Breathing Muscles and Singing – How do they work?
As mentioned in my previous blog post, breathing is the foundation for good singing. Breathing, which is usually an involuntary bodily process, can be studied and adjusted to create better habits for singing. However, it is very important that singers first understand the individual breathing muscles and how they work. Then, they can go about relating the breathing muscles and singing.
We often hear the term “diaphragm” used in relation to breathing, or breathing and singing. But what responsibility does the diaphragm have exactly? The diaphragm is actually an involuntary muscle that is shaped like an upside-down bowl. It attaches to the bottom of your ribcage, and is the main muscle responsible for inhalation. When you take a breath in, the diaphragm descends, creating a vacuum that sucks the air into your lungs.
While the diaphragm is the most important muscle for inhalation, the abdominals are the primary muscles used for exhalation. When you exhale, the abdominals contract to bring the ribcage back inwards. This process also pulls the diaphragm back up, expelling the air outwards.
The diaphragm and the abdominals form what is known as an antagonistic pair of muscles. This means that they work in opposition to produce two actions. You can compare this pair to one such as the biceps/triceps.
Intercostal muscles (Internal and External)
Both the diaphragm and abdominals are assisted in their processes by the movement of the intercostal muscles, which are located between your ribs. As air fills the lungs, the ribcage must naturally expand outward. This is only achieved through the expansion of the external intercostals. When you exhale, your ribcage returns inward, helped along by the internal intercostals.
Perhaps the most important “breathing muscle” for singing is the epigastrium. While the epigastrium is not a muscle in itself, it is the point where the abdominal muscles and diaphragm meet. Located in the upper abdomen (right under your ribcage), the epigastrium forms what is known as “breath support.” By engaging this area (engaging the abdominals and diaphragm at the same time), a consistent, supported flow of air is able to be expelled from the lungs. To feel this muscle working, try taking a deep breath in and hissing out on a “ts” sound. The epigastrium will tighten, allowing you to hiss out your air.
How do these breathing muscles and singing relate?
When you sing, the goal is to produce a sound that is supported by a consistent flow of air. This result can only be attained by becoming aware of the breathing process in your body, and using that process in the most efficient way possible.
When you breathe in, you must allow the diaphragm to fully descend, therefore bringing in the largest quantity of air. Then, when you begin to sing, you must engage the epigastrium to create a supported air flow for the sound. Many people mistakenly believe that the diaphragm is responsible for breath support, but that is incorrect. When the diaphragm relaxes and begins to move upward during exhalation, it does help to regulate the flow of air, but it does not create the supported sound. The epigastrium is really the key player in the breath support game. I imagine that when I sing, I am pushing outward from the epigastrium to create this support. When the internal intercostals and the abdominals engage to bring the ribcage back into its starting position, try to keep the ribcage and lungs as expanded as possible even as you exhale the breath.
All of these muscles working together can create an efficient, consistent stream of air that will help a singer create a strong and beautiful voice. And, most importantly, by placing the work of breath support on the proper breathing muscles, we are avoiding adding stress and tension to the throat, and all the small muscles contained in your vocal mechanism (such as vocal folds, larynx, etc).