December 23, 2013
What Singers Can Learn From Beatboxers
The internet is full of people performing vocal gymnastics routines known as beatboxing – routines full of hash percussive sounds and larynx-straining squeals.
According to a new study from researchers at the University of Illinois, beatboxing may actually be less harmful to the vocal cords than conventional singing.
"While there are lots of data on how the voice is used and can be injured in singers, little is known about the structures involved in beatboxing and if it poses a risk of injury to the vocal tract," said study author H. Steven Sims, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Illinois.
A type of vocal percussion, Beatboxing rose to prominence in the 1980s as a part of hip-hop culture. Over the years, the phenomenon has spread to the point that several national and international competitions are held on a yearly basis.
In the study, the researchers used a fiber optic endoscope threaded through the nose to record the vocal tracts of four male beatbox artists. The team used another camera to record the beatboxers as they went through their range of isolated and combination sounds. The videos were then synchronized to show which vocal structures are being used for which sounds.
The team found that the artists employ the entire vocal tract to generate their range of sounds, activating several structures at once and effectively reducing wear on any single structure. The beatboxers also tended to keep their glottis open – the room between the vocal cords.
"Keeping the glottis open means that beatboxing may actually be protective of the vocal folds," Sims explained.
The vocal percussionists were observed using the pharyngeal muscles to lengthen the vocal tract to order to generate higher pitched sounds. According to Sims, this removes some stress off the vocal cords while performing.
"Singers rely almost exclusively on the vocal cords themselves to produce their sounds," Sims said. "So all the energy involved with singing is concentrated on these structures, which can develop scar tissue with overuse."
He added that some of the methods beatboxers use could help conventional singers reduce stress on their vocal cords. For example, elongating the vocal tract in the same way that beatboxers do could help singers "get themselves a little closer to that high note, before engaging the vocal folds."
The stress-reducing techniques could be useful for musical theatre or pop music singers who often perform seven times a week. Sims said he hopes to follow up on this study by examining female beatboxers.
"Women use their voices differently, in part because their larynxes are smaller and are shaped differently than men's. So the results could be very interesting,” he said.
While not exactly a beatboxer in the traditional sense, Bobby McFerrin is widely considered the most successful vocal percussionist in the world. His 1988 record, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” won a Grammy for Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance (Male) and Record of the Year. The song was from McFerrin’s Simple Pleasures album, which he recorded by using his only voice for each part: percussion, bass, rhythm section and lead melodies.