The Breathy Voice: Who, What, When, Where …. & Why Not?

cold breath
Leading vocal coach, Jaime Babbitt, takes on the phenomenon of 'whisper pop', the breathy quality that even bombastic belters sometimes use.

Ah, let us take a few moments to reflect on that that breathy, airy, ethereal quality found in many of today’s singers’ voices. It’s been around for a while but there’s even a term for it now: whisperpop.

And it’s definitely occupying the spotlight previously filled by bombastic belters like Sia, Mariah Carey and Axl Rose. It seems as though artists who previously rocked out are going for that kinder, gentler sound.

So…what’s not to like about it? Umm…well….

Now before you call me an old lady (and I did record to DAT tapes, so nyah, nyah, I beat you to it), hear me out.

Knowing how to sing with an airy sound safely is a great tool to have for color and pizazz, but sorry, my esteemed readers, I don’t think it’s a good way to sing all the time so do proceed with caution.

Pop Icons & The Breathy Sound

I know lots of singers who’ve used the breathy sound for a while now, male and female. These two icons come to mind, both John Mayer:

and Norah Jones:

Many singers today also strive for that airy quality. Selena Gomez is one songbird that uses her air wisely. She bases her sound on her clean voice and disperses the air as wanted/needed. Here she is:

Julia Michaels does it too, but her delivery has a very interesting component in that she uses her breath as a type of percussion. Time will tell how healthy her vocal stylings are for her, but she certainly seems to be singing mindfully…and packs quite the emotional punch in this live performance:

The Breathy Voice: How to Take Care

Unfortunately, when we add air to our singing – and speaking – voices, it’s really easy to run out of air quickly…and run into vocal problems quickly, too.

If we’re not savvy and careful about how to parcel out our air, use wicked proper support and add enough clean voice so that we’ll be able to hold notes, we won’t last long, both note-wise and health-wise.

Think of blowing up a balloon and just letting go of the ‘neck’ part and seeing all the air rush out in a whoosh.

Then, blow it back up and check out what happens when you hold the neck of the balloon and only let out a little air at a time. Lasts longer, right? With that in mind:

• Practice inhaling and whooshing out the air. Buh-bye, air.
• Then, inhale and hold that breath for 10 counts. Exhale, rinse, repeat. After we do that a few times…
• Practice inhaling, holding that breath and then letting out a ssssssss for as long as you can. Don’t let all the air whoosh out. Use support and control; you may be surprised at how long your hisssss can last. Rinse, repeat…
• Then inhale, maintain proper support and let out a clean sung note – don’t let any air leak out…yet.
• Then, once you get that concept, the next step is to add more or less ‘air’ to your regular, clean sound to create a comfy balance, which will help you hold notes for much longer.
• Remember to sing at a medium volume (no screaming, though; air and screaming don’t mix). Crucial info: soft does not mean airy; you can sing softly in a clean voice, y’know. Just be aware that you do need to have enough clean voice in your airy sound to be able to create a singing style that will sustain, literally and figuratively.

If you find yourself singing or speaking with lots of air, it’s a good idea to check yourself before your wreck yourself.

It’s not healthy for your vocal cords; all that air whooshing around in there dries them out terribly.

Also, I’ll reiterate: do not sing loudly with an airy voice; you’re asking for trouble whether in chest, mix or head voice/falsetto.

Breathy Warnings

Finally: breathy singing will definitely make it a lot harder to stay in pitch and hold longer notes.

Sidebar: And please, if you’re a girl or woman adopting an overly breathy singing or speaking voice, know that you run the risk of having the dreaded Sexy Baby voice.

Unless your natural speaking voice falls there, please, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t do it. Call someone if you must.

Friends don’t let friends use the Sexy Baby voice:

But, Jaime…I can’t create a breathy voice!

Fear not, intrepid hip singers. There’s a plug in made especially for you by Antares, the company that brought you Auto-Tune.

It’s called ASPIRE Evo, it costs about as much as two weeks’ worth of fancy lattes and adds breathiness to your existing vocal performance without changing anything about the pitch or rhythm:

ASPIRE EVO

In conclusion, please, if you’re going to attempt to master that breathy sound, get a vocal coach (ahem) to make sure you’re on the right track. Then you can celebrate with the one and only Chris Thile and his amazing breathy party songs:

Written By
Jaime was a Musical Director, coaching voice and performance for Disney and wrote "Working With Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer" (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she ‘jingled’ for Coke, Pillsbury, Folgers, Chevrolet, and hundreds more. She’s sung on thousands of live gigs (covers and original music) and toured for years with Leon Russell and Sam Moore. Jaime sang BGVs live and digitally with George Strait, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, Johnny Mathis, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Willie Nelson and others. She performed off-Broadway in “Search: Paul Clayton”, toured nationally with “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and presently coaches students in voice, performance, beginner guitar/piano, studio singing, songwriting and auditioning in NY, CT, LA, Nashville and virtually. For bookings: www.workingwithyourvoice.com