So, you're surfing the net (avoiding your homework), checking out the latest videos on YouTube when you come across a video of this guy making drum beats....with his voice! He is "beatboxing" - the latest craze in urban music culture. But what exactly is beatboxing, and how do performers possibly make all those sounds?

In beatboxing, musicians use many different parts of their body to create different beats or sounds. Typically, beatbox musicians mimic the sounds of percussion instruments, such as bass drums, snare drums and high-hats, as well as turntable scratches.

Did you know? "Beatboxing" got its name from beatboxes, which are drum machines that beatboxers mimic.

Beatboxing became popular in the 1980's because hip-hop musicians could not afford fancy equipment, like beat machines. Instead, musicians began using their mouths, tongues and voices to make the sounds they wanted to use in their music.

Today, competitions are held all over the world, displaying the talents of many beatboxers worldwide.

The human body is essentially the only thing needed in beatboxing (and a microphone if you want to be heard by a lot of people). So how are the sounds made?

The lungs control breathing with help from the diaphragm, a muscular membrane under the lungs. In order to breathe out, the diaphragm is raised, squeezing the air out of the lungs into a tube called the larynx, or voicebox.

The volume of the sound is controlled by the strength of the air moving out of the lungs. The voicebox is the most important organ for producing sounds because it contains the vocal cords.

When you want to talk, adductor muscles act like "vocal cord closers". So when air leaves your lungs, it bursts through the closed vocal cords, making them open very quickly. Then, the vocal cords are pushed back together by a drop in pressure. This opening and closing is known as vibration.

Did you know? The vocal cords typically vibrate at a rate of a hundred to a thousand times in one second.

A hummingbird's wings beat at a rate of about 200 beats in one second. So if you can picture how fast a hummingbird's wings move, your vocal cords move faster than that! So this vibrating of the vocal cords produces sounds. And the pitch or frequency of the sound is determined by how fast the vocal cords vibrate.

Sounds are then modified in the throat and the mouth. The mouth contains the tongue, which moves in the mouth and interacts with the teeth, the palate (roof of the mouth) and the lips to make different sounds. For example, the back of the tongue is used to make a snare drum sound, while the lips are used to make a buzzing sound.

See how fast the tongue moves while a person is beatboxing on the ultrasound found here.

Other important body parts are the hand, which beatboxers use to cover the mouth, making the sound louder and deeper, the brain, which sends electrical signals to parts of the body telling them to make the sound that you thought of in your head, and the ears, which perceive the sounds that are made.

There is no limit to the sounds that can be made using the human body. This allows individual beatboxers to create their own signature style. And watch out, if you copy a beatboxer's style, you could be sued!

So try it; you never know... you could be Canada's next beatboxing champion. Or you would definitely be the hit of the next party with your new found talent, impressing your friends, or that special someone!

Learn More!

Query-by-beat-boxing: Music retrieval for the DJ.

Wikipedia article on beatboxing

Representing and Promoting the Worldwide Beatbox Community since 1998. Click Here

The physiology of beatbox

Wikipedia article on the larynx

The voice box

Frequency of hummingbird's wings

Jillian has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from St. Francis Xavier University and is currently working on a Masters degree at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. Her research focuses on the genes of fruit flies. A cool fact – Jillian has had a rock lodged in the palm of her hand ever since she fell of her bike at the age of seven.


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