This was a question to laryngologist Anthony Jahn whose latest book I contributed to. Anthony asked me to answer it…
Dear Doctor Jahn – I’m curious – I have a friend who sings in a sultry, airy voice. My voice is more clear (I think both styles are great) – but what is it, exactly, that makes her voice sound “breathy”? And could I do that?Ken
I am coming from a vocal coach angle and would say the following about a breathy voice. Just as Dr Jahn says, singing with a breathy voice is not an optimal way of vocalising. In my opinion it should be used by choice and design but not by necessity. Singing with lots of breath passing through your vocal folds is a bit like sitting under them with a hair dryer. It is not healthy, dries them out, means they cannot adduct or meet properly, and will be difficult to sustain over several shows a week. Dr Jahn has listed possible causes of a breathy voice. Potentially a breathy voice is also a sign of poor technique and lack of support as well as poor breathing. Ideally a singer allows their lower abdominal muscles to release as they inhale, allowing the lungs to expand downwards and sideways. This means there is less air pressure sitting directly under the vocal folds. The air is more evenly spread in the lungs, there is less sub-glottic pressure, air can be released slowly and steadily. Some singers have such bad technique that they develop a ‘chink’. This is a small opening at the back of the vocal folds. Rather than the whole of the edges meeting, only the front of the folds meet. The voice sounds permanently breathy. This can produce quite a sultry effect. Unfortunately, as sexy as it sounds, it is not a healthy way to use ones voice and needs to be corrected. Another way to achieve a breathy effect is to sing in ones falsetto. I do not mean the male falsetto range, I mean singing with a lot of air passing through the folds as many choristers or young children do. The vocal folds are stiff, the sound cannot be increased, and although it is very useful as an effect, especially in pop and amplified music, it should not be used as ones permanent sound. Untrained female voices often slip into falsetto around the upper passagio-the point at which the thyroid cartilage has to tilt in order to thin out the folds. Untrained boys tend either to flip into a breathy falsetto around their passagio or to sing high notes in their ‘belt’ (the way you can tell this is if a man can only sing high notes very loudly. As a singing teacher it is very important to train such singers to tilt and sing with a well connected, clear, free headvoice. Bear in mind that an unhealthy voice can sound great and very individual. It just doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If a singer wants a long career, it is important to have a balance between knowing how to create an interesting effect that can be switched on and off, and using ones voice in a healthy and sustainable way.