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Breaking down the Beat

February 14, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about fMRI, and how we might be able to use it to unlock our brains from in the inside out. Today, I bring you another interesting way MRI is being used in research: to look at how beatboxers can do what they do!

Beatboxing is an a cappella musical style that involves a person creating sounds with their mouths that imitate the variety of sounds that can be made by percussion instruments, such as a snare drum, kick drum, or synthesizer. Some beatboxers are even able to layer vocals on top of their beatboxing, a feat that I can only imagine requires the most precise coordination and timing of the articulators and respiratory system.

Just how do these people do what they do though? Researchers at the University of Southern California sought to get a real time look using fMRI at just what goes on inside the mouths of beatboxers. The website that details the research has a video of an Emcee in the MRI machine, and it is incredible to watch the tongue make the myriad of sounds that make up beatboxing.

Not only did the researchers visualize the beatboxing process, they also looked into the actual sounds used during the sound production. (Imagine trying to transcribe a beatboxer for a linguistic assignment! yikes!) The study mapped out the sounds created by beatboxers and found that many of them were sounds used in real languages in the world (for example, the pops and clicks used in some African languages), despite the fact that artist had no knowledge or practise in these other languages.

The MRI strikes again, giving us an inside look into an interesting and unique way the human vocal system and human brain can work. Who knows whats next!

-Adele Courchesne

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