When University of Southern California researchers Michael Proctor, Shrikanth Narayanan and Krishna Nayak wanted to know what beatboxing looked like from inside the vocal tract, they decided to do something no one had ever done before: Put a performer in a real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine and have him do his thing.
While lying on his back in the MRI, the 27-year-old performer from Los Angeles demonstrated beatboxing effects, including sounds imitating kickdrums, hi-hats, and cymbals. According to Smithsonian, "The researchers made a total of 40 recordings, each from 20 to 40 seconds in duration and capturing single sounds, free-style sequences of sounds, rapped or sung lyrics and spoken word. They paired the audio with video stringing together the MRI scans to analyze the airflow and the movements, from the upper trachea to the man’s lips, that happened with each utterance."
Narayanan told Inside Science News Service that the team was "astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display."
The results of their study (PDF)—which also had a goal of determining to what extent the sounds that beatboxers make already exist in human languages—will be published in the February issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.