It’s the second-largest muscle in the body and often underused. But what is the diaphragm and why is it so important for singers?
Learn how to sing from your diaphragm in 4 easy steps and you’ll be able to vocalise faster, higher, louder, longer and better. You’ll also help your body to function more efficiently, clear toxins more effectively, reduce stress and protect your vocal health.
Read on to find out how a few simple changes to your technique and the odd core workout could work wonders on your performances.
How to sing from your diaphragm in 4 easy steps
You can’t see it or even feel it, but it’s an important part of singing. The diaphragm is a thin muscle that sits at the bottom of your chest, separating it from the abdomen. While you can’t control it in the way you can a limb or an eyebrow, and you can’t stop it moving when you breathe, you can make it work a little bit harder. This may be a thin muscle, but it’s the second largest in the body, making it a potential powerhouse if it’s used to its full potential. It is this muscle that resists the release of the breath, creating a controlled environment for your singing.
Learning how to sing from your diaphragm works alongside other techniques such as clear diction and good posture – and it can be achieved in just 4 easy steps.
What does it mean to sing from the diaphragm?
This refers to the place from which the breath is coming. You may hear about breathing from the chest or breathing from the diaphragm. In reality, when you breathe, both of these get involved. However, if you engage the former more than the latter, the result will be a shallow, short breath that struggles to sustain a long, strong or high note.
Try blowing up a balloon to its full size. Now let a little bit of air gradually and notice the sound it makes. Now blow up the balloon halfway and let the air out fast. The sound is less controlled and haphazard. This is much like your diaphragm and lungs. The diaphragm holds the air in your lungs and if your lungs are not properly ‘inflated’ and you let the air out too fast, the note will not sound as good and you won’t have control of it.
Singing from diaphragm myth
While we call it ‘singing from the diaphragm’, you’re actually using your diaphragm as you sing rather than singing from it. The diaphragm itself has no responsibility for producing sound or even breath. This is why the phrase is often dispelled as a myth in the vocal coaching community. There are a number of muscles involved in creating a tuneful sound, and in many ways, your whole body has to get involved. But it is the diaphragm that powers the breath. And this is what powers the voice.
We’ll also be talking about the ‘core’. This is found close to the diaphragm but encompasses the muscles right around your midsection too – front, back and sides. It is the core that stabilises the whole body, protecting the back in particular and providing good posture. A weak core will over time, result in problems like herniated spinal discs. As we live such sedentary lives compared to our ancestors, the core and diaphragm are often neglected. Building a strong core will help engage the diaphragm and encourage better breathing.
How do I know if I’m singing from my diaphragm?
Place one hand on your chest and one very low down on your abdomen toward your pubic bone. Take a big deep breath. Which moves more, your chest or your lower stomach? Are your shoulders rising too? If your chest and/or shoulders rise it means your breath is too high and you’re not singing ‘from your diaphragm’. This brings us onto our first step toward correct placement of the breath.
Step 1: Inhale and exhale from the lower abdomen
Place your hand on your lower abdomen again. Take a deep breath, but this time, allow your stomach to expand out, pushing against your hand and waistband area. This expansion might not seem like the most attractive look, but it’s the key to diaphragmatic breathing. Now release the breath so that your stomach flattens again. Practice this until it feels second nature to breathe in this way. Perhaps you already do breathe like this. Either way, we’ll be moving onto the next step toward singing from your diaphragm.
How does the diaphragm work when singing?
The diaphragm is relevant for the breathing aspect of singing – arguably the foundation of your technique. It contracts and flattens when you breathe in. This creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. Then when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of lungs. This was what was happening when you followed step 1. Untrained singers who haven’t learned to properly engage the diaphragm often suffer from nodules and recurring vocal issues. Which brings us unto…
Why is singing from the diaphragm important?
Try breathing for a few minutes, just focussing on bringing air into your chest and upper lung area. You’ll find you get tired quickly and need to take quick breaths. Breathe low and you’ll find you have more energy and feel calmer. Many people don’t use nearly enough of their lung capacity because they take shallow breaths. This prevents the effective removal of the carbon dioxide that we take in when we inhale. And this is what makes us fatigued. Slow, deep breathing promotes better physical and mental health, as well as improving your singing by supporting the notes.
How to sing from diaphragm exercises
You’ve already nailed breathing from the diaphragm on a basic level – it was as easy as that! Now it’s time to not only breathe from the right place but to do so in a controlled way. If you practice yoga, pilates or Tai Chi this will be familiar to you already.
Step 2: Sustain and control the inhale and exhale.
Lie down on a firm or hard surface. Breathe down low again. This time as well as feeling your stomach expand, feel your back expand against the floor – use every inch of those lungs. Breathe in for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four, then let it out for a count of four. Once this is comfortable, increase the number. See how high you can go. Work on creating a really even inhale and exhale and make sure that tummy is rising and falling along with it. The fall of your stomach should be as gradual and sustained as the breath.
This is a great exercise to do every day. And as well as helping your singing voice, it strengthens your core. Having a strong core will not only protect the muscles involved in singing, but it also helps support your back, preventing the kinds of back injuries that are common in mid-life. This might not seem a big deal if you’re in your teens or twenties, however, developing a strong posture at a young age will mean you’ll be less likely to miss performances due to back strains in a decade.
Step 3: Quick inhale, elongated exhale
Now you’re breathing deeply, from the right place and controlling it too. This will serve you well for ballads and slower numbers. But what happens if you sing up-tempo, fast-paced pop songs, hip-hop or are a rapper?
You’ll still need these foundational steps to recognise and develop the control, but you’ll really benefit from this next exercise. And for those who sing ballads, this will help get your diaphragm moving even more.
Step 4: Sing staccato.
Staccato is a term used in music to describe short bursts of song. This technique is very useful for developing diaphragmatic singing. Try saying ‘ha ha ha’ loudly as if you’re laughing. Which bits of your body are moving? Is it your shoulders and chest, or your lower abdomen and stomach? It should be the latter. If not, try it again and see if you can aim it down there. Once you’ve got that down, move the ‘ha ha ha’ onto a note and sing it. But use the same emphasis, making it short sharp and packed with energy, as per your laugh.
Then change up the vowel to a ‘he he he’, followed by a ‘hi hi hi’ and Santa’s favourite – ‘ho ho ho’. Make sure you’re still taking plenty of breath in, albeit snatched and sustaining the notes. Just because its fast doesn’t mean you can collapse your core and let the breath coming whizzing out all in one go. And your abdomen should be fully involved, pulsing in with each sound.
How to sing high notes
These four steps will enable you to sing from your diaphragm, but there’s plenty more you can do to work on this skill. Here are some more exercises you can try to strengthen your core and fire up the diaphragm. Varying your exercise also helps prevent boredom from setting in when training your voice. So do mix it up.
It’s particularly important to engage the diaphragm when going to the top of your register. You’ll need plenty of oomph to power those notes and ensure you don’t damage your vocal cords as you reach for them. Here are some tips when singing high notes:
- Be extra careful not to push from your throat.
- Keep everything relaxed, especially your throat. Don’t tense up as you go higher.
- Open your mouth to let the sound out.
- And of course, breathe low and long.
How to use your diaphragm to yell
If you’re a punk, metal or rock singer you may incorporate a kind of yell or shout into your numbers. And those who use belt technique (pop ballads singers like Adele and music theatre performers) will have a yell quality to their sound. The diaphragm is an integral part of this technique and helps protect the voice. If you’d like to bring this technique into your performances and recording, watch this tutorial to learn how to do it safely and effectively.
There are some genres of music that place less reliance on support and diaphragm. Gentle, soft vocalists like Billie Eilish have less requirement for deep breaths than others. But once you bring in some speed or volume, you need to turn up that diaphragmatic support. This would apply to a rapper spitting out lyrics fast and loudly, as much as for Sam Smith belting out a heartfelt big ballad. Whatever kind of music you plan to sing, learning to breathe in this way is an excellent foundation. And some core work (swimming, pilates, weight training) is always worthwhile for general health, as well as for improving your vocal prowess.
- Is it bad to sing from your throat?
Yes. Your throat might seem like the most important part of your body for singing, but in fact, it wasn’t designed for this purpose. The sound purely passes through your throat and it should be relaxed at all times. The only exception is when constricting it to achieve the whistle register.
- Can you control your diaphragm voluntarily?
Yes and no. It’s actually your abdominal muscles that are under your control. But you can control this and this impacts your diaphragm. Your diaphragm also moves with or without you consciously doing anything, so you can’t stop it moving or contracting.
- Do breathing exercises strengthen your diaphragm?
Only if you’re doing them right. Follow our guide on how to sing from your diaphragm ahead of any other breathing exercises and you’ll strengthen the whole area. Once you’re breathing from the right place without having to think about it, you can launch straight into your breathing exercises.
How do you sing from your diaphragm? Have you encountered vocal damaged as a result of incorrect technique? Let us know in the comments below.