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Speech imaging MRI technique gives Dorothy's scarecrow his wish

by Gus Iversen, Editor in Chief | April 22, 2015
The act of singing calls upon roughly 100 different muscles in the chest, neck, jaw, tongue, and lips to work harmoniously together.

By utilizing MRI, researchers from the Beckman Institute in Illinois are shedding new light on that complex feat of muscular collaboration. Their technique — which is outlined in a study entitled High-resolution dynamic speech imaging with joint low-rank and sparsity constraints, and was published in the journal Magnetic Resonance Medicine — allows for visual processing at 100 frames per second.

Lead researcher Aaron Johnson also happens to be a professional singer with a decade of performance experience. To illustrate the value of their method for understanding speech mechanics, he and his team created this video showing him undergoing MRI while singing the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg standard, "If I Only Had a Brain".

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“The fact that we can produce all sorts of sounds and we can sing is just amazing to me,” said Johnson, in a news release. “Sounds are produced by the vibrations of just two little pieces of tissue. That’s why I’ve devoted my whole life to studying it: I think it’s just incredible.”

While the somewhat haunting video may or may not provide thoughtful commentary on the scarecrow's plight in the Wizard of Oz, it serves a more pragmatic function. The researchers are interested in visualizing the act of singing and speaking so they can better understand the aging process of those muscles and the vocal changes that come with growing older.

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