Obsessed with Buffy, much?

It’s 20 years today since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens. Russell Dornan celebrates the progressive, poignant, hilarious and scary series, drawing out unexpected parallels with Wellcome Collection.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s a great idea! Come on.”

Opening Credits

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s opening credits.

Those are the first ever lines of dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the greatest television show ever made. It’s also an accurate summary of my own internal dialogue when starting an article exploring Buffy’s themes through Wellcome Collection. But after writing a similar piece about how Britney Spears relates to Wellcome Collection, which is slightly more of a stretch (!), Buffy seemed like a no brainer.

For anyone not blessed enough to know Buffy (we can’t all be perfect), here’s a wee summary: in every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.

Buffy Summers is also a sixteen year old high school kid in California, at first seeming like the archetypal blonde girl we’re used to being a victim in slasher films. But this girl slashes back. Balancing school, first relationships, friends and the apocalypse, the series sees Buffy go through the final years of high school, off to college, dropping out and trying to hold down a job; finding and losing love several times.


High school was tough.

All the while she protects the (mostly unaware) public from the constant threat of demons, evil and the end of the world. And she’s not alone: her friends (and frenemies) support and hinder her in equal measure, their strength as a group often winning out over the monster of the week. Their victories are often thanks in part to the research they carry out together in the library. Wait, we have one of those!

“You kids really dig the library, don’t you?”

We’re lucky at Wellcome Collection to have a world-renowned library specialising in the study of medical history. We’re even luckier in the way the subject is explored in our collections, from life to death and everything in between, including charms, magic, contagions, demons, folklore, sexuality, monsters and the apocalypse. The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s group of friends and helpers) would be right at home carrying out their research with us.

GENERAL Scooby Gang Library

The Scooby Gang getting the low down on the Big Bad.

“You always know whats going on. I never know whats going on.”

“You weren’t here from midnight till six researching it.”

Unusually for a television show aimed at teenagers, characters in Buffy spend a lot of their time poring over books and manuscripts, trying to find the answers they need to fight the current threat. I won’t go into any more detail about this here because Mark A. McCutcheon wrote how Buffy “routinely dramatises research in action as a public good” and it’s worth a read on his blog.

Below are just some of the demons the gang on Buffy might research at Wellcome Collection.

My focus instead is a specific episode of the show. Buffy and series creator Joss Whedon (Avengers) were known for pushing what a television show could be, regularly re-thinking how a 45 minute episode could challenge its own set up (and writers, directors, actors), offering the audience treat after treat whilst transcending its genre conventions.


The conventions of a musical allowed the series to explore something different.


Characters revealed their true feelings through song and dance.

Standout episodes include The Body (exploring the initial shock, grief and brutal physicality of death after opening with Buffy’s mother’s sudden passing); Once More With Feeling (the very clever musical episode where a demon compels Buffy and Co to sing their hearts out, revealing their most guarded secrets to one another in ways that are funny, heartbreaking and true-to-character); and Restless (a low-key and surreal dream sequence season finale exploring the lead characters’ psychologies, looking at their past, present and foreshadowing their futures).

Despite there being myriad episodes I could focus on, there was always one that stood out for me. Not just for its own sake, but because its (Wellcome Collection friendly) themes ripple through the wider Buffy series in different ways. Which brings me to revealing that the episode is…


The tenth episode of the fourth series, Hush takes place when Buffy is in college and is widely recognised as a landmark episode of television (and is the only one in the series to be nominated for an Emmy Award for writing).

HUSH gentlemen wide shot floating YT

The Gentlemen make their way through a silent Sunnydale.

In Hush, a group of ghoulish fairytale villains called The Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale. They steal everyone’s voices, leaving people unable to scream or call for help when The Gentlemen kill them. Buffy and friends have to solve the mystery of the deaths, as well as the town-wide silence, all the while communicating without speech.

After routinely receiving high praise for his dialogue, Joss Whedon wanted to challenge himself by writing an episode largely without any; in the 44 minute episode, only 17 minutes contain any dialogue. Come with me now as I explore Hush, drawing out links with Wellcome Collection and what it means to be human…or otherwise.

“If the apocalypse comes, beep me”

The episode begins with a prophetic dream sequence, vaguely foreshadowing what is to come. This trope is employed many times in Buffy, as it happens to be one of the special abilities of the slayer. In fact, the very first episode starts (after the opening credits) with Buffy dreaming about things she’ll encounter later in that series. You can read more about Buffy’s visions here. The series regularly features prophecies of great evil emerging and ending the world.

Prophecies crop up in our own collections as well (of course they do). For example, the manuscripts of visions and prophecies that include “the Sibyl’s prophecy”. The Sibyl was a pagan prophetess and various medieval works interpret the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world. It doesn’t mention a slayer, though… Find out more the Sybil’s Prophecy at the British Library.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil's prophecy.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil’s prophecy.

An interesting side note, The Gentlemen (the villains of the piece – more on them later) came to Whedon in his own dream.

“To read makes our speaking English good.”

The dream sequence begins with Buffy sitting in an auditorium at college. Buffy’s psychology Professor Maggie Walsh introduces the topic of the lecture, which turns out to echo the overall theme of the episode: language. Walsh says:

L0030499 Speech and Voice, G. Oscar Russell, 1931

Diagram illustrating voice.

“Talking about communication, talking about language. Not the same thing. It’s about the way a child can recognise and produce phonemes that don’t occur in its native language. It’s about inspiration: not the idea, but the moment before the idea; when it’s total, when it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything, before the coherent thought that gives it shape, that locks it in and cuts it off from the universal. When you can articulate it, it becomes smaller. It’s about thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.”

Joss Whedon wrote the episode to show how people do or, rather, don’t communicate. The first third of the episode is full of dialogue; it’s almost frantic with characters miscommunicating or reflecting on their inability to speak to certain people (e.g. Buffy and her current love interest, Riley). Each line of spoken dialogue enforces the idea that once talking stops, communication can really begin.

Take this exchange between Xander and Anya:

Anya 2

Non-verbal communication can be much more effective sometimes.

I care about you.
How much? 
What do I mean to you?
Well, I… we, you know, we spend… we’ll talk about it later.
I think we should talk about it now!
If you don’t know how I feel…
I don’t! This isn’t a relationship. You don’t need me! All you care about is lots of orgasms!
OK… remember how we talked about private conversations? How they’re less private when they’re in front of my friends?

Xander can’t express himself to Anya and use words to tell her how he feels; meanwhile all Anya wants to do is talk, but she says something inappropriate because, as an ex-demon, she’s “newly human and strangely literal”. Meanwhile, father-figure Giles just wants everyone around him to shut up. Language gets in the way of communication because it limits people’s expression of the sometimes unspeakable ways they feel. Joss Whedon explains further:

“As soon as you say something, you’ve eliminated ever other possibility of what you might be talking about. All of these [character moments] fed into the main theme, in a way that nothing I write will ever again. It is so inevitably coherent because it’s about, not writing, but about talking.”

By removing everyone’s ability to speak, the characters must find new ways to communicate with each other. This is particularly interesting to watch in a show famed for its snappy dialogue. Buffy’s group of friends are lost without their quick witted repartee and idiosyncratic way of talking (Bonnie Kneen wrote about “Buffy Speak” in detail for the Oxford Dictionary’s blog).

V0015461 Franco-Prussian War: Civil unrest in Paris. Wood engraving a

Civil unrest.

The revelation that they’ve lost their voice hits each person differently: some think they’re suddenly deaf, others blame members of the group. But everyone is initially horrified and confused, and this is even more pronounced in the wider town. Buffy and Willow walk through Sunnydale, passing crowds of scared people unsure of what’s going on. As communication becomes more difficult, the sense of community starts to erode: they walk passed a closed bank but see people hurrying into a still open off-licence; religious fundamentalist groups gather in the streets. Read more about communication and community in Hush here.

The Gentlemen have stolen their voices, but they’ve also taken away much more: the silence isolates members of the community, rendering them even more ineffective in the face of this horror. The political overtones of miscommunication and the silencing of the people are clear (and as relevant today). As Noel Murray wrote for A.V. Club:


The Gentlemen: only a little bit creepier than the real villains in the world.

“…the way The Gentlemen do their business—by making sure no one can scream before they start—could be read as a metaphor for the way evil spreads. When dissent is stifled, or people fail to tell the truth, or when we’re just distracted by other concerns, things can get out of hand.”

During the episode a news bulletin announces the events in Sunnydale are caused by side-effects of a flu vaccine leading to a laryngitis epidemic. In response to this Rhonda Wilcox writes:

“[H]ow many times will we see those in power maintain such a silence while evil proceeds? It is not surprising that [The Gentlemen’s] attendants wear straitjackets; their garb suggests the insanity of such behaviour—the pretence of civilised politeness while killing is accepted is a matter of course.”

Topical, much?

Thankfully the show also uses people’s silence to comedic ends, with the scene below being particularly memorable.

Buffy’s prophetic dream ends by showing a little girl holding a small, wooden box and (eerily) singing this rhyme:

Can’t even shout.
Can’t even cry.
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors…
They need to take seven and they might take yours…
Can’t call to mom.
Can’t say a word.
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.

So, who are The Gentlemen and what are they after?


L0003916 Carved ivory upper and lower denture

Late 18th century dentures. They’d fit right in on The Gentlemen.

In the show these demons are said to come from fairytales, roaming from town to town to steal the voices of their inhabitants in order to collect seven hearts, presumably to sustain themselves. There are the tall, floating Gentlemen dressed in smart, black suits; they have bald heads and an unnervingly cheery permanent grin, flaunting silver teeth.

Whedon based them on Victorian men, their eerie politeness and grace terrifying. Their silver teeth were also inspired by the Victorian era, the industrial and medical advances of the time manifesting in these ghouls as a sort of “cavity-defeating” breakthrough. They were inspired by a nightmare he had as a child; in fact, he specifically wanted them to be frightening to children (Whedon suggests the most scary thing to us as children is the fear of getting old).


Various positions for holding a scalpel when performing an incision. All the harder to look at after watching ‘Hush’.

Accompanying these Gentlemen are footmen of sorts: bumbling, shuffling figures wearing straitjackets who do the heavy lifting. They’re the ones who grab and restrain the victims, allowing The Gentlemen to claim their hearts. Some Buffy scholars suggest The Gentlemen and their minions represent class disparity: The Gentlemen in dapper Victorian suits move effortlessly to accomplish their skilled, technical task while the footmen do the hard labour.

Despite the town of Sunnydale beginning to crumble into silent chaos without their voices, The Gentlemen are masters of silent communication, employing graceful hand gestures and nuanced head nods. They understand each other clearly and their rhythm and physicality are both exquisite and dreadful to witness. This is especially true in the way they collect hearts.

I’m sure having your heart cut out of your body while you’re conscious and incapacitated will chime with the fear many of us have of not being fully under anaesthetic during an operation (or waking up during). But the addition of being wide awake and unable to scream, staring at their maniacal grins as they lower the glinting scalpel towards, you just adds to the terror. It certainly gives me the wiggins.

The clip below gives a sense of The Gentlemen’s uncanny grace, the way their hands move so precisely, almost dainty, as well as their heart retrieval method (word to the wise: although there’s no gore or graphic scenes, there is mild peril and extreme spookiness).

The clever amongst you will have noticed that I’ve chosen an episode of Buffy that doesn’t even feature vampires. Although a mainstay of the series (obviously), we have written about vampires before.

The  only thing that can harm The Gentlemen is a human voice, specifically a scream. Once the voices have been returned to people, Buffy lets out an almighty and sustained shriek, resulting in The Gentlemen’s heads exploding violently.The irony that the voice used in such a primal way, without language, saves the day. This resolution is more similar to traditional or folkloric fairytales than is often used in Buffy. The majority of demons across the series are bested through physical means, while magic is also commonly utilised.

“Bunch of wanna-blessed-bes”

Willow bad

Willow is consumed by dark magic.

Although Willow has been exploring and using magic since the end of season two, by the time Hush takes place she has an increased hunger for it. She seeks out a Wiccan group on campus, hoping to meet other witches and flex her growing power.

The use of magic is a stand in for a variety of themes throughout the series, such as love, power, relationships and addiction. There’s no moral judgement offered by the show regarding magic or witchcraft generally, but the results of its uses are often tied to the intention of the user. Willow is frustrated in Hush because the Wiccan group is more interested in bake sales than exploring true magic. But it’s an important meeting for her character nonetheless, because it is here she meets Tara.

When in trouble later in the episode, Tara seeks out Willow. Escaping The Gentlemen, they end up in a dead end room and try to push the vending machine against the door, but can’t shift it. Willow attempts to move it with magic, but only manages to make it wobble. Tara tentatively touches Willow’s hand with hers, slowly locks fingers and with a sharp turn of their heads, they launch the vending machine against the door. Watch the video below for the full, powerful scene.

Whedon talks about his vision for this moment:

“…we wanted this to be a moment that was very physical and very empowering and very beautiful between the two of them. It’s a very empowering statement about love. Two people together can accomplish more than when they’re alone. A great deal more…It really is one of the most romantic images we’ve put on film.”


Willow and Tara.

It marks an important milestone: this is the beginning of one of the most genuinely realised same sex relationships on television. And this relationship is inextricably linked to Willow’s magical abilities from the first moment.

In earlier seasons, when Willow is in (unrequited) love with Xander, she is powerless. Her later relationship with Oz brings her out of herself a lot and her powers start to manifest, but with many false starts. It’s only when she meets Tara that her full capabilities are hinted at, and it’s Tara (or rather, tragic things that happen to her) that inspire Willow’s full power to be realised, terrifyingly, in later seasons.

L0019609 A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Etching by J.

A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts.

This burgeoning of her powers can be seen in relation to her sexual awakening. Both magic and sexuality are empowering for Willow. The focus is always on their relationship, as opposed to them coming out; watching two people find each other,  fall in love and empower each other after years of never fully feeling “themselves”.

Despite other (straight) characters being much more physical with each other on the show, Willow and Tara’s magical connection was sometimes used as a proxy for their physical one, since there was only so much the network was be able to show of the latter. But still, as someone unsure of my own sexuality growing up, seeing strong, loving, well-rounded characters whose alternative sexuality is bound to magic (making them the most powerful individuals as a result!) was inspiring to fifteen year old me.

“The hardest thing in this world…is to live in it.”

The episode ends shortly after Buffy saves the day, restoring everyones voices. Finally able to speak to each other, she and Riley sit in her dorm room and agree that they need to talk. They sit in silence. A bit too much time passes to be comfortable and…the credits roll.

“Here endeth the lesson”


What would Buffy do?

So what have we learned from Buffy and the amazing Hush episode? Speak to each other, but don’t just talk: communicate. In the face of evil, don’t let silence or miscommunication (or alternative facts) get in the way of action. Always ask yourself “what would Buffy do?”

And finally, let’s not forget how librarians, and their charges, are often our last line of cultural defence.


We invited artists to programme or perform live vocalisations in the ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ gallery space over the show’s run (exhibition closes 31 July). These daily events offered an intimate, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mechanics of voice production and vocal exercises. Elissavet Ntoulia reflects on this unorthodox programme of events. 

59 live performances over 10 weeks by 9 artists inside ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition: Voicings can officially go down in Wellcome Collection’s exhibition history as the first programme of daily live performances.

image 1

Meredith Monk’s Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Although performance in museums is not new, the recent opening of the new Tate Modern has shown yet again how performance has been gaining ground recently in big institutions. It can vary from large scale, all-building occupations like Meredith Monk’s (whose work also features in ‘THIS IS A VOICE’) Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim, to in-gallery performances like that of the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham in Barbican’s ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’ exhibition (2013). Performance art of any kind and scale has also been seen by institutions as adding value towards their effort for creating unique visitor experiences and offering increased opportunities for interaction and participation. Continue reading

Inspired: The antiquity of speech

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

The first caption as you enter the gallery for ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition states “voice is the original instrument”. Further, that original human voice, or song, has its origins in the need for humans to socially attach as changes took place within human evolution. Hominins essentially developed a new method of bonding to replace the increasingly inefficient and time-consuming physical grooming; vocal grooming if you like. Speech as we know it is exclusively human. It is behaviourally advanced and unprecedented, involving extraordinary use of our lips, tongue, larynx and as well as our brain. Continue reading

How we created the soundtrack for the THIS IS A VOICE trailer

Producing trailers for Wellcome Collection often involves hunting around for that perfect music track to cut to. Some are thoughtful; some are more downbeat. All are essential for conveying the mood of the show. Our Multimedia Producer Chris Chapman speaks to artist David Toop about creating a distinctive soundtrack for one of our current exhibitions.

THIS IS A VOICE‘ was always going to be different. I knew the soundtrack needed to be something very human, but also quite unusual. Our music library certainly wasn’t the place to look.

After chatting to exhibition curator, Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, I discovered that David Toop was due to host one of the Voicings events during the exhibition. He had been one of the original members of The Flying Lizards, an experimental 1980s art-rock group, with hits such as ‘Money’ and ‘TV’.

As well as an established author and the Chair of Audio Culture at London College of Communication, David continues to produce and perform experimental music, much of it based on vocalisations. After an introduction over a cup of tea, David was on board. Continue reading

Deer and the Human Voice

Dr David Reby, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex, will be presenting a demonstration at The Voice on Friday 1 March at Wellcome Collection. In this post he explores the connections between the larynxes of deer and humans.

What can deer tell us about the evolutionary origins of our voice? We all know that, overall, men’s voices are lower-pitched than women’s, and most of the time we are able to recognise someone’s gender simply from listening to them, for example over the telephone.

In order to understand the basis of this difference, it is necessary to look at how the human voice is produced. According to the source-filter theory of voice production, we generate our voice in two stages. The first stage takes place inside the larynx (our “voice box”), where the vibrations of the vocal folds creates a sound wave characterised by its “fundamental frequency”. Men have lower pitched voices because they have much longer vocal folds that vibrate at a lower frequency.

Then, in the second stage, this source soundwave is filtered in the speaker’s vocal tract, whose resonance properties affect the timbre of the voice. In fact, changing the shape of our vocal tract to modulate its resonances enables us to produce different vowels when we articulate the sounds of speech.

Then, in the second stage, this source soundwave is filtered in the speaker’s vocal tract, whose resonance properties affect the timbre of the voice. In fact, changing the shape of our vocal tract to modulate its resonances enables us to produce different vowels when we articulate the sounds of speech.

But here too, because men have longer vocal tracts than women, their voice is characterised by lower resonances, giving them a more “baritone”, “deeper” quality, which is a key dimension of the gender of men’s voices.

Interestingly, men’s vocal tracts are on average 20% longer than women’s, giving them deeper voices than expected from the relatively small differences in body size between the two sexes. This suggests that over evolutionary time these differences may have been accentuated as a result of sexual selection. How can we investigate this hypothesis?

This is where deer can help us. Indeed, because their sexual calls are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from almost infrasonic low-pitched groans to extremely high-pitched bugles, deer provide an ideal model for understanding the evolution of mammal vocal signals.

For example, like human males, Scottish red deer stags have a longer vocal tract than females, and are even capable of extending it further when they roar (the arrows on the illustration point at the stag’s larynx or Adam’s apple):



This enables them to produce extremely low resonances, making them sound much bigger than they actually are. Experimental research suggests that sexual selection may have favoured males that were capable of extending their vocal tract to sound more attractive to females and more threatening to rival males.

These observations are interesting because they may provide an explanation for why human males have a longer vocal tract, and therefore deeper voices than women. And indeed, recent work has shown that in humans men tend to rate deeper male voices as more physically and socially dominant. This suggests that in our species too, size exaggeration in the context of male competition may be at the origin of voice differences between males and females.

Finally, this size exaggeration hypothesis may also help in understanding why, unlike most mammals, deer and humans have a descended larynx, an adaptation that may ultimately have facilitated the evolution of human speech in our species.

The Voice takes place at Wellcome Collection on Friday 1 March. Find out more about David Reby’s work

Voices of the Dead

In the video above, the composer, roboticist and sound historian Sarah Angliss demonstrates a contemporary voice recording made using an Edison phonograph, an entirely mechanical device that requires no wires or batteries. In the post below, she describes some of the ideas she will be exploring in her talk at The Voice on Friday 1 March at Wellcome Collection.

In 1933 Howard Flynn heard a dead woman speak. The strange encounter happened in his record company storeroom, where he found an old wax cylinder lying undisturbed in a sealed mahogany box. Flynn had seen cylinders like this before. In the earliest days of sound recording, sounds were stored as grooves etched into the wax. But this one was covered in mildew, which obscured its surface like moss on a gravestone. Undeterred, Flynn slipped the cylinder onto an old phonograph, wound the phonograph handle to make the cylinder spin, then placed the machine’s playback stylus onto the wax. At first, he heard nothing but rumbling and popping as the stylus skidded over the mildew. But a few seconds later, he heard a woman speaking clearly but faintly – a voice that had been lost for many years:

When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.’

Flynn was listening to the only surviving recording of Florence Nightingale, a message she’d recorded on wax in July 1890 to raise funds for destitute veterans of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Nightingale left one other sentence: a blessing to her comrades at Balaclava. But today, it’s the opening 50 seconds of her message which are so striking. Working in the military hospitals of the Crimea, Nightingale knew better than anyone that the dead were dead. Yet, in the little time she had to leave a trace on the wax, she spoke about the prospect of her recorded voice surviving the grave.

Just as the photograph could keep a visible trace of someone after death, the phonograph could keep a vocal trace. Thomas Edison, its inventor, made his first public phonograph recordings in 1877 using cylinders covered in tin foil. Within a year, he was experimenting with recordings on wax. Although there had been earlier attempts to capture sound using soot on glass, his was the first device which could record and play back sound. Nightingale wasn’t alone in having a slightly morbid reaction to the disembodied voices that emanated from his machine. Shortly after hearing a tinfoil recording in Edison’s lab, a reporter for Scientific American remarked on ‘the startling possibility of the voices of the dead being reheard’, adding:

“When it becomes possible, as it doubtless will, to magnify the sound, the voices of such singers as Parepa and Titiens will not die with them, but will remain as long as the metal in which they may be embodied will last.”

As an electronic composer, I often work with disembodied voices, treating them more like plasticine or daubs of paint than vocal recordings as I cut, splice, timestretch, repitch, layer, retrograde and otherwise use them to create music. I’m part of a tradition that began with Edison’s early experiments in the 1870s. I’m fascinated by the time when people first heard a voice that was disembodied – the eeriness of this encounter. When their voices have been immortalised in sound recordings, the dead never seem to fully leave us. To the listener, they continue to exist in a disembodied, unresponsive limbo, only limited by the lifetime of the wax cylinder, vinyl record, hard disk or other medium where their sounds are captured. We are so used to hearing deceased strangers, we rarely stop to think about its oddity, for instance when we sing a teenage love song performed by someone buried 40 years ago. Or when we watch an old television sitcom and find ourselves joining in with the laughter of the dead.

The Voice takes place at Wellcome Collection on Friday 1 March. You can find out more about Sarah’s work at www.sarahangliss.com.

Breathing for Speech

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott will be speaking at The Voice, an evening event on Friday 1 March at Wellcome Collection that explores the unexpected qualities of voices in all their forms. Here, she explains the importance of breathing for our ability to talk.

For animals with lungs, breathing is obviously central to life, making metabolism possible. What can be somewhat less obvious is that for humans, breathing is also central to speech, and the way that we breathe when we speak is very different to the way that we breathe to stay alive (called metabolic breathing). If you use a breath belt to look at the movements of the rib cage during metabolic breathing, you see a very regular, almost sinusoidal profile of expansion as air is drawn in, followed by an elastic contraction that forces air out:


When we breathe to speak, we breathe very differently, taking in a breath and then using our intercostal muscles and diaphragm to control a fine flow of air through our larynx. This enables us to produce a (relatively) lengthy utterance and to control aspects of the loudness and pitch of our voice. Although we think of speech as being to do with our larynx and our articulators, our voices are only really possible at all because of how we breathe.

We start to breathe for speech by using our intercostal muscles initially to prevent air from flooding out through the larynx, and to keep a constant pressure of air at the larynx (called subglottal pressure). Towards the end of a breath, we need to use our intercostal muscles to squeeze air out, and if you keep speaking long after you want to take another breath, your voice starts to fall apart, as this soundclip demonstrates:

The next image shows what happens to the movements of my chest wall (reflecting the actions of the intercostal muscles) when I speak this way. You can see that, unlike metabolic breathing, the movements of the intercostal muscles are much more constant, and that as I keep speaking without taking another breath, the intercostal muscles are starting to squeeze the air out – followed by a big inspiration as I take another breath – then some rapid spasms of the intercostal muscles, which is due to me laughing!


Strikingly, we can only breathe this way because we walk upright, which means that we don’t need to use our ribcages to support our weight. If you try and speak while using your ribcage to support your weight – for example, while doing press-ups – you get a sense of how hard this would be. The development of this fine control of our intercostal muscles was central to the evolution of human speech, and although we don’t typically think much about how we breathe to speak, we in fact have as much fine control of our intercostal muscles as we have of our fingers.

The fine flow of air from our lungs is just the start of the story of speech, but it’s an essential and often overlooked aspect. Of course, breath control is central to other ways that we use our voices – to sing, beat box or rap – and I’ll be discussing breathing and the human voice in greater detail in my talk.

The Voice takes place at Wellcome Collection on Friday 1 March.