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???
What an interesting question! The answer is complex, and I can only give you some thoughts that may be relevant – do check out these insights from a coaching perspective by Leontine Hass.
First, your friend is a woman, and there are some definite gender differences in what women can do vocally versus men. There are basic anatomic differences in the larynx and the preferred mode of breathing, which make it easier for women to sing “intimately”.
There may also be individual differences between singers of the same gender – think of Astrud Gilberto – which allow them to produce a signature voice that is difficult to duplicate.
When you think, for example, about Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” (or her rendition of “I want to be loved by you” in the film “Some like it Hot”), there is a breathy, sultry sexiness and intimacy that would be difficult, and inappropriate, for a male singer to reproduce.
Some of this quality comes from pushing more air past the vocal folds than you might optimally for efficient singing, whether classical or musical theater.
The vocal folds are held slighty apart and of course all of this limits how loud you can sing- you are using the lungs and vocal mechanism at less than optimal efficiency in terms of clarity, projection and dynamics.
You can also change the voice by “covering”, something that men can do as well as women. This means covering the top of the pharynx, usually by keeping the base of the tongue back. The effect is an intimacy, a darkness to the voice.
This is used in opera (called “voix couvert”), usually when the singer shares an “aside” with the audience. When the singer says something, like voicing his inner thoughts, with the conventional understanding that the other singers on stage don’t hear him, this is often done with a covered voice.
Some singers always sing with this voice, either by preference to try to darken it) or because they can not lower their larynx without pushing the entire trongue-hyoid complex back also.
In musical theater, this effect is often used to convey intimacy, a sense of “I am singing only to you” – Mandy Patinkin is one performer who comes to mind.
But this effect, like most, is most convincing when used intermittently, rather than as your baseline singing voice.
Apart from the above, changing the shape of the resonators (pharynx, mouth) as well as the position and shape of the tongue, all influence your voice.
Keep in mind also that in certain genres, like jazz, blues and musical theater, it is easier to use this kind of voice.
And finally: there may be abnormalities in the larynx that can make the voice sound more diffuse, husky/sexy and project an air of intimacy.
Vocal fold nodules, chronic swelling of the vocal folds (the “cigarettes-whiskey-and-midnight voice”) post menopausal changes – all of these can make the voice breathier, lower, darker, and produce an impression of heightened intimacy, urgency, and personal communication.
Anthony F. Jahn MD