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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