Beatboxing is incredibly fun to do, difficult to master, and if you’re a celebrity, a hidden talent to show off during late-night TV appearances.

Researchers drew back the curtain on the mysterious mechanics of beatboxing recently by asking beatboxers to do an odd gig: to drop their best beats inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine. Led by Timothy Greer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, the group sought to compare the movements of beatboxing to those of speech, and presented their findings this week at the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th Meeting in Victoria, British Columbia.

The group defines beatboxing as “a musical art form that uses the vocal tract to mimic percussion and other sound effects.” In short: sick beats made by people.

An intricate choreography of the human vocal tract, vocal percussion dates back to African spiritual music and Indian Carnatic music, only picking up its modern moniker of beatboxing in 1970s New York, within the city’s pioneering hip-hop culture.

How Beatboxing Is a Language of Its Own

While previous research on the art form typically focused on one beatboxer, Greer’s study analyzed five beatboxers of varied skill, age, and gender. The previous paradigm also suggests that the vocabulary of beatboxers are limited to the scope of world languages — for example, snares are like trills, which appear in across many languages, including Spanish. But Greer’s findings suggest we don’t give beatboxers enough credit for their creativity.

“We found that beatboxers can create sounds that are not seen in any language. They have an acrobatic ability to put together all these different sounds,” Greer says in a statement. “They can hear a sound like a snare drum and they can figure out what they need to do with their mouth to re-create it.”

vocal tract MRI comparison

Basically, in playing outside the boundaries of language, beatboxers create their own.

Thanks to the MRI, the group can break down this language, articulation by articulation, pixel by pixel. In a move that could help out many aspiring beatboxers, Greer’s team applied an algorithm to track the movement of each part of the vocal tract, including the vocal folds, tongue, jaw, lips, nose and velum (the soft palate at the roof of your mouth).

vocal tract diagram
Beatboxers often use mimicry to learn new sounds, somehow figuring out how to use these parts of the vocal tract to work beyond the bounds of language.

But their goal isn’t to create Beatboxing for Dummies. In some ways, the articulations and sounds we make are concrete manifestations of our thoughts, so tracing back how we think about them helps understand the connection of mind and body.

“By analyzing the movement patterns beatboxers use, we can better understand how the human body learns and produces coordinated actions,” the group explains on their website. “That information tells us more about other behaviors like speech and dancing, and it all comes together to uncover the mysteries of the human mind.”