As any amatuer rapper knows, simulating the beat of a drum or the scratch of a turntable with nothing other than the lips, voice, mouth, and tongue takes skill.
When done properly, a master can trick an audience into believing that a whole repertoire of instruments is creating a beat. When done poorly, well, he or she probably isn’t going to be the next Doug E. Fresh.
For years scientists have struggled to identify and classify the intricate sounds that emanate from a beatboxer’s mouth. But a recent analysis has shown — quite literally — just how incredible the human body is at producing sophisticated noises.
After putting a beatboxing man into a real-time MRI machine — an imaging technique that allows scientists to “film” a person’s insides while they are performing an action, beatboxing in this case — they recorded the man while he performed a concoction of voice-activated sounds: rapping, singing, beats, freestyling. What they saw was one of the most detailed looks at beatboxing yet.
The study subject, who spoke English, was able to produce some of the same sounds that are spread across the world’s distinct language systems, Inside Science reports.
“It is absolutely amazing that a person can make these sounds — that a person has such control over the timing of various parts of the speech apparatus,” phonetician Donna Erickson at the Showa University of Music and Sophia University told Inside Science.
Specifically, the sounds he made sounded similar to “clicks seen in African languages such as Xhosa from South Africa, Khoekhoe from Botswana, and !Xóõ from Namibia, as well as ejective consonants — bursts of air generated by closing the vocal cords — seen in Nuxálk from British Columbia, Chechen from Chechnya and Hausa from Nigeria and other countries in Africa,” Inside Science reports.
This is cool because it shows that the sounds an artist uses to create music are the same sounds humans use for speech. The study also highlights the astonighing control beatboxers have over the unique movements of the tongue and lips, which can be useful for informing novel speech therapies.
But how does beatboxing work?
To get a better look at what’s going on when someone beatboxes, YouTuber SmarterEveryDay made a super slowed down video that clearly shows the lip and mouth movements that accompany the artist’s vocal acrobatics. To be honest, the video is kind of disgusting, but it still illustrates some important scientific concepts.
Before we get into the science, here’s an excerpt from the video:
Here he is again, even closer (and arguably even more gross).
And here he is again giving us crazy eyes.
The video mentions that “beatboxers are not just dudes with good rythm, they’re actually biomechanical synthesizers that specialize in the domination of not just the time domain but also the frequency domain.”
Here’s what SmarterEveryDay means by that.
When looking at a plot of the frequency of the beatboxer’s sound, or a graphical representation of how many times a soundwave cycles across a particular period of time, you can see multiple yellow vertical bars representing soundwaves across the graph. The x-axis represents time, the y-axis represents frequency.
The brighter the colour of the bars, the louder the frequency at that particular time. If you look closely, you can see that there are darker vertical bars in between the yellow bars. “It looks like frequency within frequency,” SmarterEveryDay says.
When looking at the texture of the recorded bass sound below, you can see that it’s actually two different sounds working together. The top graph shows the normal tone coming from vocal cords, appearing as a regular-looking soundwave. The second graph shows the sound coming from the lips. When lips press together, the video explains, pressure builds inside the mouth until it blows the lip out again.
These different frequencies born from the pressure inside the mouth, the air flowing across the lips and the tightness of the lips slamming shut creates the unique sound signature inherent to beatboxing.
You can watch the full video, uploaded to YouTube by SmarterEveryDay, here to see a more complete explanation. If you want to skip straight to the close-up disgusting part, start at 2:40.
If you want to learn how to beatbox yourself, here’s a handy guide.
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