A family member told me he doesn't like to hear most pop singers because one can hear them taking deep breaths after longer tirades and that is a sign they can't sing properly. He mentioned Andrea Bocelli as a good example: no matter how long he sings 'in one go', no matter how much his voice climbs up or down, no matter how long he sustains a certain sound, you will never hear him run out of breath and take a noisy inspiration.

His expression was that lyric singers 'don't breathe while singing' (although obviously, he meant they don't breathe noticeably or noisily) and pop singers do. I know, there's a lot of generalisation here, but these were his words. Although I must admit that I also find it a bit annoying to be listening to a great voice and then there's a near gasp for air before the voice blows all out again.

So, is this family member correct in his statement that 'proper singing' means one shouldn't take those noisy deep breaths while singing?

Secondly, what is the name of the technique lyric singers use to perform 'without breathing'?

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    It might actually be partly the recording process. When pop vocals are recorded, there’s usually a lot of compression, which tends to bring up the level of other noises. Also I think some singers intentionally make their breathing loud. Matt Bellamy from Muse seems to exaggerate his breathing, IMHO. I’m not sure there’s a technique to breathing quietly at all, it’s just breathing that isn’t picked up by the mic so well. – Todd Wilcox Jan 10 '18 at 13:19
  • @ToddWilcox - right now, I think this is a better [or equal] answer than the answers. Compression is part of the 'who cares if you can actually sing' effects chain for weedy pop singers, these days. Weak vocalists + multi band comp + auto-tune... shame they forgot the de-breath plugin ;) Matt Bellamy gets a bye, because he actually can sing, but the breathing gets on my nerves with him too. Live, you don't hear it, he just sings, less FX. – Tetsujin Jan 10 '18 at 18:31
  • @Tetsujin Pretty sure Bellamy wouldn't want your bye because with the ability and budget he's working with, it must be intentional that we hear all the breathing. It's part of his style and I think it's effective at making his lyrics seem more... intense? To a greater or lesser extent I think the same applies across pop and rock. I know from personal experience that trying to eliminate breath noises sounds really weird, like a computer singing. Also, everyone needs a decent amount of compression. Some use a lot as an artistic tool. Others "need" a lot to not sound bad. – Todd Wilcox Jan 10 '18 at 18:34
  • [this could extend to a 3-page discussion, so I'll try not to] but I have a particular interest in him, because my SO was A&R when they first started, & sooo wanted to sign them. [It was not to be, budget] but they did sign to another friend's company [after some early messing about, so I can still blag VIP tickets if they play here] ...In short, I'm aware it's a conscious decision, whether I like it or not [& I never had the budget to disagree ;) – Tetsujin Jan 10 '18 at 18:40
  • See my comment on Richard’s answer (as well as his answer). – jjmusicnotes Jan 11 '18 at 5:32

I tend to agree with your family, but I'm not aware of a term different from breathing technique, as exhibited by trained singers.

Note, that the effect in question is not restricted to singers but also affects wind instrumentalists (which may resort to circular breathing in some cases; they also learn, that breathing though the mouth is faster and more silent than through the nose which unfortunnatley is incompatible with circular breathing, so context needs to be considered).

In my opinion trained singers also typically are able to produce a higher volume, which allows microphone to be positioned more remotely, which supports clean recording. This also applys to most wind instruments.

  • Circular breathing through the mouth? How does that work? – Tim Jan 10 '18 at 15:32
  • ...Nose flute? ;) – Tetsujin Jan 10 '18 at 18:27
  • Circular breathing needs to use the nose...it’s why it’s called “circular” breathing. Also, see my comment on Richard’s answer. – jjmusicnotes Jan 11 '18 at 5:32
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    @jjmusicnotes - well aware of that ! Hence my terse comment, quoting 'breathing through the mouth'. Obviously one does that when singing - but singing out is hardly breathing out... – Tim Jan 11 '18 at 17:49
  • @Tim, oh yes, comment not for you but for the OP... – jjmusicnotes Jan 11 '18 at 19:17

As guidot has already mentioned, the only real name for this would be poor breathing technique. But I want to clarify why it's poor.

When you breathe, you have air rushing through your oral cavity and windpipe. If something gets in the way of the air, either through tension in the body or through blatant obstruction, the air will hit it as it rushes by, causing a sound. Thus, in theory, the most efficient breath is mostly silent, because any noise indicates some obstruction of the oral cavity and/or windpipe.

Try taking in a huge breath with your teeth closed. It's incredibly loud on account of (among other things) the teeth getting in the way of the rushing air.

Now say "poe" (as in, Edgar Allen). Now, say "poe" while inhaling. You should notice that this breath is much more silent (it also fills you up much faster!). This type of breath is what most instrumentalists and vocalists strive for.

  • Thanks Richard for typing this so I don’t have to. The term I’ve heard and used is “restricted airflow” and the action you describe in your last paragraph known colloquially as “catch breaths”. – jjmusicnotes Jan 11 '18 at 5:28
  • Don't understand how the initial plosive 'p' helps. I just breathe in after opening mouth wide. Seems to work silently! – Tim Jan 11 '18 at 17:52
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    @Tim It's just a helpful trick for people that aren't used to breathing deeply. Once one is acquainted with the sensation of a full breath, they don't need that initial "p." – Richard Jan 11 '18 at 17:53
  • Perhaps the 'p' is just for nervous singers..? – Tim Jan 11 '18 at 17:54
  • I've been trying to say 'poe' (or any articulated sound) while inhaling. How on earth can one do that? – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 12 '18 at 10:45

Agreed, it doesn't sound too good, too professional, but gets heard a lot. In an opera setting from many years ago, no mics, inhalation wouldn't have been heard much, if at all. With mics now being used for just about every situation, once they're a couple of feet away from the singer's mouth, inhalation will be pretty well inaudible.

The 'problem' comes with close micing, when everything gets picked up. It doesn't have to be a problem, breathing in through the nose is one option, as is moving to the side of the mic. And pop shields are great at losing the plosives, but not at stopping what we're talking about. I just think a lot of singers aren't particularly aware of it, or assume it's part of the deal. I prefer to listen to what's coming out of a singer's mouth rather than what's going in, though.

  • Trained singers are constantly aware of breath - besides gossip it’s the only other thing they complain about. – jjmusicnotes Jan 11 '18 at 5:29

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