What Happens in Your Throat When You Beatbox? by Tom Thum & Matthew Broadhurst

Tom Thum

Here is the full text of Tom Thum & Dr Matthew Broadhurst’s talk titled “What happens in your throat when you beatbox?” at TEDxSydney conference.



Yo, what up? My name is Tom Thum, and I’ve got to say it’s a pleasure to be back at TEDx.

When I first stepped upon the Sydney stage in 2013 as a starry-eyed boy from Brisbane, I had no idea that I was about to deliver the most watched TEDx presentation ever.

But you know, I was stoked because it was completely unexpected. However, standing before you today as a slightly inflated, time-battered version of myself five years later, I’m very confident.

Confident that I’m about deliver the most instantly switched off and walked-out-on, vomit-inducing talk of all time. I’m about to show you things that I think you’ll find hard to unsee, but all in the name of science.

First, for those unfamiliar with what I do, I guess if you distilled it right down to its essence, you would call me a beatboxer.


Yo, for example here’s a sample: (Beatboxing) (Rhythm changes) (Hums a tune) Thank you.

And being a beatboxer, it means that professionally, I am 100 percent reliant on the — (Beatboxing) flexibility of the unfiltered human voice.

And for years, my contemporaries and I have been fielding questions like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool. When did you figure out you could do that?” After I practiced for thousands and thousands of hours —

“And what do you do for a real job?”

“I’m a full-time beatboxer, Your Honor.”

But there is one question that I get quite a lot that’s a little bit more difficult to answer, and that is how are you doing it — how are you making those noises? And I mean, I know muscle memory dictates where I position my lips in order to — (Beatboxing) but I have no idea about the inner mechanics of everything.

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You know, all the flappy bits and kind of dangly things and how they interact in — in a way that allows me to — (Beatboxing).

To put it metaphorically, I know how to drive, I just don’t know what’s under the hood. So I decided to find out and invite 5,000 captive strangers, a few uncomfortable cameras, everybody watching online and their browser history into a place where not even the most intimate of encounters have been my throat.

And to help me do that, I’d like to introduce to the stage a very specialist guest from the Queensland Voice Center, a man that’s been in my mouth more times than I’d care to admit, a legend of the larynx, ENT doctor and laryngeal surgeon, Matthew Broadhurst.

Matthew Broadhurst: Thank you, Tom; thank you. And a very good evening everyone. It is a pleasure to be here on the TEDx stage tonight. Whoo…

Tom Thum: He’s not warming up his hands. It doesn’t get that intimate.

Matthew Broadhurst: We set out a little while ago to try to go deep into the world — and the throat — of this beatboxer extraordinaire to try to understand how such a vast array of sounds are humanly possible. And what we found — these are going in the mouth by the way — and what we found was something absolutely amazing.

Even after my two years of laryngeal surgery in Harvard Medical School with world-renowned professor Steven Zeitels, we never saw anything as extraordinary or fascinating as this, and that’s what we’re going to show you tonight.

All right, so for those of you who might be a little squeamish, the next 10 minutes or so will get incrementally more graphic and stomach-churning, so let’s get into it —

Tom Thum: Feel free to use the bucket.

Matthew Broadhurst: So when we make sound, we use the vocal cords to take air from the lungs and then turn it into a vibrating air column in the throat. If you think of it like a trumpet, we’ve got the mouthpiece — that’s the vocal folds — and then the horn section is the throat. If we took your head off, took a bit of your neck off and left you as a torso with just your vocal folds vibrating, this is what you’d sound like. (Flatulent sound).

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Tom Thum: (High pitch)

Matthew Broadhurst: Pretty hard to communicate, but fortunately we’ve got a throat. We’ve got all the soft tissues, and that actually gives you all the incredible dynamics of sound that you’ll hear tonight. Now, this is a rigid laryngoscope.

Tom Thum: Hmm, spicy boy.

Matthew Broadhurst: I know, I know 10 millimeters in diameter, it gives us the highest resolution image of the larynx we can get. And we teed up with a stroboscope here and a trigger microphone. The mic will pick up the frequency and that will allow us to show you how this all works.

So, if we can have the lights down?

Tom Thum: (Low pitch)

Matthew Broadhurst: Turn the light on here.

Tom Thum: (High and low pitches)

Matthew Broadhurst: So I’ve got the frequency of sound matched with the stroboscope. That’s the light you’re seeing flickering in the cup.

Tom Thum: (Low pitch)

Matthew Broadhurst: And that’s at about 80 hertz or so. So what we can do then is we can take that and put the phase of the strobe and the sound just out of sync.

That lets us capture real-time, slow-motion activity of vibrating tissues. When we apply that to the larynx, we get this fluid, slow-motion of the vibrating vocal folds. So that’s what we’re going to get on and do.

All right, you ready?

Tom Thum: Yup.

Matthew Broadhurst: OK, so here we go.

We’re going to have a look at the voice box. It’s very hard not to gag with this. Say, “e”

Tom Thum: (Singing) E —

Matthew Broadhurst: So down the bottom you see the vocal cords, the little cord-like structures. And now just look at the skin on the neck and you’ll see how strong the light is to penetrate the skin.

All right, so if you’ll have the lights back on? All right, so just give us a comfortable “e”

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Tom Thum: (Singing) E…

Matthew Broadhurst: So that’s the vibrating vocal folds; about 120 hertz. Means they’ve collided 120 times a second just to make that sound.

And we can also see that they’re absolutely, perfectly normal. So all his beatboxing, all those sounds for years with Tom’s way of doing it — absolutely no damage whatsoever. That’s really remarkable. Well done. OK.

Tom Thum: (High pitch) We’ve got this.

Matthew Broadhurst: So watch now as the vocal cords go from high pitch to low pitch. You’ll see them go from long and skinny to short and fat. Really think “e”.

Tom Thum: (High to low pitch) E

Matthew Broadhurst: Right.

Tom Thum: (High to low pitch) E

Matthew Broadhurst: And what you can see is that his vocal range is so extreme — much more extreme than any other performer I’ve worked with — the machine actually can’t capture the really high pitches.

Tom Thum: (High pitch)

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