Recently, someone asked me a great question on Quora about how loudly you should sing. He had been told that you can’t sing freely when singing softly but that singing too loudly can damage your vocal health. In short, the answer is that there is no “too soft” or “too loud” for vocal health–it’s all in how you produce the sound.
Here’s the longer answer:
When it comes to singing “freely” or even healthfully, it isn’t really about singing loudly or softly—more about the way you’re producing that loud or soft sound. I understand why people would say that you want to be loud in order to sing freely…sometimes singing softly actually takes more effort in certain ways than singing loudly, and as a result, it can produce a lot of constriction.
Let’s first define what we mean by “freely,” because the term is used a lot by voice teachers and singers. I don’t love the term, because while you should be free in certain areas when you sing (i.e. you usually don’t wantconstriction, or a lot of root tongue tension, and typically you don’t want a tense jaw) you’ll use a lot of effort in other areas (often soft palate lift, intercostals, and many others).
Because singing quietly while staying on key can be very challenging, sometimes doing so makes you more prone to instinctively tensing up the root of your tongue and clenching your jaw. If that’s happening when you’re singing softly, you’ll want to put more effort into releasing the areas that are getting unnecessarily tense (try chewing for jaw tension and drawing circles around your teeth with your tongue for tongue tension).
As far as what’s too loud, there’s really no “too loud” as long as it’s produced in a healthy way. If you’re pushing all your air out by exhaling really hard against closed vocal folds (in other words, if you’re blowing all your air out and feel like you’re shouting rather than whispering), that can be tough on your voice. If you’re getting a lot of volume while holding back air and avoiding constriction (watch out for a scratch, tickle, or cough) you’re fine.
Ideally, you’ll eventually get to a point where you can sing really softly and really loudly without much unwanted tension.
Molly is the founder of Molly’s Music. She is a dedicated singer and pianist whose musical journey spans 2.5 decades, with stops along the way to sing for the pope, pass Certificate of Merit at the highest level, study with Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen, and record an original album.