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There’s a science behind beatboxing and researchers are getting to the bottom of it

Speech and audio engineers at the University of Southern California are looking at beatboxing a little more closely to find out just how these unique sounds are made.

To do this, researchers analyzed a 27-year-old male beatboxer through a real-time MRI, which gave them ‘an opportunity to study the sounds people produce in much greater detail than has previously been possible’, says Shrikanth Narayanan, a speech and audio engineer at USC.

‘You can see details not visible to us of how a skilled singer is able to manipulate their vocal instrument’, Narayanan explains.

Researchers made 40 recordings each lasting 20 – 40 seconds long as the beatboxer produced all the effects in his repertoire. In all, 17 distinct percussion sounds were categorised into five instrumental classes: kick drums, rim shots, snare drums, hi-hats, and cymbals.

The beatboxer even demonstrated his ability at different tempos – from slower at 88 beats per minute to a much faster 104 beats.

‘We were astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display’, Narayanan said.

‘This incredible vocal instrument and its many capabilities continue to amaze us, from the intricate choreography of the ‘dance of the tongue’ to the complex aerodynamics that work together to create a rich tapestry of sounds that encode not only meaning but also a wide range of emotions’.

Researchers found that the sounds a beatboxer makes actually mimic those found in languages throughout the world. The 27-year-old male beatboxer from the study spoke English and Spanish but was able to create sounds that are similar to African languages with his quick clicks and ejective consonants (bursts of air generated by closing the vocal cords).

‘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’, researcher Michael Proctor said.

The study is just limited to one beatboxer right now but the findings look to be a starting point in understanding speech.

While on the subject of beatboxing, you might want to check out this father-daughter duo in a beatboxing contest.

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