Beatboxing study reveals the complex art of human vocalization

In a YouTube video with over 48.5 million views, Kyle “Scratch” Jones takes the stage and begins waving his hands in front of him, mimicking the motion and sound of a record pushed back and forth on a turntable.

“What you are about to hear is 100 percent vocals,” he tells the crowd. Jones then launches into an assault of unreal sound, convincingly throwing down record scratches, drum beats and chopped vocal samples as the crowd begins to cheer raucously.

Though beatboxing (as the musical form is called) often just thrills as pure entertainment, USC researchers have investigated it to get closer to uncovering the secrets of human vocalization.

“This study is a part of our long-standing effort in understanding human vocal production, notably human spoken language,” said Dr. Shri S. Narayanan, director of the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab at USC said. “This study of beatboxing is a small piece of that big puzzle we are after.”

The study, which began in 2005, focused on beatboxing because of its complexity and the way in which it stretches the possibilities of the human instrument. The SAIL team spent six years developing the analytical and scientific techniques necessary to fully investigate the data and finally published the study in 2012.

Josh Kun, an associate professor of communication and journalism whose research focuses on popular music and its relation to culture, believes the art of beatboxing showcases the ultimate all-inclusive instrument. In the process, the techniques offer scientists a glimpse into the range of human vocalization.

“Beatboxing would be a very attractive thing to study because it involves the production of so many different kinds of sounds,” Kun said. “It is rhythm and percussion at its core, but also imitating sounds and creating melody lines on top of rhythmic lines. It is a one-man-band kind of act.”

The innovative use of the MRI allowed the researchers to observe the inner vocal dance. The MRI scans, paired with audio recordings, allowed the researchers to acquire a clear picture of the mental and physical processes involved in beatboxing. In the study, the scans were done on a 27-year-old professional beatboxer who is fluent in both Spanish and English. They took images of him creating a wide variety of sounds while recording his voice.

“Our technology allows us a chance to get a window into not just what sounds people produce — and can produce — but to see exactly how they produce it, in greater detail than has previously been possible,” Narayanan said.

According to Narayanan, the video and images of the MRI scans document the subtle intricacies of everyday sound production.

“Seeing the striking similarity between the production mechanisms of the paralinguistic or percussion effects and linguistic or speech sounds was very novel,” Narayanan said. “We were indeed floored by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display.”

In addition to conducting further studies on more beatboxing subjects, the SAIL team also hopes to investigate how English speakers are able to create the clicks and sounds that are often found in other languages such as Quechua (spoken in Peru), Xhosa (spoken in South Africa) and Chechen (Chechnya).

“It is very humbling to realize that we still don’t fully understand some of these fundamental human capabilities,” Narayanan said.

But though the science of beatboxing offers insight into the breathtaking amount of physical complexities involved, the art form comes instinctively to many who practice it.

Preston Walker, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law and a member of the student a cappella group Reverse Osmosis, learned by listening to others and blending in new techniques over time.

“You have a language, or a vocabulary so to speak, from which to pull,” Walker said. “The goal is to eventually have such a flexible toolbox of sounds that one can just feel a song and move with it.”

But in addition to the science, one of the main goals the team hopes to have accomplished is introducing the art of beatboxing to mainstream audiences.

“The study is an amazing opportunity for people to understand physical and intellectual complexities of what beatboxing is,” Kun said. “It is the type of study that can change people’s minds about the complexity and encourage people to take beatboxers more serious.”

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