For the Manchester Science Festival I’m doing an event about the science of pop singing at Band on the Wall. Working with Kim McKenzie and Chris Lee from RNCM, we will reveal some of the art and science behind different styles of pop and rock singing including beatboxing.
I first became interested in beatboxing while researching how the voice has been changed by technology for my book Now You’re Talking. Human beatboxers are trying to impersonate electronic drum machines; this is a singing style that owes its very existence to technology.
Below is an amazing video of a beatboxer’s vocal anatomy. This was taken using an MRI scanner. The large white blob in the middle that shape shifts at an incredible speed is the tongue. Changing the tongue alters the shape of the throat and mouth, which show up in black because they contain air. This beatboxer is making sounds in lots of different way, but let’s concentrate on the higher pitched snare drum.
The strip of images is taken from the video and show the beatboxer making the snare. This is a plosive sound. A normal vocal plosive you or I might make like a ‘p’ starts with pressure building up from the lungs with the lips closed. When the lips part there is a sudden release of air giving a pressure pulse that then forms the sound. For the snare, beatboxers can do something similar but in reverse, while pulling air into the mouth! In preparation, the front of the mouth is sealed off with the tongue and the diaphragm lowered to drop the pressure in the lungs. What images reveal is the moment the beatboxer pulls the tongue down at the back and side of the mouth, allowing air to rush in through a small gap at the side creating the plosive.
Beatboxers often create some of their sounds while breathing in. Apart from gulping or gasping I can think of no other sounds I might make on an inhale. But there are languages that do this all the time – for example Icelanders will often say yes while sucking air into their lungs. Being able to make sounds while inhaling is vital for beatboxers, because otherwise they have to pause for breath and ruin the illusion of impersonating a drum machine. Beatboxers often use techniques that are not common in English but are heard in other languages, such as in the clicks that feature in the Khoisan languages of Africa.
At the event we’ll also look at other singing styles like vocal fry. Fry is that creaking sound commonly used by singers at the start of words. A good example is Britney Spears singing ‘Oh baby baby’ at the start of ‘…Baby one more time.’ Although some people complain fry and creak is overdone in modern music, used well it heightens the emotional response. But now fry has crossed over from singing to speech.
While vocal innovations by beatboxers create amazement, similar innovation in everyday speech is not always universally welcomed. Fry has now become prevalent in young female speech, much to the annoyance of some. Males also do it, but they don’t attract the same ire. Sadly, there is a gender imbalance in how some people react to voice.