What is beatboxing?

What am I searching for ?

I am interested in exploring the potential of the human vocal tract by understanding beatboxing production. Human Beatboxing (HBB) is a vocal technique that uses the vocal tract to imitate musical instruments and other musical sonorities. Similar to languages like French or English, HBB relies on the combination of smaller units (sounds for ex.) into larger ones (sentences for ex.). Unlike linguistic systems, HBB has no meaning: while we speak to be understood, beatboxers do not perform to be understood. Speech production obeys to linguistic constraints to ensure efficient communication, for example, each language has a finite number of vowels and consonants. This is not the case for HBB production because beatboxers use a larger number of sounds.

I hypothesize that beatboxers acquire a more accurate and extended knowledge on physical capacities of the vocal tract that allows them to use a larger number of sounds.

How do I investigate ?

I used 3 technics on 5 professional beatboxers : (1) aerodynamic recordings, (2) laryngoscopic recordings and (3) acoustic recordings. We also ran a pilot MRI recording session on one subject. Aerodynamic data gives information about pressure and airflow changes resulting from articulatory movements. Laryngoscopic images give a view of the different anatomical laryngeal structures and their role in beatboxing production. Acoustic data allows us to investigate the spectral characteristics of sounds in terms of frequency and intensity.

What type of sound do I record ?

Here are a few examples extracted from a larger database :

Classic Kick Drum

Closed Hi-Hat

Inward K-snare

Cough Snare

Lips Roll

Beat Patterns

Did I find something yet ?

Yes !

The preliminary results are very interesting. While speech is mainly produced on an egressive airflow from the lungs (i.e. exhalation phase of breathing), HBB is not. I found a wide range of mechanisms to produce basic sounds. Mechanisms were described by (1) where the airflow was set in motion (i.e. lungs, larynx or mouth) and by (2) which direction the airflow goes (i.e. in or out of the vocal tract). Sounds shows all different possible combinations of airflow location and direction :

  • Buccal egressive or ingressive airflows
  • Laryngeal egressive or ingressive airflows
  • Pulmonic egressive or ingressive airflows

A same sound may be produced differently by different beatboxers but also may sound perceptually similar.

In the absence of linguistic constraints, artists are exploiting the vocal tract capacities more freely. However, it raises several questions about how they reorganize the respiratory activity, how they coordinate sounds together and how beatboxers avoid lesions or damages of the vocal tract structures.