What Beatboxing and Opera Singing Look Like Inside an MRI Machine

Beatboxing, the practice of producing drum machine-like beats (especially TR-808-like beats) with one’s voice, has long since made the transition from parlor trick to acknowledged musical art form. But we still have much to understand about it, as the recently-emerged first generation of beatboxing scholars knows full well. “A team of linguistics and engineering students at USC wanted to learn more about the mechanics behind the rhythms,” writes Los Angeles Times music critic Randall Roberts. “By using MRI technology, they recorded an unnamed local beatboxer working his magic, broke down the most commonly employed sounds by examining the movements of his mouth and then analyzed the data.”

This resulted in a paper called “Paralinguistic Mechanisms of Production in Human ‘Beatboxing’: A Real-Time Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study.” Roberts describes it as “predictably heavy with linguistic jargon, but even to a civilian, the results are illuminating,” especially the video the research team recorded, “which reveals how the human mouth can so convincingly create the pop of a snare drum.” At the top of the post, you can see this sort of thing for yourself: in this video “The Diva and the Emcee,” featured at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) Scientific Sessions in Seattle, we see how a beatboxer’s technique compares to that of an opera singer.

You can find out more at the site of the Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge group (SPAN), the USC team that performed this pioneering research into an important component of one of the pillars of hip hop. Keep their findings in mind next time you watch a beatboxing clip that goes viral (such as the Goldberg Variations one we featured back in 2012) for a richer listening experience. After all, it does no harm to the romance of the beatbox, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, to know a little bit about it.

Related Content:

Beatboxing Bach’s Goldberg Variations

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

Langston Hughes Reveals the Rhythms in Art & Life in a Wonderful Illustrated Book for Kids (1954)

Do Rappers Have a Bigger Vocabulary Than Shakespeare?: A Data Scientist Maps Out the Answer

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Fred Carama says:

    wonderful research. However the data you are working with is not great. Your opera singer was a horrible wobble and has a lot of tongue tension. This offsets the vowel analysis completely. it is possible to carry pure vowels much higher if the tongue is not involved. There is a major difference between a vibrato and a wobble.

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