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I was walking with a friend some time ago, and it happened to walk near an open-air restaurant. Some woman was singing. While I considered her singing good-enough, my friend scoffed and complained about the singer not "breathing" (properly).

Now I understand that breathing keeps us alive. I also understand that breathing is the thing helping us to push air through the vocal cords in order to create sounds (or noises).

But what is the thing with the breathing in general? I occasionally heard about it once and again, but I never understood:

  • why is it so important;
  • how it is done;
  • how can one understand if a singer uses good breathing or not.

Trying to find an answer, I found How can I learn circular breathing?. I suppose that this is the reason why that African-american guy (I do not know his name) had his cheeks as big as bag-pipes when playing the trumpet. I thought for almost a life-time that he was (trying to) just being funny.


Obviously, I am asking here about the basics, not the entire science of breathing in the music context.

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    Dizzy Gillespie. It's just one of those things -- not everyone's neck and larynx will allow that, let alone adjust the air stream quality that way. – Carl Witthoft Aug 31 '20 at 12:56
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    I do not follow links to "weird things" as a matter of principle. Could you edit the question so the link names the thing instead of calling it "this weird thing"? – phoog Aug 31 '20 at 13:21
  • @phoog Thanks for the laugh. @ virolino Yeah, sometimes necessary things end up looking weird. – JohnnyApplesauce Aug 31 '20 at 17:50
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    Weird thing = circular breathing, which is a technique one can learn. Here's Wynton Marsalis using it. Regarding Dizzy Gillespie and his big cheeks ... not circular breathing. Instead, a physiological trait that you can read about on Nerdist. – Aaron Sep 1 '20 at 6:44
  • @Aaron: thanks for the info. You actually answered some questions I did not even know I had! ;) +1 – virolino Sep 1 '20 at 11:45
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Several aspects:

  1. Breathe to stay alive (everybody manages somehow, otherwise has to be put on artificial supply)
  2. Breathe to synchronize. This also benefits string players, just to get better in sync with each other. Immediately before bar 1 is a common one, also after fermatas.
  3. Breathe at the appropriate places, typically between musical phrases, so none gets interrupted. (Special for ensembles: if several instruments in a group have to play long passages without obvious breaks, they breathe at different times for better continuity.) Circular breathing is plan B for wind players, but its not for every professional and does not work for singers.
  4. Now things become tricky: singers and wind players may run out of air due to tone production. It may become necessary, to snap (in the sense of fast, but still quiet for obvious reasons) for air at a less crucial moment, to have sufficient supply for the important passage. In contrast to car's fuel, you can breathe too deeply due to complicated inter-dependencies of muscular tensions. (Somewhat similar to packing too much into your luggage: you have to handle it all the way later.)
  5. Some instruments, requiring little air but high pressure (reed instruments), offer another complication: You may still have air to produce sound, but its too low on oxygen (see zero above). This is the reason, why a conscious effort to exhale must be made, to get enough fresh air in. Sometimes the solution is, to exhale at one moment to be able to inhale a few notes later.
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    +1 Wow! with number 4 you touched (and probably answered) another thought which I had, concerning mouth harmonicas. What if the song needs only "blow" notes (or only "draw" notes)? And the answer is somewhere around "a conscious effort to exhale must be made" (or inhale)... – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 13:54
  • #2 is a big thing for percussion as well, probably because we also don't need air to play our instrument and often play in chamber ensembles. Can't say how many times I've both heard and said "breathe together, play together". – Alex Jones Aug 31 '20 at 14:59
  • Are you certain singers can't circular-breathe? After all, the technique is somehow possible on flute, where there is no resistance from the instrument. – Pyromonk Jan 2 at 5:52
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Funny -- my first thought, assuming your friend knows how to sing properly, is that the woman in question didn't understand breath support. Quality singing voice depends on inhaling correctly & using diaphragm muscles (among many others) to control the exhaled air quantity and pressure. Proper techniques not only produce better sound but reduce the stress on the vocal cords themselves, reducing risk of damage.

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I think it's likely you friend was criticising a lack of breath support.

Such support can take several levels. 'Crooners' like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were criticised for being reliant on a microphone rather than using operatic technique that could fill a theatre without amplification! The lesser amount of breath support (among other facets of technique) that they used has now become the norm in much popular music. Some performers use even less - and are even more microphone-reliant - to the point that they're 'barely singing at all'.

Another symptom of poor breath control (and one which Sinatra, Crosby etc. were definitely NOT guilty of) is inability to sustain a note, or the need to chop up a phrase into unnaturally short chunks.

There's more to entertainment than vocal technique of course. But when someone who knows something of such matters hears a rendition which is all emotion and no technique, it can be highly irritating!

Listen to some Beatles songs. There's a clarity of diction that I very much doubt came naturally. Someone coached them. But imagine listening through 'Sergeant Pepper' without understanding the lyrics clearly?

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I'm sure this is meant in a vocal context, while I come from a guitar context, but here goes.

Some of the greatest soloists in the 20th Century played horns, and while they could go on for quite some time, with circular breathing and the like, eventually they had to stop and breathe in, and the gaps in the music separate that into statements, like periods and commas in writing.

With the guitar and the keyboard, there's nothing stopping you from going on and on and on without stopping. In writing, this is called a run-on sentence, and is considered a sign of bad writing. If the music breathes in this context, that means there are regular stops where musical phrases end and new ones begin.

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why is it so important?

Wrong breathing can mean:

  • Breathing on any place in the phrase (not correct phrasing)
  • Breathing in the middle of a word, separate and detach the syllables
  • Breathing loudly (in pop songs this can be done as an intentioally effect)

how it is done?

  • Classic singers or wind instrument players are eager to breath noiseless.
  • We usually think breathing is an active process. But I've been taught that it is passive: We relax and the air streams in like it fills an empty bag.

how can one understand if a singer uses good breathing or not?

When a singer or musician with a brass or woodwind instrument "infringes" the rules above he is not breathing correctly.

Imagine a choir of 50 people or more breathing loudly in when the choir leader lifts his hand for beginning to sing! They are asked to breath silently, slowly through the nose.

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  • Tried your 'passive' process - it didn't work! – Tim Aug 31 '20 at 8:01
  • Yes, this is the great art of a singer. You can't just try it once. You need to practice for a long time. Breathing out active, wait, ... and relax your diaphragm. Relaxing isn't an active process. While the breathing through the nose must be active when playing with the lips (see above the trumpeter circular breathing). It is somehow like chewing. I have tried this too but the sound isn't perfect ;) – Albrecht Hügli Aug 31 '20 at 8:09
  • I reckon that while you are still alive, eventually, yur body will ask for more air, so it maybe must happen - eventually! – Tim Aug 31 '20 at 9:37
  • @AlbrechtHügli: different people will understand "active" and "passive" differently, depending on their needs. "Pure engineers" will have something in their minds (most likely having in mind terms like energy, force, pressure), while "pure artists" will have something else (probably thinking in terms of feeling, appearance...). Even though they seem to contradict each other, they tell the same things with different words. – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 10:05
  • One can breathe in all the right places and inaudibly and still be breathing incorrectly. The points mentioned here are not wrong, but they're hardly the most important. – phoog Aug 31 '20 at 13:23
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Your friend could have picked up on several things, the most relevant being 'phrasing'. Of course we have to breate - both in and out - whilst living, and whilst singing. Singing words in sentences is somewhat like speaking in thoe sentences. If we take a breath in halfway...through a ...sentence, it's not going to come out right. So, it's important to have enough air in reserve to finish the sentence or phrase so it makes sense.

The trumpeter was using circular breathing, which is a phenomenon used by some trumpeters and other wind instrument players to enable enough breath to be available for mucch longer periods of time than just using a normal lungful. Yes, the cheeks act like the bag on a set of bagpipes, and is re-filled without losing pressure on the mouthpiece. Air in through nose, stored in cheeks, out through mouth as and when needed.

Not seen any vocalists doing that, but suspect it's possible - just. Or not... another question?

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    So, basically, the breathing is about not "breathing in halfway...through a ...sentence"? You made me remember about Stevie in "Malcolm in the middle". :) – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 7:10
  • And yes, as a matter of fact, there is another question :) music.stackexchange.com/q/104369/71592 – virolino Aug 31 '20 at 7:11
  • Haven't a clue what your friend particularly meant, but that's my take. What's Malcolm in the middle? – Tim Aug 31 '20 at 7:44
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    I presume the trumpeter that OP is referring to is Dizzy Gillespie, and I can't find any information suggesting that he practiced circular breathing. He just had a very unusual playing style. – JLRishe Aug 31 '20 at 18:39
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    @Tim circular breathing isn't particularly unusual, but Gillespie didn't use it. He had an unusual playing style in other respects, in particular his unconventional embouchure. – phoog Sep 1 '20 at 1:25

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