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Beatboxing examined: USC team studies a cappella hip-hop rhythms

January 30, 2013|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Images from the academic paper "Paralinguistic Mechanisms of Production in Human 'Beatboxing'."
Images from the academic paper "Paralinguistic Mechanisms of Production… (Acoustical Society of America )

When first generation rapper Doug E. Fresh, former Roots beatmaker Rahzel or "Yo Gabba Gabba" rapper Biz Markie learned to mimic a hip-hop rhythm using only their voices, chances were they had little idea what they were actually doing with their mouths.

"Beatboxing,” as it came to be known, includes laryngeal lowering and lingual retraction, labial approximation, velic raising (to seal the nasopharynx off from the oral vocal tract, of course) and rapid raising of the tongue dorsal.

All this time, these artists thought they were just making beats.  A team of linguistics and engineering students at USC, however, wanted to learn more about the mechanics behind the rhythms. So 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.

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The results were published in the fascinating if dauntingly titled paper “Paralinguistic Mechanisms of Production in Human ‘Beatboxing’: A Real-Time Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study,” which reveals the miraculous ways in which the human voice can be adapted to replicate synthetic sound. It's available for reading through the Acoustical Society of America's website. 

Other academics have examined certain aspects of beatboxing, most notably two Ohio State researchers who went so far as to create a system to notate the craft, called Standard Beatbox Notation. But, according to the USC researchers -- Michael Proctor, Erik Bresch, Dani Byrd, Krishna Nayak and Shrikanth Narayanan -- "the phonetics of human-simulated percussion effects have not been examined in detail."

The paper is predictably heavy with linguistic jargon, but even to a civilian, the results are illuminating. Much of the excitement stems from the clips of the beatboxer, which reveals how the human mouth can so convincingly create the pop of a snare drum. Head to the study's multimedia site to watch the different ways in which tongues direct sound, and read the researchers' conclusions.

The below video compares an MRI of an opera singer at work to that of a beatboxer.

 

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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