Most expert freestylers will agree that their expert status came through learning. They weren’t born with the ability to drop bars on the fly — they developed the craft over time through practice and study. If life is a freestyle, then certainly learning must play a crucial role in freestyle, because learning is crucial to life. This begs the question what changes take place in us as we develop freestyle skills? A recent study published in Neuropsychologia begins to answer that question.
Dr. Keith Cross, a professor of Multilingual and Multicultural Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, also known as Doctabarz, recently published a paper on the aesthetic judgement and neurophysiological processing of rhymes in expert freestyle lyricists. When compared to non-lyricists, he found that although both groups performed identically in their ability to judge whether rhymes were perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sheet) or non-perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sleek), expert lyricists were twice as likely to “like” non-perfect rhymes. He also found that using an electrophysiological measure called “contingent negative variation” (or CNV for short), freestyle lyricists use similar neurophysiological processes when determining their phonological and aesthetic properties. Non-lyricists, on the other hand, processed these tasks quite differently.
Taken together these findings are interesting because it suggests that expert freestylers use similar cognitive processes when judging technical perfection and artistic validity. While behaviorally their ability to judge the technical perfection of a rhyme is no different from non-lyricists, perfection and validity are less distinct in their brains. Non-lyricists, however, have two distinct processes when making these judgments.
To put it more practically, I think it’s evidence that through honing the freestyle craft, one learns to find the beauty in the non-perfect. And this makes sense — non-perfect rhymes are prevalent in freestyle, and the trained ear appreciates them no less. Just as in life when things are seemingly not perfect, sometimes it takes some learning to recognize the worth of what is there.
You can find Doctabarz’ music and freestyle journal on Instagram @doctabarz.