The Acoustics Of Beatboxing

Beatboxer sounds could inspire new vocal-disability treatments.
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) -- There are 6,700 different languages in the world today generating more than 8,000 musical genres from rock pop, country, classical and everything in between. But there’s one genre in particular that may hold the key to how sounds are created: Beatboxing.

Beatboxers can make sounds that you never hear in everyday language.

Now speech and audio engineers at the University of Southern California are looking at the complex choreography between the mouth, lip, tongue and voice to find out exactly how these unique sounds are made.

“It pushes the boundary of what the vocal instrument can do,“ said Shrikanth Narayanan, a speech and audio engineer at the University of Southern California.

By adapting real-time and interactive MRI, scientists are able to create a new imaging technique that gives a glimpse of the control a beatboxer has over his vocal tract.

 “You can see details not visible to us of how a skilled singer is able to manipulate their vocal instrument,” explained Narayanan.

Beatboxers have a distinct ability to use different parts of their vocal tract at different times.

“It’s almost keeping time with his percussion. He’s opening and closing the nasal passages. The coordination between all the parts, that’s amazing physics,” said Narayanan.

The study can help researchers understand how sounds and speech develop.  The new, intricate view of the human vocal tract could become a model for new speech therapies in people with damage to their vocal tracts – the airway where sounds are made.

Researchers also found that beatboxing sounds mirror those found in languages throughout the world.  In fact, in this particular study, they found the beatboxer, who only spoke English and Spanish, was able to create sounds similar to African languages. This suggests that there is a common inventory of sounds that are used to create any vocal expression, no matter what language you speak.


Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.