Breathing for Singing: Its Purpose and Function

Breathing for Singing: Its Purpose and Function

Breathing and support are two topics that commonly come up when talking about vocal technique. There are a thousand theories on how to carry out each of them. This can leave a singer utterly confused. In this article, I intend to simplify some of the confusion regarding these two areas, and to give some practical exercises that can immediately be applied.


Just so we can be clear, whenever I talk about breathing, I am referring solely to what happens during inhalation. What occurs during exhalation will be under the realm of support. Keep in mind, these two areas do influence each other, but that will be for a later article on advanced breathing and support.

The Purpose of Breathing

We all know from an everyday perspective that the purpose of breathing is to bring oxygen into our body, but what purpose does breathing serve for singing? As far as I’m concerned, breathing for singing accomplishes two things: (1) To alleviate unnecessary constriction in the neck, throat, jaw, and tongue, and, (2) To allow us to build up intra-abdominal pressure. The first goal will be the primary emphasis of this article. The second goal of breathing will be reserved for an advanced article on breathing, because it builds upon the first premise.


What exactly is the constriction that we want the breath to release? We want it to release tension in the following muscles:
  • Neck muscles
    • Scalenes
    • Sternocleidomastoid
    • Upper trapezius
    • Sub-occipitals
  • Laryngeal elevators and suprahyoid muscles
    • Digastric
    • Stylohyoid
    • Geniohyoid
    • Mylohyoid
    • Thyrohyoid
  • Constrictor muscles of the pharynx
  • Tongue
  • Jaw
    • Masseter
    • Medial and lateral pterygoids
    • Temporalis
* Note that the above list is not all inclusive, but rather I’m just highlighting certain muscles for those that are curious. When we take in an efficient breath, all of these muscles will release. The jaw and tongue will feel like they are just sitting there passively and the throat will feel supple and relaxed. The external neck muscles will also feel as though they have relaxed.

How To Do This

Ok, so enough about the background anatomy. How do we do this and make it practical? The following exercises should give you some real life experience in how this works.

Breathing Exercise 1

Stand up for this exercise. Do it in front of a mirror. 1. Take one hand and place it on your chest. Take the other hand and place it on your navel. 2. Breathe in through the nose and note what you feel. Repeat this a few times if necessary. So you probably noticed one of two things:
  1. Your chest rose along with you shoulder. If this is you, congratulations, you have just successfully taken in a chest breath. This is the OPPOSITE of what we need for singing because it causes many of the muscles of constriction to engage, in addition to increasing intra-thoracic pressure (as opposed to intra-abdominal pressure). The diaphragm is not fully engaged when one breathes like this.
  2. Your hand on your navel moved outwards. If this occurred, it suggests that you have taken a diaphragmatic breath and the diaphragm was engaged more. Just a step further. If your hand moved outward more than a few centimeters (approximately 1/2 to 1 inch), it could potentially indicate that you have a lack of tonus in your lower core muscles, specifically the transverse abdominis, the internal obliques, and the pelvic floor. If this happened to you, don’t worry about it for now — that will be addressed further in future articles.
If you fell into the first category, the next exercise will help you. Even if you fell into the second category, and your stomach expanded more than a half inch or so, still continue to do the next exercise — it will only further improve your breathing.

Breathing Exercise 2

Michael White, founder of the Optimal Breathing system, has a technique called “squeeze and breathe”. It helps you to find a diaphragmatic breath, finding greater expansion in the sides and back. If while performing this exercise you feel the expansion happening dominantly in the front of the body, it means your abdominal muscles are too loose. To remedy this, place your fingers on the lower part of the abdomen, midway between the navel and the pubic bone. Pull inwards (towards the spine) and upwards (towards the top of the head) from this area. This will help the deep abdominal muscles to engage. Maintain a contraction of approximately 30%-40% contraction in the muscle, especially as you’re breathing in. It will prevent the front part of your stomach from expanding as much and will encourage the air to go more into the sides and lower back.

Final Thoughts

If you are the type of person that tries to suck up all of the air in the room, trying to fill your lungs maximally, know that is not necessary. If you are singing and using your body efficiently, your lungs don’t need much air at all. If you try to tank up on air, blow out half of your air before starting a phrase, and then sing with only that little air in your lungs. Once you blow out your air, make sure you don’t take in another breath again before singing your phrase. Most people are pleasantly surprised that they can still sing a phrase on such little air. You might also find that it is easier to keep your voice controlled under these situations. When we over-breathe, it causes the accessory muscles of inhalation to engage and produce constriction, because it becomes too much pressure for the body to hold back. Furthermore, this causes an increase in sub-glottal pressure and a decrease in intra-abdominal pressure, making it more likely that we will strain in the throat. So if you’re taking in more than 60-70% of your max lung capacity for a phrase, you are severely over-breathing. To learn more breathing exercises, look at the following articles: How to Strengthen Your Diaphragm for Singing: The Balloon Squat | Singing Breathing Exercises How to Sing from Your Diaphragm Properly If you have any questions about this article, feel free to post in the comments section below or email me.

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