Do you want to give a breathtaking vocal performance without gasping for air?
Proper breath control, along with regular and effective breathing exercises, is the cornerstone of developing a strong singing voice.
Beginner vocalists often struggle with sustaining long notes or reaching notes at the extreme ends of their registers, and more often than not, this is a result of an underdeveloped or incorrect breathing technique.
All accomplished singers understand the importance of breathing; without it, they wouldn’t have careers. Just like a car needs fuel and a plant needs sunlight, your voice needs air – “sometimes,” as the Hollies sang, “all I need is the air that I breathe.”
In this article, you’ll learn the true value of breathing and find the various ways you can adapt and hone your breathing technique, and how they will make you a better singer. Let’s begin by looking at why breathing is so important for singers in the first place.
Why is breathing important for singers?
Air is the driving force behind singing, speaking, and any other sound that you vocalise. The more air you can get into your lungs, and the better you can control that air on its way out, the better you’ll be able to support your voice and sing effectively.
While breathing is just as important for singing as it is for speaking or simply surviving, it’s just one part of vocal production. Read more about the 5 basic components of singing.
As a vocalist, your voice is your musical instrument. To produce sound, all musical instruments (acoustic ones, at least) need three things:
- A power source, which makes a moving part vibrate back and forth.
- An oscillator, which is the part that vibrates when supplied with power, creating a sound wave.
- A resonating chamber, which is an air-filled space in which the initial sound waves are shaped and boosted into the sound that we hear coming from the instrument.
An easy way to understand how this works is to think of how an acoustic guitar makes sound.
When you pluck a guitar string, your action is the power source. The plucked string then moves back and forth, which is the vibration. That vibration then spreads through the acoustic guitar’s soundboard into its hollow body, bouncing around until it comes out of the sound hole as a louder, richer sound.
Your voice needs these same three things to produce sound, but your body achieves this in a different way. For you to make a sound with your voice, your body uses three separate systems:
Your respiratory system
This is the name given to the parts of your body that you use to respirate, including your lungs, chest muscles, diaphragm, and windpipe (or ‘trachea’). You use these together to breathe air in and out.
This is your voice’s power source. Without this, you wouldn’t have any kind of force to make your vocal cords vibrate, so you wouldn’t produce sound waves with your voice.
Your phonation system
This is the name given to the parts of your body that you use to phonate, including your larynx (or ‘voice box’), which houses your vocal folds (or ‘vocal cords’).
As you push air through it, you tighten or loosen your vocal folds so they vibrate at higher or lower frequencies, which produce higher or lower tones.
This is your voice’s oscillator. When you hold your vocal folds rigidly apart and push air past them without allowing them to vibrate, your voice can’t produce a musical tone – which is what happens when you whisper.
Your resonation system
This is the name given to the air-filled spaces in your body that you use to resonate, including your pharynx, mouth, and nasal passages (which together form your ‘vocal tract’ – your body’s resonating chamber).
You use different combinations of these spaces to shape and boost the vibrations from your vocal folds into different sounds we can hear. The sound from your vibrating vocal folds alone would be little more than a faint buzz, which is hardly how we would describe the voice of a powerhouse like Adele!
To better understand the importance of this last stage, listen to the difference between an unplugged electric guitar, which has no resonating chamber, and an acoustic guitar, which has a large resonating chamber:
Staying with our acoustic guitar analogy, the larger body of a dreadnought guitar makes it better at responding to and boosting lower frequencies, which is why you can feel a vibration lower down in your larger chest cavity when you sing a low-pitched note (your ‘chest voice’).
By contrast, the smaller body of a parlour guitar makes it better at responding to and boosting higher frequencies, which is why you feel a vibration higher up in your smaller head cavities when you sing a high-pitched note (your ‘head voice’).
However, what makes the human voice so uniquely expressive is our ability to change the spaces in our vocal tract so we can ‘place’ our voice to either add more richness or brightness, depending on the effect we want.
Read more about this in our essential guide to understanding vocal resonance.
So, since your respiratory system is one of the three fundamental parts of sound production, it’s essential for you to learn how to breathe in a way that benefits your singing voice. This means that you are going to need to re-learn how to breathe!
Why do singers breathe differently?
You might think since we breathe automatically to stay alive to speak, that you already know everything you need to about breathing. After all, newborn babies can breathe – not to mention yell and scream! – without any breath training whatsoever.
While you do need a lungful or two of air to string a sentence together, you can speak on a much shallower breath with much less effort. In fact, this is part of the problem!
As adults, we fall into the habit of snatching shallower breaths, because we learn that this is all we need to get by. Over time, we lose our innate ability to breathe at maximum efficiency, and our breathing muscles grow weaker as a result.
However, if you do not change the way you breathe and still try to sing, you are going to run into trouble as well as out of breath.
This is for a few reasons…
You sing in longer phrases
When you speak, you use much shorter notes in shorter broken phrases, and when you sing, you use much longer notes in unbroken phrases. Just like you need more air to run than you do to walk, you need more air for longer notes than you do for shorter notes – it really is that simple.
To get more air, you need to take a deeper breath to fully inflate your lungs. There is more to this than just inhaling for longer, but we will get to that in due course.
You can quickly give yourself an idea of the difference a deeper breath can make to how long you can sing with a straightforward experiment: just say ‘ahh’.
To begin with, try this without taking a breath beforehand – just use the breath you take while on autopilot, like when you speak. Start making an ‘ahh’ sound with your voice, and see if you can count up to ten seconds before you have to stop to catch your breath. If you can, well done!
Next, take a deep breath, and count up to five seconds as you do so. Now, try making that same ‘ahh’ sound, but with plenty more air in your lungs, and notice how much easier it is to make it to the finish line.
You sing in a wider pitch range
You use a much wider range of pitch when you sing; in most cases, particularly in your higher vocal register.
We do change the pitch of our voices in speech, such as making our voices higher at the end of a sentence to show that we are asking a question. However, that change is still only slight – and requires much less effort in the breathing department – when compared to the soaring vocal runs our favourite singers are capable of:
To give you an idea of how different these ranges are, for speech, an average adult male’s vocal range spans from 85 Hz to 155 Hz (F2 to D#3 – just over one octave), with an average adult female’s vocal range spanning from 165 Hz to 255 Hz (E3 to C4 – again, just over one octave).
For singing, an average male tenor’s vocal range spans from 130 Hz to 523 Hz (C3 to B5 – just under two octaves), with an average female soprano’s vocal range spanning from 250 Hz to 1100 Hz (B3 to C6 – just over two octaves).
So that means that when you sing, you just about double your vocal range – and some singers have vocal ranges that span three, four, or even more octaves!
Do you know what singing voice type you have? Read our comprehensive guide to understanding singing voice types to find out!
You sing with different levels of intensity
Although we express ourselves all the time in speech, singing is a far more expressive art form which we use to convey a range of powerful emotions. A large factor in how effective your singing voice is as a form of expression is the range of dynamics you can cover. For example, you might sing louder to elevate a dramatic moment, and you might sing quieter to create a more intimate atmosphere.
Opera singers in particular need to be able to project their voices to the back of the room so the whole audience can hear them, and usually do not use a microphone to help them do this. When you are speaking to a friend, or even to a large group, you rarely need to raise your voice, and the need to project is rarer still in everyday conversation, so you’ll need to up your air intake considerably for your voice to reach back the row.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are singers like Billie Eilish and Lana Del Ray, who are perhaps most well-known for their softer, whispery vocals. This type of singing is generally performed close to a microphone, but even though the sound produced is quieter, a breathier voice still uses up a lot more air than a regular speaking voice.
A good example of how a singer can use a range of dynamics to convey a range of emotions is from Disney’s 2023 live-action remake of ‘The Little Mermaid. Listen to the quieter, more uncertain way Halle Bailey sings “I don’t know when, I don’t know how” to herself, then listen to how her voice builds in volume and in confidence until she delivers the promise that she will someday be “part of your world”:
You sing words differently
Another key difference between speaking and singing is how we position our mouths to form certain sounds. Aside from ‘placing’ your voice to engage your body’s different resonators, you also use your body’s different articulators (including the lips, the teeth and the tongue) to shape sounds into recognisable vowels and consonants.
Since it’s the vowel sounds that we actually vocalise, those are the sounds that change the most when you sing a word rather than speak it.
Just like most differences between speaking and singing, this has to do with maximising your airflow. Some vowel sounds are much easier to sing louder and for longer than others, so singers will modify certain to help make their vocal performance more efficient.
When you vocalise the ‘ahh’ vowel sound, for example, your articulators are arranged in a way that blocks your airflow as little as possible, which makes that sound much easier to sing. The way your tongue and lips position themselves to make ‘eeh’ and ‘ooh’ sounds, on the other hand, will get in the way of your nice, open tone.
This is where vowel modification comes in handy. By ‘opening’ up vowel sounds so they are closer to the ‘ahh’ sound (so ‘eeh’ becomes ‘eh’ and ‘ooh’ becomes ‘oh’), you’ll find that you can sing for longer without having to top up your lungs.
For a more in-depth look at how you can change the way you sing words, read our article on diction for singers: using pronunciation & enunciation to enhance your vocal performance.
How should singers breathe?
As a singer, you need to get as much air into your lungs as possible, as quickly as possible. The key to unlocking this ability is to learn to properly engage your diaphragm.
What is the diaphragm?
If you have ever had a singing lesson, this is a phrase you’ll be all too familiar with.
Technically, you always breathe using your diaphragm. The key difference between regular breathing and diaphragmatic breathing is that the latter requires you to actively engage your diaphragm rather than just letting it do its job.
Your diaphragm is a muscle that sits just below your lungs and just above your abdominal muscles. It’s shaped like the letter U, only upside-down.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts until it’s stretched flat. This pulls your lungs down and makes more room in your chest for them to fill up with air. When you breathe out again, your diaphragm relaxes back into its upside-down U-shape, which pushes air back out again.
In fact, when you hiccup, this is caused by your diaphragm contracting suddenly when something irritates it, like drinking too many fizzy drinks or eating too much food. This contraction forces air into your lungs, which in turn causes your epiglottis (the flap above your larynx) to close to stop more extra air flowing into your lungs – and this sudden closure is what makes the ‘hic’ sound.
As children, we do breathe in a way that engages the diaphragm properly, but as we mentioned earlier, we tend to stop doing this as we grow up. Quick, shallow breaths do not make your diaphragm fully contract, which means that it can’t make enough space to let your lungs fully inflate.
How do I breathe from my diaphragm?
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as abdominal breathing and belly breathing, which may give you an idea of how to know when you are doing it.
Let’s try another exercise.
Stand up and take a deep breath, as deep as you can manage. Which parts of your body are moving?
Most adults (who have not had any singing lessons) will find that their chest expands and their shoulders rise upwards, as if they are giving a great big sigh and a shrug.
This is not the most efficient way of filling up your lungs!
In fact, you do not want your chest or your shoulders to move at all as you breathe in. Not only will this neither engage your diaphragm nor make enough space for your lungs to fill up, but it will also add unwanted tension to your throat and other connected muscles, which will lead to you straining your voice.
This time when you breathe in, try to inflate your belly instead – imagine you are trying to blow up a balloon in there. See if you can keep your chest flat and your shoulders still while you do it, and you should find that you can breathe in more air than you usually can.
So, now you have learned how to fully inflate your lungs, are there any other parts of your body that could be stopping you from breathing like a pro?
The answer is yes, but you can sort most of them out by fixing just one thing: your posture.
Why do singers need good posture?
Many of us live a sedentary lifestyle as adults, which basically means we sit down too much. When you add up the hours spent sitting at a desk at work and the hours spent sitting on the sofa in front of the TV, the numbers start to get a little scary!
Over time, too much sitting down and not enough movement can have a negative impact on your posture, making your back slump forwards instead of sticking straight upwards. Fortunately, there are a few simple exercises that, if done correctly and regularly, can start to right a few of those wrongs.
While having good posture is never a bad thing, it’s especially important for singers. You need to have your body lined up in just the right way to allow as much air into your body as you can without any unnecessary obstructions.
The best way to do this is to stand with your spine as straight as you can make it. Point the base of your spine down towards the ground, and push your pelvis forwards.
Now let’s examine how the rest of your body should be arranged from top to bottom.
Point the top of your head up towards the sky, and face forwards. If you lower your chin, you could block your airflow, and if you raise your chin, you can strain your vocal folds by overstretching them.
You also need your chest to be held high to give your diaphragm more space to expand. You can do this by rolling your shoulders back and downwards; your chest will then naturally rise.
You need to pay close attention to your core, as this is the area you’ll be actively controlling when you breathe from your diaphragm. Keep your core relaxed so it can expand when you inhale, and tight so you can control your airflow when you exhale.
Finally, you need to make sure you are properly balanced. You can do this either by positioning your feet shoulder-width apart or by placing one front slightly forwards. Whichever pose you prefer, make sure you do not lock your knees – locked knees can interrupt your blood flow, so if you stand like that for too long, you could faint!
Once you have found your best singing posture, you are ready for some serious breathing. Let’s break it down into three stages:
What are the three stages of breathing for singers?
The goal here is for you to recognise and understand the different sensations you experience in your body when you have more control over your breathing. Breathing for singers is deeper, steadier, and smoother.
The first stage is, of course, getting the air into your lungs.
As a singer, you need to be able to inhale more air more quickly than when you speak. Fortunately, your fixed posture and your focus on your diaphragm will make this much easier.
For singing, always try to breathe in through your mouth rather than your nose, because you’ll be able to fill up your lungs much more quickly.
If you are inhaling efficiently, you should notice your abdomen expanding at the back, the sides, and most notably at the front.
This second stage of breathing for singers is the most different from the way you usually breathe while speaking and will help you gain more control of your diaphragm.
When we breathe naturally, we do not tend to hold our breath; instead, our diaphragm returns to its resting position quite quickly. This reflex is what you need to overcome.
After you have inhaled and you have felt your abdomen expand, you’ll feel what many vocal coaches describe as a ‘full’ feeling. As you hold this position, you are keeping your diaphragm contracted, ready for a slower, smoother transition into the next stage which will make it much easier for you to sing longer passages with more consistency.
The final stage is the part when you actually sing – this is the moment the other stages have been leading up to!
When you breathe out passively, you will notice your expanded abdomen shrink back to its resting size.
With controlled exhalation, you need to keep your abdomen tight, in its inflated position. Then, as you gradually breathe out in this held position, you relax your diaphragm more slowly, which in turn pushes the air out of your lungs at a steadier speed.
So now you know how to breathe like a singer, the next step is to put what you have learned into practice.
How do I practise breathing?
There are a few easy exercises that can help you develop better breath control. Remember: just like any exercise, you must not over-exert yourself. If any part of you starts to feel strained, it’s time to take a break!
The panting exercise
Panting is a good way of training yourself to take in larger amounts of air at quicker speeds. This is a useful skill to develop for when you need to snatch a quick breath between passages and will help strengthen your diaphragm.
Stick your tongue out (like a dog), breathe in through your mouth, then say ‘hah’ as you exhale, breathing in again after each ‘hah’.
Be careful not to do this exercise for too long, and end it with a long sigh to relax your body.
The lying down exercise
Another way of practising your air intake is by lying down on a flat surface, with your knees bent. This will help you to keep your back straight. You might find it more comfortable to put a pillow behind your head and another one beneath your knees.
Place one hand on your chest, and your other hand on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and see if you can keep the hand on your chest still, while the hand on your stomach rises.
The candle exercise
(Younger readers will need an adult present when using candles!)
Set a candle up at your table, light it, and then sit in front of the candle. Fill your lungs with air, and hold your breath for a count of four.
Breathe out slowly and gently through pursed lips onto the flame to make it flicker – but not go out – until your lungs empty. Try not to give in and release all your air at once or you’ll blow the candle out!
The straw exercise
Get a straw and a clear glass filled with water. Take a deep breath, and blow through the straw into the water to make bubbles.
Try to keep the stream of bubbles consistent by blowing through the straw at the same, steady rate.
For more singing exercises, read our list of vocal warm-ups to whip your singing voice into shape.