Breaking Down The Science Of Beatboxing
Beatboxers can create the sound of snare drums, basslines, high hats and other beats all at once. And while it’s entertaining to listen to, what’s the science behind those beats?
Scientists scanned beatboxers in a MRI machine to figure out how these musicians manipulate their vocal tracts to keep the beat. They found that beatboxers may use parts of their vocal tract in a way different way than is used when speaking. In fact, some of the sounds were unlike any found in human language. Linguist Reed Blaylock and beatboxer Devon Guinn break down how beatboxers coordinate their lips, tongue and throat to create a beat and how this compares to human speech.
— Science Friday (@scifri) November 9, 2018
How do different beats look in an MRI? Check them out below, and see all of the beats at the Beatboxing Project.
These videos are from research project being conducted at the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory at the University of Southern California by Professor Shri Narayanan and his team with support from the NIH and NSF.
A classic “tch.”
A “closed hi hat.”
A “low liproll.”
An “inward clickroll and liproll.”
Reed Blaylock is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California.
Devon Guinn is a beatboxing educator and performer based in Brooklyn, New York.
FLORA LICHTMAN: If you’ve ever heard a beatboxer, you have probably wondered how does she do it? How does a person create a full percussion section in her mouth at once?
You’re not alone with that question. A group of researchers at the University of Southern California wanted to know the answer, too. So they scanned beatboxers in an MRI machine to see how beatboxers move their vocal tracts and squeeze the air in their throat and mouth to make music.
Let me introduce my guests. Reed Blaylock is part of that group. He is a PhD student in linguistics at USC. And Devon Guinn is an educator and beatbox performer based in Brooklyn. Devon’s in the studio with us today. Welcome to you both.
REED BLAYLOCK: Thank you.
DEVON GUINN: Thank you, Flora. Thank you.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Devon, let’s start by giving the people what they want–
DEVON GUINN: [LAUGHING] Sure.
FLORA LICHTMAN: –which is a demonstration of beatboxing.
DEVON GUINN: Yep.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I’ve seen you perform before.
REED BLAYLOCK: Nice.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And every time, I see you perform and hear you perform, I think, how can you possibly be doing that with your mouth?
DEVON GUINN: Well, that’s why it’s so exciting to see the MRI studies that Reed’s been doing.
FLORA LICHTMAN: What a perfect segue.
Reed, tell us a little bit about this new study, what you did and what you’re finding.
REED BLAYLOCK: Sure. Well, this is part of a bigger research program at USC where we’re trying to take images of the human vocal tract to see what it can do under lots of different conditions. What do singers do? What do talkers do? What do you do in your emotional? What do you do when you’re talking when you’ve had a glossectomy– part of your tongue removed?
The new stuff that we’re looking at now is beatboxing, why we’re here. And the beatboxing research that we’ve done so far has been to take five different beatboxers– some who have a lot of experience, some who have not so much experience– put them in the MRI, and ask them to make all the sounds that they can make.
And we’ve seen a lot of ridiculous sounds, and we’ve been asking the same question that everybody else has to, how on Earth are you making these sounds? But we have some images to help us figure it out.
FLORA LICHTMAN: What was known before your study about how beatboxers make the sounds that they do?
REED BLAYLOCK: Well, we knew that beatboxers are using their mouths. So that’s something. We know that your mouth doesn’t change what’s inside of it, unless you’re eating. You’ve got the tongue, the lips, the vocal fold, and your larynx, your soft palate, your vellum. All these different parts are still there, and they still move around. That’s what you’re using when you’re speaking normally.
FLORA LICHTMAN: So far I would have deduced that.
REED BLAYLOCK: Well, that’s about as much as we knew. I think the beatboxing community has a good sense of what some of the different parts the mouth are doing to make a lot of different sounds, perhaps especially the labial sounds. Devon, you’ve done more beatboxing learning than I have. I don’t know if you’ve got a good sense of what beatboxers know and don’t know about their mouths.
DEVON GUINN: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because I think a lot of beatboxers don’t have the tools to necessarily describe what they’re doing. So something you come across a lot when you’re learning how to beatbox or when you’re trying to teach somebody how to beatbox is, how do you either explain to somebody how to make a specific sound or just show them?
So I hear a lot of beatboxers say, oh, I worked for months and months on this lip roll sound or something like that, and then finally I watched a video of NaPoM doing it, and it just clicked. NaPoM is the stage name of a specific beatboxer.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And seeing the video helped?
DEVON GUINN: Seeing it helped– well, for him specifically, he sort of really exaggerates some of the lip movements, and so you can really clearly see what he’s doing. But for the sounds that articulated further back outside of just the place you can see with the naked eye, it’s much more difficult.
FLORA LICHTMAN: How did you learn those sounds?
DEVON GUINN: I think lots of practice. I lived in a place called the Beatbox House in Brooklyn. And hearing them do it all the time, kind of putting my face right up to their face watching them do it, helped a lot.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Reed, are all– did these sounds all existing in language or music that beatboxers are making?
REED BLAYLOCK: They do not. In fact, a lot of the sounds do not exist in language. Although, there are plenty of beatboxing sounds that do exist in language. It’s sort of– I guess it’s a mix.
So the kick drum is a common beatboxing sound. I’ll even give it a try myself. [BEATBOXING] There we go. It’s what we call it a bilabial ejective sound. You make it by closing your lips together, closing your vocal folds, and then lifting your larynx to pump air out of the mouth. It’s similar to an English P as in potato, except that in the P in potato, you are pumping air from your lungs instead of from your larynx moving up.
Those kinds of sounds, these ejective sounds are used in plenty of languages. Georgian is one. I think Quechua is another one. There’s a bunch of languages that have these kinds of sounds, and beatboxers use a lot of them to get a particular punchy, percussive quality.
But there are a bunch of other sounds that we’ve never seen in language before.
FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s amazing.
REED BLAYLOCK: Yeah. It is. I was flabbergasted when I looked to these videos for the first time. I thought I knew most of what the human tongue could do, but I was wrong. There’s some great videos of people moving their tongues very far back and sucking their lips in.
The inward K is one of my favorites. It’s a simple enough sound. It’s kind of like the K that you use in ketchup. But instead of breathing out, you breathe in. And it’s a great way for beatboxers to refill their lungs, so they can keep going without having to stop for air.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I’m Flora Lichtman, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Devon, can you demonstrate it?
DEVON GUINN: Yeah, I can demonstrate. So an inward K, there are lots of flavors of it, but so it might sound.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And what are you doing?
DEVON GUINN: About like that. I’m creating– well, let’s see. So I’m basically closing my vocal folds and then bringing my tongue up to create a lack of pressure in that space. And so then when I move my tongue down very quickly, the air rushes in making that percussive sound. I think– does that sound right, Reed?
REED BLAYLOCK: That sounds about right. I think you’re– you’re breathing into your lungs, right? It’s refilling your whole lung capacity.
DEVON GUINN: Oh, yeah. That’s true. So if I’m doing with the lungs, it sounds like– [BEATBOXING]
And then if I’m doing it without using my lungs as the airstream mechanism, then I can go– [BEATBOXING]
REED BLAYLOCK: Oh. So that’s what i don’t have on video is that inward k but with the larynx moving down instead of refilling the air into the lungs. Can you come over to California? We’ll put you in the MRI.
DEVON GUINN: Absolutely. I’d love to.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Devon, what questions do you have about beatboxing as a beatboxer?
DEVON GUINN: Well, it’s funny because actually when I was finishing my undergrad at Harvard, we tried to research some of these similar things. But we didn’t have the tools to– like the MRI and everything– to necessarily look at how the sounds were being made. One of the questions that I have is really about whether Reed thinks that beatboxing sounds follow certain patterns similar to speech sounds, so like if there’s a phonology to beatboxing. so I’m very curious if the beatboxing patterns actually have logical rules that you can then sort of suss out.
FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s such a great question.
REED BLAYLOCK: It’s my favorite question. So first of all, let me just say the phonological rules that we’re talking about are things that you, as a speaker of your language, just kind of implicitly know. They’re things that you know about how to move your mouth and how to coordinate all the different parts of your speech without even thinking about it. It’s what differentiates the quality of an English B as in boy from the quality of a Spanish B.
These are language specific things that we often know, things that nobody ever had to teach you. You learned them on your own from listening to others. And it’s thought by some linguists that these things are somewhat special to speech. Or at least we’ll usually only focus on the speech rules and speech phonology that we have.
And so Devon’s asking the same question that I’ve been asking, which is, does beatboxing have a similar kind of structure, a hidden structure that beatboxers never put together consciously but manage to learn implicitly? And I think the answer is yes.
I just did a conference a couple months ago where I showed– or started to show at least– that beatboxers maybe use a particular kind of harmony in their beatboxing. Harmony is something– it’s not what we think of when we think of singing, where you have different voices building on top of each other to create beautiful chords or complex structures. Harmony in language refers to sounds in a sequence becoming more like each– more like each other over longer distances. Or sometimes short distances, but usually we think of it as being over longer distances.
So a case of this is English has some accidental harmony like in the word orangutan. Some people have learned to say it as a orangutang. The -ng at the end of a orang- has moved to the end of tang as well. That’s kind of like a harmony process.
And there are some beatboxing sounds that– Devon, these are the lingual aggressive sounds. These are the ones where your tongue body makes a closure in the mouth and some other part of your tongue or your lips further ahead also makes a closure and the tongue squeezes air out past that closure. So those sounds–
DEVON GUINN: Would this be like– [BEATBOXING] Something along those lines or– [BEATBOXING]
REED BLAYLOCK: Uh. It could be. Without seeing you in the MRI, it’s hard to tell. There’s the difference between the sounds where you’re making a closure with the vocal folds and moving the air out from the larynx and sounds where you’re making closure with the tongue and squeezing the air out from your tongue.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Can you do a little demo for us?
DEVON GUINN: Yeah. So if I’m trying to do that, then it would be something like– [BEATBOXING]
REED BLAYLOCK: That’s it.
DEVON GUINN: Yeah. And you can kind of hear that it’s all like maybe flattened or just a different flavor to all of those sounds because of the different airstream mechanism.
REED BLAYLOCK: That’s right. And you did all of them the same way. I think the crucial point here is that you’ve picked to do these all with that same airstream mechanism, that lingual aggressive airstream mechanism, rather than switching up and doing a bunch of other air stream mechanisms like you might do in a different utterance. So I think this is a harmony process that beatboxers have learned, and I think that’s very similar to the kind of harmony we find in language.
FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s so fascinating. We’ve run out of time, but you can see Devon performing. There are videos on Devon’s website. You should check them out because they are mesmerizing. And I want to thank you both for joining me today. Reed Blaylock is a PhD student in linguistics at USC, and Devon Guinn is an educator and beatbox performer based in Brooklyn. Thanks to you both.
DEVON GUINN: Thank you, Flora.
REED BLAYLOCK: Thank you.