Breaking It Down Inside an MRI Scanner

Breaking It Down Inside an MRI Scanner

It’s not every day that scientists get a beatboxer to perform inside an MRI machine. But the researchers who did got to see a show, and now so do you (we recommend you watch this short video with the sound on).

Under magnetic resonance imaging, they observed the mechanics of how the artists make the distinctive beats that sound like percussion instruments using only their mouths. In gritty black and white, their tongues leap and flip; a sound like a snare drum snaps out.

The research, based on scans of five different beatboxers, was presented Wednesday at the Acoustical Society of America. The scientists, with specialties in computer science, engineering and linguistics, are comparing the movements in beatboxing to those used to make speech. They hope to learn more about how the human body produces language and to develop algorithms that can accurately describe the dynamics of the vocal tract.

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Beatboxing, in which artists use clicks, rolls and their own breath to create the sounds of a drum machine or other effects, has long been used by performers of jazz, hip-hop and other genres. Virtuosos can effectively accompany themselves, mimicking the sound of an entire band’s worth of instruments.

Beatboxing has been studied before, but usually with data from only a single performer. Timothy Greer, the computer science graduate student at the University of Southern California who presented the research, and colleagues worked with a diverse array of beatboxers: two experts, two novices and an intermediate-level performer (who is a member of the research team). Importantly, one of the performers speaks two languages in addition to English; the researchers are curious to see whether knowing other languages influences how a beatboxer moves their mouth in creating a given sound.

Beatboxers had been thought to draw on sounds from human languages — a reasonable supposition, because the same throat and mouth structures are used in both speaking and beatboxing. But instead the team has observed that some of the techniques the performers are using to make their sounds are quite different from speech.

“They’re coming up with ways to create these really complex acrobatic sounds by taking approaches drawn from different parts of the mouth that they don’t use in any language, and nobody uses for any language,” Mr. Greer said.

The researchers are also comparing what the mouth and throat look like just before a beatboxer lets out a beat and just before he or she speaks. By observing the differences in these actions, they hope to understand what makes beatboxing distinct from speech cognitively — how the sounds a person intends to make are reflected in the way they shape their vocal tract.

“We also want to look at how beatboxers acquire new skills, which we hypothesize may bear resemblance to learning a new language,” Mr. Greer said.

Mr. Greer does not beatbox seriously himself, though he plays the piano and the saxophone. But he admitted: “I found myself doing it more in the shower now that I study it.”

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