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In vocal pedagogy some people talk about "breathy voice". What does this term refer to and how is it different from "full voice"?

I should add that breathy is also used for the speaking voice. What I am referring to is not so much the breathy jazz singer (doing this on purpose) but the person who has a natural breathy voice (whatever that means).

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  • Why the 'teaching' tag?
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2022 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

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Just as we can talk in a whisper, normally, or shout, we can do the same while singing.

When whispering, there's a lot more air missing the vocal chords, but the words are still articulated by the shape of mouth, and tongue position. Without those, we'd just be blowing.

Full voice will incorporate more air pressure from lungs/diaphragm, which again will be tempered by lungs/diaphragm, from quiet singing to almost shouting. Go further, and it is shouting.

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  • I have a breathy speaking voice usually, full voice when singing. I have one friend whose normal conversational voice sounds like he's addressing the back row of the stalls. Makes Jean Luc Picard sound like he's under-performing. Some people are just like that ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:33
  • @Tetsujin - yeah, often wondered what Brian Blessed sounds like 'normally'. I guess teachers develop that sort of voice out of necessity - I know I did. And let's not forget Town Criers.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:35
  • He whispers in ALL CAPS ;)) Actually, Brian Blessed, bless 'im, always sounded like he was 'proclaiming' rather than speaking.
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:36
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    And Macy Gray for the opposite. Or Blossom Dearie. Nov 4, 2022 at 17:04
  • @AndyBonner - Marilyn Monroe was probably up there (or down there) too.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2022 at 17:06
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It may help to think about the human voice as having two main components:

  1. the sustained, pitched note
  2. non-pitched sounds (everything else)

That second item includes the "breath" sound (essentially sustained noise), plosives ("P", "B"), other consonants--all the sounds that we naturally add to the sung pitch to form words. The volume relationship (or ratio) of the pitched note to everything else dramatically changes the quality and character of the voice.

This ratio exists on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, you have whispered speech. That's "everything else" and no pitched sound (say 0/100, which is 0% pitch and 100% non-pitched). At the other end of the continuum, you have the pitched note and little or no "everything else" (say 90/10).

Every singer falls somewhere on that continuum, and the main determinant is how much they support their vocal mechanism. This affects how much energy (sound) they create with the pitched note.

If a singer doesn't support their voice (intentionally or due to poor technique), they will be quieter overall and the sung pitch will be lower in volume relative to the other voice components. We might call that ratio 30/70. This will usually translate to more breath noise (to extreme: a "breathy" sound), or louder plosives and consonants (to extreme: a "spitty" or "clicky" sound).

At the other end of the continuum are trained singers who support their voice well and create a tremendous amount of volume with the pitched note. Think of the opera soprano projecting her voice to the back of a 5,000-seat hall without amplification. We'll estimate her ratio at 90/10, which can create a problem with the "everything else". A very loud singer may form the vowels of the words properly but come up short on the diction. This makes them hard to understand. Good diction can help a singer increase the volume of those non-pitched components, but it's hard to do.

Let's circle back to your original question. A "breathy" voice is one that has less support and volume, making the non-pitched parts of the voice more prominent. Anyone can sing with less support to create a "breathy" sound. Reduce the support to its logical conclusion, and you'll be whispering the words of the song (back to 0/100).

A balanced or "full" voice (50/50) is well-supported, with enough volume in the sung note to project and enough energy in the non-pitched elements to be clearly understood. That ratio is not necessarily optimum, though. A microphone will pick up everything, so a voice with less sustained note energy (say 30/70) is perfectly acceptable for amplified and recorded music. That voice won't cut it singing Wagner in front of an orchestra, however.

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  • "A "breathy" voice is one that has less support and volume, making the non-pitched parts of the voice more prominent." I have been told that we hear the breathy singing in the vowels (ie people singing breathy on pitch). Do you dissagree? Nov 5, 2022 at 9:11
  • Vowel implies sustained, pitched sound and open mouth. So yes--it's only during a vowel that you'd hear the breath noise. You won't hear it during other non-pitched sounds, nor can you form a vowel while humming (another pitched "mode" of singing). Nov 7, 2022 at 20:28
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"Breathy" refers to a whisper-like vocal sound created by singing with partial vocal cord closure. Here's an example. At 0:32, the lyrics: "makes no difference who you are". Every word is very breathy, except it's non-breathy on the "ence" of difference and on the "who" and "you".

It's used stylistically to create different textures in the vocal sound. It's different from "full voice" as during "full voice" the vocal cords close completely.

Vocal cord closure is one of those components of phonation that you can adjust by itself. So you can sing a note, keep everything the same (pitch, register, volume, etc) and then freely add and remove vocal closure. Here's a resource on the physiology involved.

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