How “Breathy Voice” is Created | The Danger of Breathy Singing

breathy voice

Singing in a “breathy voice” has a mixed reputation among singers and educators, and for good reason: it can be risky. In this article, we’ll discuss the mechanics of singing with a breathy voice, if it’s harmful, and how use to the technique safely.

Remember the spectacularly cheesy film “A Walk to Remember”? In this 2002 film, Mandy Moore sings a pop ballad called “Only Hope” using excessive breathiness to create a fragile, emotionally charged aura for her character.

This is a perfect example of using breathiness as an emotional tool. Breathy singing, characterized by a quieter, fuzzier sound than normal singing, is still often employed by vocalists to evoke everything from sensuality to sadness.

The Mechanics of Breathy Singing

To understand breathy singing, it’s helpful to examine how the human voice works. Singing is produced by air moving past the vocal cords (also known as “vocal folds”). As air moves past the vocal cords, the cords come together and vibrate, producing sound.

The process of the vocal cords coming together so they can vibrate against one another is called “adduction.” When a singer is using just the right amount of air to produce the sound, the vocal cords adduct and vibrate seamlessly.

As a result, the sound is clear, efficient, and easy to produce. If the singer uses an excess of air to sing, adduction isn’t as efficient. The sound, colored by the extra air rushing past the vocal cords, becomes breathy.

Is Singing with a Breathy Voice Dangerous?

Breathy singing tends to be frowned upon by voice teachers because it can be a sign of improper vocal technique, or even underlying health issues. Many singers are incapable of producing a clear tone at all and have no choice but to sing with a breathy voice.

This can be caused by an inability to properly regulate air flow, excess tension in the neck or lower face, and actual vocal cord damage.

The strain of the extra air rushing past the vocal cords also tires out the singer faster, causing swelling and other health issues.

If you’re unable to sing with a clear tone at all, we highly recommend that you visit an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) for a stroboscopy – a procedure in which a doctor uses a tiny camera to look at your vocal cords and check for damage.

Untreated breathiness can be caused by chronic swelling, pre-nodular lumps, and other serious issues that could lead to vocal hemorrhaging or vocal nodules. If these issues become too severe, they can require therapy and even surgery to fix.

See Also: 5 Essential Singing Techniques

Using Breathy Singing as a Stylistic Choice

If your cords are healthy and you’re able to produce a clear tone, but want to experiment with using a breathy voice as a stylistic tool, don’t worry. It is possible to create a breathy sound without damaging your voice.

Take Ariana Grande for example in “Thank You, Next.” She uses a breathy tone at the beginning of the song to sound nonchalant yet beguiling.

If you would like to safely dabble in breathy voice technique, keep the following tips in mind. 

1. Limit Use

Since breathy singing requires less efficient adduction and therefore puts extra stress on the vocal cords, use it sparingly. If you’re singing a long set, it may be best to choose a few songs to use this technique on.

If your voice is already tired or strained from allergies, lack of sleep, or overuse, it’s best to avoid breathy singing entirely and sing as efficiently as possible to protect your vocal cords.

2. Use a Comfortable Range

Breathy voice is best limited to the most comfortable parts of your range (think speaking range), where you’re least likely to strain your voice.

It’s best not to attempt to sing notes in the extremes of your range with a breathy voice, as you’re more likely to be straining in these areas, even without the added stress of compromised adduction.

Since the beginnings of contemporary songs tend to be in a moderate range, you may want to experiment by starting a song with a breathy tone and then coming in stronger on the chorus. This is a fairly common approach in pop, R&B, and other popular music.

3. Sing Quietly or Use a Mic

Breathy singing just doesn’t carry as well as clear singing, and attempting to do it loudly is a recipe for disaster. Only use a breathy voice when you’re singing quietly.

Since breathy singing is best executed at a low volume and is a contemporary technique, you can’t really do it without a microphone.

If you’re performing live in a noisy venue, make sure your microphone is turned up and that your mouth is close enough to the microphone so your breathy singing can be heard.

Breathy Singing Done Right

If you want to experiment with using a breathy voice, consider taking voice lessons or classes. A qualified voice teacher will help protect your voice as you experiment with this technique.

With proper training, you can become a more flexible singer without compromising your vocal health, even when you sing with a little extra air!

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Singers: How to Warm Up Your Vocal Cords

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Ancient civilizations discovered powerful truths about vocalizing and singing that are relevant to modern students of voice and song.

We all go through our daily lives speaking, humming, and singing some of the time without realizing the effects of things we do half-consciously.  Or maybe we just suspect it!  Well here are some facts!!

By focusing on singing, speaking, or chanting the vowels (A,E,I,O,U) we release a myriad of emotions in an uplifting and healing manner.

Chanting or singing mantras are based on vowel-combinations that when chanted in a particular way produce a vibrating effect on our entire system, our nerves, glands, and the brain.  Here are some vowel sounds to use for warmup drills.  Singers, performers of all kinds, and instrumentalists may benefit from using these simple exercises.

A (pronounced “Ah”)  Induces a state of calm, peace, serenity.  Resonates at the toop of the thorax and esophagus (upper chest). The vibrations have a healing effect on the heart.  A(pronounced as in “glass”) resonates in the upper part of the lungs.

E(pronounced “eh”)
  Develops self-confidence. It resonates in the neck, throat, vocal chords, teeth, and thyroid glands.

I (pronounced “ee”) is the vowel of laughter.  It resonates in the bridge of the nose and crown of the head, affecting the brain and organs of the skull.

O (pronounced as in “home”) Turns inward and gives the sensation of seriousness, completion, and perfection.  It vibrates in the lower part of the lung, heart, and stomach.

OU (pronounced “oo”) has a similar sensation to O, but sweeter.
It vibrates in the lower abdomen, affecting the kidneys and stomach.

Simple warmup exercises that help you get emotionally clear and refreshed:

  • Balancing the Whole Body:  A   E  I (pronounced ahh-ee)  O  OU
  • For the ears: ENN
  • For the nose and sinuses:  MA
  • For the head and jaw:  YA  YOU   YAI
  • For the stomach:  HUH  HUH  HUH

Vowels are to be sounded with the full energy of a deep breath.  For example, when using I (pronounced ah-eee), inhale first, and then without exhaling, sound a strong and piercing EEEEE, parting your mouth as in a smile.  Keep at the same pitch. Keep sounding as you exhale but do not use up all your air. Rest and repeat the exercise 3 to 4 times. Soon you will notice a definite vibrating effect in your head which is pleasant.  This activity helps to clear the brain, eyes, nose, and ears.  This is a good morning exercise!!

Richard is a voice, guitar and piano instructor in Berkeley, CA.

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Why Take Voice Lessons?

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Girl-singer Seems like an obvious question – to learn to sing; to become a famous star on stage; to be rich and successful!  I read about an established professor at an Ivy League university who wanted to quit smoking, so he took voice lessons, which launched him into a significant career on the stage in mid-life; a true life experience with surprising consequences.  However, there are many reasons that people take singing lessons and fame is only one of them.

As I’ve observed, people engage in the process of singing for many reasons: to be more confident in life in general; to overcome some of their fears; to fulfill a life-long dream of taking music lessons; to have the opportunity to receive the personal focus and attention that private voice lessons provide; to discover a latent talent that you didn’t know was there; to be more assertive; to speak more clearly; to hear peoples’ comments about one’s beautiful voice; or maybe to have a new life adventure.

In my experience as a voice teacher, I’ve enjoyed watching people discover what happens inside when they confront their desire to engage in the process of performing and singing.  Sometimes a light comes on, or old fears get triggered and need to be worked through.  One of my voice students would finish each lesson with the statement:  “This is so cool.”  It can be an inspiration for a teacher to observe people take on these challenges and come through to a new level of confidence and discovery.

It can also be inspiring to be a part of that process by engaging directly with the voice student when their fears come forward, and discovering creative ways to overcome the fear and emerge on the other side freer and more confident.

Why take voice lessons?  If some of the above lead to fame and riches, great, but maybe the fame and riches can also be internal rather than external and occur outside the spotlights and more in the soul. Both can be important.

Remember, you’re never too old to start singing lessons in your town. You’ll benefit personally and, who knows, maybe you’ll get rich and famous!

– Guest contributor, Richard Fey

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