Researchers reveal the science behind beatboxing

As far as astounding your friends and family, it's hard to go past human beatboxing. The art of producing amazingly life-like percussion sounds has evolved swiftly since its origins in 1980s New York hip-hop culture, and performers can now imitate a wide range of percussion sounds, rhythms, rapped lyrics and even entire songs. Yet the vocal trickery required to perform such feats has remained largely unfathomable – until now.

Scientists from the University of Western Sydney and the University of Southern California have made use of innovative MRI technology to examine in detail what happens in the vocal tract when human beatboxers produce the beats and bass that make up their repertoire.

Using custom 'real-time MRI' technology developed especially for the study of speech production at the University of Southern California, the researchers analysed a 27 year old male beatboxer to look at the sounds in more detail.

"Real-time MRI was developed to allow speech scientists to see how the tongue, lips, and vocal cords move, by capturing video images inside the mouth and throat at frame rates up to 40 times per second," says Dr Michael Proctor, a linguist and speech scientist the University of Western Sydney.

"Using this technology, researchers can examine how the complex, fast-moving anatomical structures of the vocal tract are coordinated to generate the speech sounds we so effortless produce all day without conscious thought."

Each recording lasted between 20 to 40 seconds, with the beatboxer performing 17 distinct percussion sounds in five instrumental classes: kick drums, rim shots, snare drums, hit hats and cymbals.

The researchers were astonished to hear the amazing sounds produced by the subject, and to discover how much detail they were able to uncover about the ways these sounds are made. Each vocal percussion sound in the beatboxer's repertoire involved rapid and precise coordination of different parts of the tongue, lips and vocal cords. The study demonstrated that, like in many human languages, not all sounds were generated by the lungs.

The data suggests the beatboxing artist – an English and Spanish speaker – was unconsciously mimicking sounds found in a variety of languages spoken in far flung parts of the globe, according to Dr Proctor, who is based in the UWS School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a member of the MARCS Institute.

"A key finding of our work is to show that we can describe the basic sounds used by the artist with the same system used to describe speech sounds, which suggests that there is a common inventory of sounds that are drawn upon to create any vocal expression," says Dr Proctor.

"These sounds are very similar to clicks seen in African languages such as Xhosa from South Africa, Khoekhoe from Botswana, and !Xóõ from Namibia, as well as consonants seen in Nuxálk from British Columbia, Chechen from Chechnya and countries in Africa."

The researchers hope to continue their work by looking at vocal percussion sounds produced by other beatboxers – do all artists produce kick drum and cymbal effects the same way? Or are there individual differences, depending on the languages that the artists speak, or the individual details of their vocal tracts?

The analysis of beatboxing is part of a broader study of different types of vocal performance, aimed at coming to a better understanding of the ways that singers in different musical traditions achieve overlapping – and sometimes competing – musical and linguistic goals.

The team is also looking at different consonants and vowels produced by speakers of different languages – how do these resemble and differ from sounds produced with paralinguistic goals?

In addition to Dr Proctor, the work was done by the research team that includes Engineer Erik Bresch and Professors Dani Byrd, Krishna Nayak and Shrikanth Narayanan.

The findings appear in the February issue of the Journal of Acoustical Society of America.


31 January 2013

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