The Diaphragm’s Role in Singing


I recently got a comment on my article, The Truth About Diaphragmatic Breathing,  which disputed my assertion that the diaphragm does not work during exhalation.  Given that the comments I normally receive are extremely complimentary and appreciative, I was surprised.  This commenter stated that the diaphragm does indeed work in conjunction with the abdominal wall to control the outflow of air and that I had neglected an important aspect of breathing by not discussing it.  Unfortunately, this commenter does not have all of the necessary information regarding the real functioning of the diaphragm.  Below I will explain that the idea I purported of the diaphragm not working when we sing (while exhaling) is actually a physiological fact, beginning with my definition of “working”.

A muscle is “working” when it is contracting.  Muscles, despite our misconceptions about them, are not contracting and therefore working all of the time.  A number of muscles are designed to function in twos called muscle pairs.  The easiest illustration of this is the function of flexing the arm using the biceps and triceps.  If your arm is out straight and you bend your elbow to a 90 degree angle, you have just contracted and shortened your bicep in order to create that movement.  However, the bicep (on the top of your arm) works in conjunction with tricep (on the back of your arm) and for the bicep to contract, shorten and create movement, the tricep has to relax, release and lengthen.  If the tricep does not relax, there is no movement.  Correspondingly, for your arm to move back from a 90 degree angle to straight again, the tricep has to contract, shorten its lengthened state, which creates the movement back, as at the same time the bicep relaxes, releases and lengthens.  This type of muscle pair is called an antagonistic muscle pair, because the muscles are taking turns contracting and releasing.  Another way of describing this relationship is that the contracting muscle is active and the relaxing muscle is passive.

In breathing for singing, the same type of antagonistic relationship occurs in a more complex form between the diaphragm, internal and external intercostals, abdominal muscles and lower back muscles.  Certain muscles are contracting/working/shortening (active) during inhalation, as others are relaxing/releasing/lengthening (passive).  Upon exhalation, the roles reverse and those that were previously passive take their turn at being active, while those that were previously active have to become passive.  This concept of muscles working antagonistically is extremely important in understanding the physiological functioning of the body and breathing in particular for singers.

The main role of the diaphragm in our physiology is to create more space inside of the thoracic cavity, where the lungs are, by moving downward in conjunction with the up and out movement of the rib cage during inhalation.  The diaphragm and external intercostals all contract during inhalation to create that movement.  They are working by shortening.  At the same time the internal intercostals, abdominal muscles and lower back muscles have to relax, lengthen and be passive, in order to allow the diaphragm and external intercostals to move.  It is the sudden increased volume of the thoracic cavity from their movement that creates the decrease in air pressure between the air inside of the lungs and the air outside of the body, which then brings air without effort into the lungs to balance the pressure levels.

Important point – regular breathing when not singing, exercising, or exerting oneself, does not usually necessitate releasing the abdominal muscles and lower back muscles on inhalation.  The excursion of the diaphragm and minimal external intercostal activation is usually sufficient and many people survive their whole lives rarely ever fully using their lung capacity.  However, that option is not open to the more rigorous demands place upon singers.  In order to sustain longer phrases and control the outflow of air before it gets to the delicate vocal cords, the abdominal and lower back muscles play a crucial function and must be utilized for healthy, beautiful singing.

For exhalation the roles reverse completely.  The internal intercostals, abdominal muscles and lower back muscles contract and become active to control the rate of air outflow, while the diaphragm and external intercostals relax and become passive.  That’s right, the diaphragm is passive as it travels upward during exhalation/singing.  It is not “working”, even though it is moving as a part of the set of antagonistic relationship of the muscles in the breathing mechanism.  It is releasing and lengthening during exhalation.  Therefore, the diaphragm can not possibly control anything during singing.  The combination of the internal intercostals, abdominal muscles and lower back muscles control the rate of the ascent of the diaphragm, as well as the rate that the rib cage draws back down and in from its expanded state.

My commenter was suffering under an illusory belief of the diaphragm’s functioning, but if you do some research on the way in which the breathing mechanism works, it doesn’t take long to find out the erroneous nature of that belief.  Credible medical sources on websites almost universally corroborate the inherent antagonism in the coordination of muscles used for breathing and the fact that the diaphragm contracts when moving down on inhalation and releases when moving up on exhalation.  It only seems to be sources related to singing and a few other non-medical modalities that confuse the clear functioning of the mechanism.

Why do voice teachers continue to perpetuate what is clearly a myth about breathing for singing, especially when breathing is the bedrock of a wonderful, healthy technique?  The simple answer is that most voice teachers teach as they were taught.  Parents tend to be mainly the same type of parents that they themselves had, unless they were unhappy about things they experienced and make a strong, concerted effort to make appropriate changes.  It takes a significant amount of time and effort to reprogram the conditioning of years.  Voice teachers also tend to be similar to the teachers they have had and to teach the same concepts, often in the same ways.  Only if concepts clearly did not work for them technically as singers or conflicting information was given that had to be reconciled, do they make substantive changes.  There are teachers who do think creatively about vocal technique and vary their approached to teaching for different students, observing the effects carefully and drawing helpful conclusions about the amazingly complex and compelling world of vocal technique.  However, others simply teach what they know.  If the concept of diaphragmatic breathing worked for them, they continue to teach it, because it is their understanding of the breathing mechanism and can take at least some singers part of the way on their journey.

Unfortunately, simply teaching what you were taught is not good enough.  Singers sacrifice far too much to have blatantly incorrect information inflicted on them.  Voice teachers need to do their homework and give clear, truthful explanations of the breathing mechanism for singing and the role of the diaphragm to their students, along with specific exercises to isolate the activation of the muscles that actually do control exhalation.  Accurate information on the topic is of paramount importance for singers and it is the responsibility of voice teachers to provide it.  It is also the responsibility of you the singer to ask intelligent questions, do research and make sure you are getting the correct information.  Let’s stop the perpetuation of diaphragmatic myths and teach the next generations of singers the physiological truths about breathing for singing.


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