What causes breathy sound?

 

“I have a problem with breathy sound and breath control. I believe that it’s weight-related. However, last year, I noticed that my breath control gets even worse as I sing in my upper tessitura. The higher I sing, the more air I hear rushing out. It was my understanding that I should use less, not more air the higher I sing. What could be causing this problem?”

 

“Do you have any article on how to overcome breathy singing tones? Thanks.”

Jeremy and Gillyanne answer these together: Both of these questions relate to breathiness in the sound, and breathiness can have several causes. (We cover this in our “Inside The Singing Voice” Retreat).

In answer to the first question: People who are overweight may have postural problems and poor muscle tone in the muscles of the abdominal wall. Either of these might affect your breath use generally. See Singing and the Actor Chapter 4 for advice on this subject.

If the breathiness only occurs in the upper register, there could be a different cause – that you may be in a falsetto setup. The vocal folds need to be longer and thinner in general for higher pitches, but there are two ways to stretch and thin the folds: crico-thyroid tilt (sounds and feels like whining) and falsetto. We find the former more efficient. If you are in a falsetto setup it is more likely that your vocal folds not resisting the breath, allowing more to escape.

Use an ng glide or the puffy cheeks exercise (in This Is A Voice) and slide from bottom to top without increasing the volume. Check your head and neck alignment, and “ease” your voice over any change points. Notice if you start pushing breath at any particular pitch. You can also experiment with holding the air back slightly. And remember that in general, high notes need more muscle support and less breath support.

 

The second question is a little more tricky to answer, in that it does not appear to be range-specific. Breathiness in general is usually caused by imperfect vocal fold closure. It takes one set of muscles to open the folds, and two sets to close them. There are various exercises that we recommend, which target different vocal imbalances. These include monitoring effort levels, using modal voice exercises (the clear-strong exercises in This Is A Voice), and identifying vocal energy.
Glottal onsets can be useful for closing the vocal folds before the start of the sound – use gentle glottals, not hard attacks. Jeremy will often get a client to do exactly what they don’t want to do. So singing with more breath can often help identify where the breath is coming from, and what is causing the breathy sound.

Beware of confusing breathy sound with the sound of constriction, and remember to check into your chuckle!

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