How to Breathe While Singing

This work is an opinion piece and reflects the views of the author.

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Everyone knows that the proper way to breathe while singing is diaphragmatic, belly breathing. Except is it really? If you are a classical singer singing opera or art songs, yeah, it really probably is. If you are singing modern musical theatre, rock, pop, folk, or anything else, the answer gets much more vague. To understand this, we need to look at the costs and benefits of how we can breathe. In addition to diaphragmatic breathing, there is also thoracic, clavicular, and balanced breathing.

I won’t get into all the details about what muscles are doing what and the amounts of air intake for each breathing method, but basically, when you breathe, your diaphragm contracts pulling down and creating a vacuum pulling air into your lungs. When it and a bunch of other muscles relax, your body attempts to return to its original shape with the help of your intercostal muscles and several other muscles. How much those other various muscles are involved by relaxing or contracting makes the difference for these breathing methods.


Clavicular Breathing is characterized by the raising of the shoulders and chest and is about as different as possible from diaphragmatic breathing. When taking a clavicular breath, it is common for tension to exist in the neck, which can spread into the vocal instrument; it will also rise unless intentionally lowered. It is the breath of heightened activity or emotional distress. If you are a classically trained singer singing in a nonclassical style, consider adding a bit of clavicular breathing to help you raise your suppressed larynx. Or, if you are looking to add some emotional authenticity to your performance, it all starts with the breath. And don’t worry; you’ll have more than enough air for most phrases.


Thoracic Breathing is characterized by the expansion of the chest and ribs without significant abdominal expansion. Thoracic breathing can feel relatively shallow, like you are not getting enough air. It is suitable for short speech-like phrases as it promotes a mid-larynx position. Emotionally it is everyday calm, resting.


Balanced Breathing is characterized by expansion in all directions, a rise in the chest, and an expansion in the abdomen and ribs. Like Thoracic breathing, it promotes a neutral laryngeal position. For many nonclassical singers, this is gold, has lots of air, and has no significant influence on laryngeal height. It has the bonus of not needing completely relaxed abdominal muscles and allowing for more movement, though not as much as clavicular or thoracic. Emotionally it is really similar to Thoracic breathing; it is chill.


Diaphragmatic Breathing, “the right way to breathe,” is again sometimes true. Characterized by the expansion in the abdomen allowing the diaphragm to descend as much as possible. This method of breathing promotes a lowered laryngeal position ideal for classical singing. Additionally, breathing in this style can help lower your heart rate, keeping you calm under pressure. Due to the need to release the abdominal muscles significantly, this may not be the best breathing method for significant movement, which is required in a lot of commercial styles.


Let’s Talk about Air; How Much Do You Need?

Not that much, really. A recent study found that in non-singers, the maximum phonation time for an individual was around 18 seconds, give or take a few seconds at 120 BPM, that is 36 beats. When was the last time you needed to sing for 36 beats? Those moments indeed do exist, but they are not that often.


Too Much Air? Possibly, or Even Probably!

Interestingly, it is very possible to have too much air. There is a physics law, Hooke’s Law, that, in simple terms of singing, tells us that the amount of recoil force on the lungs is proportional to how much we stretch the lungs. So if you expand the lungs to two times the size, the recoil force will double. Practically, this requires you to control that additional pressure using your vocal folds. This additional force can lead to an interesting chicken-and-egg scenario with hyperfunction in the adduction of the vocal folds. Because you are singing with increased pressure, you adduct your folds more firmly, but because of the increased adduction, you always have to sing with greater air pressure.


Conclusions

There are multiple ways to breathe, and despite what you may have seen or read elsewhere, the best breathing method may not be a diaphragmatic breath. Pick the breath that will set your technique up for success and for the emotional content of the song you are singing. And just know that the way you breathe might change throughout a song. Make choices and consider them part of the blocking for your song. Practice them consistently and with great intent.

Josh Manuel

Josh Manuel, a voice instructor and founder of VoiceScience, is dedicated to empowering singers by providing evidence-based techniques and knowledge for enhanced performance and vocal health. His expertise and passion in the field of vocal science have made him a trusted resource for singers seeking to improve their skills and achieve their full potential.

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