In this section, let me go over some basic anatomy and physiology of breathing for singers.
No, don’t click away!
Keep reading and I promise I will make this as easy as possible.
The word “anatomy” scares many people, including singers.
I hear your objections: “Why do I need to know what muscles I use for inhalation? And why is it important to know how I exhale?”
And this is my answer:
“You don’t need to know all the anatomical details but you should know enough about your body, your musical instrument, so that you can understand when someone tells you to ‘breathe from your diaphragm’ or ‘use more support’”. (More on that topic in this blog post.)
Don’t worry. I am not going to bore you with too many facts about breathing (although I really like anatomy and physiology).
I promise I’ll behave.
My goal is to give you enough details for you to understand what is happening in the body while you are singing. This knowledge will help you develop good breathing technique.
Anatomy of Breathing: Lungs and the Ribcage
When learning about breathing, we need to spend some time talking about lungs.
You probably already know a lot about lungs. So let’s cut it to the bone (no pun intended).
The lungs lie inside the chest cavity and are attached to the ribs.
This connection is important because when the ribcage changes its volume, the lung volume changes too.
As the ribcage expands during inhalation, the lungs enlarge too, which causes the air to enter the lungs.
The opposite process happens during exhalation: the ribcage compresses and the air is pushed out from the lungs.
It is important to realize that lungs are spongy and elastic, which is an important fact for exhalation.
The lungs are contained in the ribcage.
There are 12 pairs of ribs:
- The first 7 pairs of ribs are attached to the spine at the back and to the sternum (also called the breastbone) at the front. They form a “cage” that protects the lungs and the heart. These 7 ribs are not very flexible and move very little during breathing.
- The next 3 pairs of ribs (8th, 9th and 10th pairs) are also attached to the breastbone but in a different way, which allows them to be more flexible.
- Finally, the last two pairs of ribs are not connected to the breastbone – they “float” and therefore are very flexible.
During breathing and singing exercises, focus on the lower part of your ribcage. This is where you will observe the most movement (because the lower ribs are the most flexible).
Exercise #1: Get to know your ribcage.
Find your breastbone and your 10th pair of ribs.
Stand up straight and with your hand find a flat bone in the middle of your chest. This is the sternum, your breastbone. With your fingers, find the lowest edge of the breastbone, then follow the edge of the last rib attached to the breastbone down and sideways. You just discovered the bottom borders of your ribcage.
This is important because you will notice the most movement during breathing in this area between the lower edge of the breastbone and your belly button. Also you can observe and feel the most sideway motion during breathing right around the bottom edge of your ribcage (the 10th pair of ribs).
Anatomy of Breathing Muscles
There are two groups of muscles that participate in breathing.
One group of muscles is responsible for breathing in (inhalation) and the other group is responsible for breathing out (exhalation).
Muscles of Inhalation:
- External intercostal muscles
- Accessory muscles (sternocleidomastoid, scalenes muscles)
Note: The accessory muscles are small muscles that participate in inhalation but are not considered important for singers.
Muscles of Exhalation:
- Internal intercostal muscles
- Abdominal muscles
Note: Did you notice that the diaphragm is not a muscle of exhalation? The diaphragm is a muscle that is NOT active during exhalation and singing!
The Dome-Shaped Muscle
The diaphragm is “the big word” among singers. But maybe a little bit overrated in my opinion.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that spans across the bottom of the ribcage. It is attached to the spine at the back, to the bottom edge of the ribcage on the sides and to the sternum (breast bone) on the front.
(If you did the exercise #1 above, you know where all these structures are and therefore, you know where to find your diaphragm. But don’t be fooled – you cannot really touch or feel your diaphragm.)
The diaphragm separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity.
The diaphragm is the major muscle of inhalation because it is responsible for about 70% of inhaled air.
During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts, flattens and moves downward. This downward movement pushes on the inner organs in our abdomen or belly. You can observe this as your belly gets pushed out during inhalation.
(It is not the diaphragm you see and feel moving in and out. Also, it is not the lungs filling up with air that make your belly bigger. It is the inner organs getting pushed out due to the descending diaphragm.)
As the diaphragm moves down, it pulls the lungs downward. The air pressure in the lungs decreases, which sucks the air into the lungs to equalize the air pressures inside and outside the lungs.
During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and returns up to its dome-shaped relaxed position.
The inner abdominal organs also return to their “normal” position and you can observe this as your belly moves in. The lungs decrease in volume, which increases the pressure inside the lungs and the air therefore rushes out of the lungs.
Exercise #2: Discover your diaphragm
As I described above, you cannot really feel your diaphragm but this little exercise will help you discover the function of the diaphragm.
Put your hand on your upper stomach (between the bottom edge of your breastbone and your belly button) and pant.
When you pant, you can feel the upper abdomen moving in and out quickly.
This is the direct effect of the diaphragm moving up and down (don’t forget that you are not feeling the diaphragm but the inner organs and the abdominal wall which is moving in and out).
Check out my video, in which I am talking about the diaphragm and its role in singing:
Link to the video: https://youtu.be/9yqkVofkdt0
Tiny Rib Muscles
Intercostal muscles are muscles between the ribs.
They are tiny but there are a lot of them. They are attached on an angle and therefore can work hard during breathing.
They either lift the ribs up and out or bring them down and in.
New singers may initially feel some aches when using these muscles for breathing.
There are two sets of intercostal muscles:
- The external intercostal muscles are the muscles of inhalation because they pull the ribcage up and out. You can feel their action as the sideway expansion of the ribcage.
- The internal intercostal muscles are the muscles of exhalation. They pull the ribcage down and in during exhalation. If you let these muscles take over, you may lose air during singing or send too much air through the vocal cords, which may cause strain.
Muscles of the Abdominal Wall
Abdominal muscles (more specifically transversus abdominis, internal and external oblique muscles) play a very important role in breathing for singing.
The deepest muscle is the transversus abdominis muscle going horizontally around from the front to the back. The next layer is represented by internal oblique muscles and finally on the surface there are external oblique muscles.
All these abdominal muscles provide support for sound production and are crucial for proper breathing for singing.
The Bikini Muscle
The transversus abdominis muscle wraps around your lower torso (like a girdle) and it stabilizes the ribcage and the pelvis while lifting heavy objects.
You may know this muscle if you do fitness exercises as it is one of the most important core muscles.
This muscle (if well developed) makes you look skinny at the beach because it keeps your belly tucked in (therefore, I call it the “Bikini Muscle”).
The internal and external oblique muscles are diagonal muscles connecting the ribcage and the pelvis.
These muscles make the torso twist and bend sideways (hence the name “Twisters”). If these muscles are strong, they also support your lower back and improve your posture.
But what is important for singers to know is that the Bikini muscle and the Twisters help compress the abdominal wall – they make the belly move in.
By controlling these muscles during exhalation, you can control the airstream leaving the lungs – you can slow down the compression and therefore the airflow and control the air pressure under the vocal cords.
The Six Pack
The rectus abdominis, or better known as the “Six Pack”, runs vertically from the breast bone to the pelvic bone.
It flexes the body (like when you do crunches).
However, the Six Pack muscle is generally not active during singing.
Sit-ups will not help you improve your breathing or singing.
The abdominal muscles need to be relaxed during inhalation, thus allowing the inner abdominal organs to be displaced (pushed forward, to the sides as well as to the back).
During exhalation, the abdominal muscles provide support for controlled breath by slowly pushing the inner organs in and up, which in turn slowly pressures the diaphragm up to its relaxed position.
Anatomy of Breathing: The Pelvic Floor
Let me explain.
The Hammock Muscles
The pelvic muscles became more popular in the last few decades thanks to new exercises used in pilates or yoga.
Women with children will know more about their pelvic floors than other people as pelvic floor exercises are recommended to women before and after they give birth.
But men have pelvic floors too!
Among singers, these muscles are forgotten or not talked about. Only a handful of singers and teachers have the guts (no pun intended again!) to talk about the pelvic muscles and their role in singing.
Let’s keep it very simple.
For those, who don’t know where to find your pelvic muscles, here is a practical description: pelvic floor muscles are the muscles that you use when you need to pee. Next time you need to go, start peeing and then stop. That’s how you discover the muscles of your pelvic floor (this can be exercise #3).
These muscles hold your inner abdominal organs in place. The pelvic floor is like a hammock that holds these organs and prevents them from dropping down too far.
Why are they important for singers?
The pelvic muscles should work in coordination with the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.
Relaxing the pelvic floor and the abdominal muscles together will allow the diaphragm to contract down fully during inhalation (to flatten as much as possible – to descend maximally).
Basically, you are making more room for the inner organs by dropping (relaxing) the pelvic floor.
During exhalation, the contraction of the pelvic floor muscles helps the abdominal muscles to create pressure in the abdomen and therefore better control your exhalation.
The pelvic floor elevates and moves the inner organs upward, which helps control the amount of air passing through the vocal cords.
There you have it.
Types of Breathing
Finally, let’s talk about the types of breathing.
Clavicular breathing gets its name from the clavicles, also known as collarbones (a pair of bones right above your ribcage, close to your neck).
This type of breathing uses small accessory breathing muscles that are attached to the collarbone.
(Remember? We mentioned these accessory muscles when we talked about the muscles of inhalation.)
They lift the upper part of the ribcage and shoulders during inhalation.
During exhalation, the ribcage collapses and returns to its resting position.
This type of breathing is very shallow and fills only the upper part of the lungs with air.
It is an undesirable type of breathing for singers as it often creates tension in the neck area and thus affects sound production (either a strained or breathy voice).
Also, clavicular breathing is very exhausting.
Remember when you last ran?
After rigorous exercise (like running), you often use clavicular breathing to catch your breath: notice how you bend over and lean your hands onto your thighs to stabilize the chest and rest the shoulders.
Besides, the exhalation in clavicular breathing is so fast that you would not be able to sing anything!
In this type of breathing, the main structure that expands in all directions is the ribcage.
This can work well for singers because the chest expansion allows the diaphragm to move down.
There are two potential problems that may arise during chest breathing:
- first, if the abdominal muscles are too rigid (tightly contracted), the diaphragm may not descend;
- second, if the ribcage is overextended, it may create tension in the chest.
Rigidity and tension are not desirable during singing!
This type of breathing focuses mainly on the expansion of the abdomen.
The abdominal muscles relax during inhalation, which allows the diaphragm to move down.
This may become a problem if the abdominal movement is overemphasized and too much pressure is created in the abdomen.
Abdominal breathing does not emphasize the importance of the ribcage and its expansion in the breathing process.
When chest and abdominal breathing are coordinated, we get the most desirable type of breathing for singers.
The ribcage extends in all directions and the abdominal muscles are relaxed during inhalation.
This breathing type allows for a full descent of the diaphragm.
During exhalation, the abdominal muscles are gently engaged and support the diaphragm to move upward slowly while the ribcage maintains its extended position. In this way, the singer has full control over his breath.
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And check out my other blog posts about breathing for singing to further develop your understanding of this topic and skills needed to support your voice.
This is the conclusion of my anatomy lesson about breathing for singers.
Not too difficult. Right?
This is all you need to know about the anatomy of breathing for singers.