Disco in your Mouth! The Physics of Beatboxing

Mmbff. Chck. Mmbff. Phshhhhhhhh. Okay, so we’re not the best beatboxers around. But the physics of it have always intrigued us. Whatever music you like, you’ve probably come across a beatboxer. You know, the guy who’s practically eating his microphone while he’s laying down oral beats that pull the music together.

Beatboxers in their natural habitat. Photo: Flickr/Ksenia Novikova/Aktiv I Oslo, Creative Commons.

If you’re a fan of hip hop or a cappella, you definitely know all about these guys. (Sorry, country music fans — you’re out of luck, as far as we know.) We wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve even tried to emulate them yourself, mmmff-ing and pshhh-ing to the beat of your own internal DJ. Not that we have ever done that. Because we are very serious scientists and beatboxing would be too un-serious. Yeah, that’s it.

But while you were trying to convince your epiglottis to be musical, did you ever stop to consider what’s happening in your mouth from the perspective of acoustical physics?

Turns out it’s pretty fascinating.

A recent study at the University of Southern California used an MRI to get an intimate look at a beatboxer’s mouth and throat during the percussive process. And the results are interesting not only for musical reasons: “The overarching goals of our work drive at larger questions related to the nature of sound production and mental processing in human communication, and a study like this is a small part of the larger puzzle,” according to USC’s Shrikanth Narayanan.

Check out the full article over at Inside Science.

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Advice to Students

The best thing you can do as an undergraduate or early graduate student is get as broad a training as possible, in both science and communications.
Communication skills are extremely important, especially to aspiring scientists. Scientific research is funded as a public good by the federal government and various institutions. To get this funding you must compete with many others who want the same funding.
— Dr. Fred Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, Podcast Episode #4

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