"They can hear a sound like a snare drum and they can figure out what they need to do with their mouth to re-create it," Greer said in a statement.
"Beatboxers may learn something different in preparing to make a sound than they do when they're talking,” he added. “Using real-time MRI allows us to investigate the difference in the production of music and language and to see how the mind parses these different modalities."
SPAN’s latest investigation, which has not yet been published in a peer-review journal, involved capturing real-time MRI data of researcher Nimisha Patil – who happens to also be an award-winning beatboxer – and four other beatboxers as they created a myriad of hisses, trills, clicks, buzzes, and thwomps. This allowed them to observe the exact interplay of movement in the larynx (aka voice box or vocal fold), jaws, lips, and tongue associated with each sound.
One of the many impressive beats researcher Nimisha Patil has posted online
According to Greer, the next step will be crafting a computer program that can analyze and classify these movements patterns, which could ultimately lead to an instructive guide for aspiring beatboxers.
"The vocal tract is amazing but it's also incredibly complex. We need to keep creating better computer algorithms to understand how it all works together," he said.
The group’s preliminary findings were presented yesterday at the Acoustical Society of America's 176th Meeting.