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Songwriting – The Effective Use of Tension and Release in Ingrid Michaelson’s "Keep Breathing"
Have you ever been curious about a great way to create tension in your songs, so you can have a booming moment of release? Ingrid Michaelson effectively creates one of these moments in her song, “Keep Breathing.” Let’s check it out.
You can check out the song on YouTube, if you’d like to follow along. The times I reference below (e.g., 2:41) refer to the approximate minutes and seconds in the song.
This song starts with two short verses that end on the “Keep Breathing” refrain.
Verses 1 and 2 (minus the refrains) tell us:
Verse 1: The storm is coming, but I don’t mind People are dying, I close my blinds
Verse 2: I want to change the world, instead I sleep I want to believe in more than you and me
So that’s concise and straightforward… It’s this nonchalant and general language that’s saying “I can’t do anything about it. I’m not going to do anything about it.”
But what happens next is interesting. When the second verse ends and goes into the second refrain (“All that I know is I’m breathing…”) we have exactly two minutes left in a song that’s less than three and a half minutes long. “Who cares?” you may be asking. Well, those last two minutes are almost ENTIRELY the phrase “All we can do is keep breathing” repeated over and over again. There’s some slight variation in the words of the phrase, and after the second refrain, she lingers on the word “now” for a bit, but aside from that, it’s all “All we can do is keep breathing” for the balance of the song!
Normally this much repetition of both lyrics AND melody means you won’t be needed that Ambien tonight… but not here. Here, it actually works. Let’s see why…
There are two main things going on after the initial two verses of this song that make the vocal repetition work so well. The first is that what’s happening BENEATH the vocals is changing so drastically. And not only is it changing, but it’s building tension.
At about 2:07, almost all the instruments have dropped out of the song as she says “All that I know is I’m breathing.” Then each time the phrase gets repeated, more instruments start coming in underneath the vocal. It’s starting to create a tension. The snare drum has a huge hand in this. As it’s pounding away and getting louder and louder, we’re building up a really strong tension that’s begging to be released. This has got to break soon, right? And it’s going to be leading to something big, right?
So what happens? The tension breaks at 2:41 as the persistent beating of the snare drum ends and goes into a regular drum beat. At the same time, the vocal harmonies chanting “ahhhh” kick in, in the background. The tension has officially been relieved. So let’s see what the lead vocal’s up to at this point, because it MUST be doing something different now… Nope. Still “breathing.” Exactly the same as it was before the tension was released. Yet we still feel the release because of what’s going on BENEATH the words.
But there’s more. There’s a second thing that’s making the end of this song work well, which is the way the meaning of the lyrics tie into the music. “Huh?” you ask. Well, think about it… what happens when you literally keep breathing with your lungs? Right… repetition. No matter what’s happening in the WORLD around you, your BREATHS keeps happening. And… whatever’s happening in the arrangement of this SONG below the words (drums, guitars, etc), the LYRICS AND MELODY stay repetitive and keep happening, over and over. The same as they did in the breath before.
When you stop breathing, you’re dead. When this song stops repeating, it’s over.
So now we can see why almost two minutes of the same lyrics and melody work here. Because there’s a whole world changing beneath the lead vocal. And at the same time the repetition of the lead vocal ties in so strongly to the meaning of the words.
Now THAT’S good writing (and arranging). It’s structure supporting meaning, pulled off big time. (You can’t see, but I’m standing and applauding).
Another cool thing to note here is that what broke this song (and essentially Ingrid’s career) was it’s placement in the final episode of Season 3 of Grey’s Anatomy. The song ended up being a perfect fit for the emotions of the final scene in that episode. I can’t post links here, but you can do a YouTube search for “Grey’s Anatomy Keep Breathing” to watch the scene. It’s the (almost) wedding scene.
Well… it was almost a perfect fit. As Robin Frederick points out in her book, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, the song was actually e x t e n d e d to fit the scene. As anyone who watches television knows, that’s pretty rare. Usually songs are shortened to fit a scene. Not to mention that what was being extended here was something that was already waaaay more repetitious than normal, as we learned in the paragraphs above. But still, the repetition of “All we can do is keep breathing” as-is just wasn’t enough for the music supervisors of Grey’s Anatomy. They extended it even more! That just goes to show you how well it worked. It shows you how well it fit the emotion of the scene, which is the main reason a song will get placed on TV in the first place. Because, really a song is put into a scene on television to TELL us what emotions we should be feeling in that moment. And clearly this song nailed it for that final scene.
Oh, and take note how they aligned the break in the tension of Ingrid’s song that I discussed above, with the actress’ phrase: “I’m free… damn it” (at 2:34 in the Grey’s Anatomy clip)… right before she freaks out and takes the wedding dress off. Yeah, that’s no coincidence.
Great song AND great placement on TV. See if you could incorporate this type of moment in your own music. If done well it could be a great experience for your listeners.
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