60-Second Science

Beatboxing May Be Safer Than Singing

Because the glottis between the vocal cords stays open more than in normal singing, the practice may be safer than traditional vocalizing and could even be a good warm-up for singers. Wayt Gibbs reports

Which, do you imagine, is harder on the human voice: [rock singer sound], or [soprano sound]—or this [beatboxing sample]?

Beatboxing, as musician Tom Thum was doing in that last example, uses the voice to mimic an incredible range of percussive instruments, from drums and cymbals to record scratches and didgeridoos.

But to make such, well, inhuman sounds, the performer contorts various parts of the vocal tract and pushes air at high velocity through the larynx, creating concerns that beatboxing might lead to long-term vocal damage.

So researchers took a close look at what happens inside the throat as the beat goes on. They snaked thin video cameras through the noses of four male beatboxers to watch their voice boxes during performance.

The study found that beatboxing is actually probably safer than normal singing—or the screams of a rock star—because the glottis between the vocal cords stays open more and the force doesn’t get concentrated in any one spot. The work appears in the Journal of Voice. [Andrew Sapthavee, Paul Yi and H. Steven Sims, Functional Endoscopic Analysis of Beatbox Performers]

A little beatboxing might thus even help singers warm up before they expound on the history of physics [Galileo, Galileo clip].

—Wayt Gibbs

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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