A group of scientists at the University of Southern California are trying to figure out exactly how beatboxers make that music with their mouths, using real-time magnetic resonance imaging (rtMRI) to track the physics behind the complex vocal performances.

The study, by Michael Proctor, Shirkanth Narayanan, and Krishna Nayak, is particularly focused on how different tones and rhythms can appear to be performed at the same time, creating the impression of beatboxing polyphony. Speaking to Wired UK, Proctor said that the group’s upcoming study in the February issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is part of its broader research into human vocal production. The team plans to examine how the "expanded" vocal instruments possessed by beatboxers resemble and differ from what is seen in "normal human speech." Some sounds were found to resemble the clicks in some South African languages, for example. If you're curious, the images and videos at the source link below show just what’s going on internally when the 27-year-old subject launches into an "808 kick" or "breathy hi-hat," made all the much better by accompanying audio and slow-motion playback.