Have you ever been curious about a great way to create tension in your songs, so that you can have a moment of liberation in full swing? Ingrid Michaelson effectively creates one of these moments in her song “Keep Breathing.” We’ll see.
You can watch the song on YouTube, if you want to follow it. The times I refer to below (for example 2:41) refer to the approximate minutes and seconds of the song.
This song begins with two short verses that end in the chorus “Keep Breathing”.
Verses 1 and 2 (minus the refrains) tell us:
Verse 1: The storm is coming but I don’t care if people die, 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 general, nonchalant language that says “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 it enters the second chorus (“All I know is that I’m breathing …”) we have exactly two minutes left in a song that is less than three and a half minutes long. “Who cares?” you may be wondering. Well, those last two minutes are almost ENTIRE the phrase “All we can do is keep breathing” repeated over and over again. There is a slight variation in the words of the phrase and after the second chorus it pauses a bit on the word “now”, but other than that all we can do is keep breathing to keep our balance. song!
Normally, so much repetition of both the lyrics and the melody means that Ambien won’t be needed tonight … but not here. Here it really works. Let’s see why …
There are two main things that happen after the opening two verses of this song that make the vocal repetition work so well. The first is that what is happening UNDER the voices is changing dramatically. And it’s not just changing, it’s creating tension.
At about 2:07, almost all the instruments have disappeared from the song when she says “All I know is that I’m breathing.” Then each time the phrase is repeated, more instruments begin to appear below the voice. It’s starting to create tension. The drum has a great influence on this. As it hits and gets louder and louder, we are building a really strong tension that begs to be released. This has to break soon, right? And it’s going to lead to something big, right?
So what happens? The tension is broken at 2:41 when the lingering beat of the drum ends and it enters a regular drum beat. At the same time, the vocal harmonies singing “ahhhh” are activated, in the background. The tension has officially eased. So let’s see what the lead vocal is doing at this point, because it MUST be doing something different now … Nope. Still breathing. “Exactly the same as before the tension was released. Yet we still feel the release due to what is happening UNDER the words.
But there is more. There is a second thing that makes the ending of this song work well, which is the way the meaning of the lyrics relates to the music. “Hey?” you ask. Well think about it … what happens when you literally keep breathing with your lungs? Well … repeat. No matter what is happening in the WORLD around you, your BREATH continues to happen. And … whatever is happening in the arrangement of this SONG below the words (drums, guitars, etc.), the LYRICS AND THE MELODY keep repeating and keep happening, over and over again. The same thing they did before in breathing.
When you stop breathing, you are dead. When this song stops repeating itself, it’s over.
So now we can see why almost two minutes of the same lyrics and melody work here. Because there is a whole world changing underneath the lead vocal. And at the same time, the repetition of the lead voice is so strongly linked to the meaning of the words.
THAT IS good writing (and arranging). It is the structure that supports the meaning, achieved in a big way. (You can’t see, but I’m standing and clapping.)
Another interesting thing to note here is that what broke this song (and essentially Ingrid’s career) was its location in the final episode of Grey’s Anatomy season 3. The song ended up fitting perfectly with the emotions of the final scene of that episode. I can’t post links here, but you can do a YouTube search for “Grey’s Anatomy Keep Breathing” to see the scene. It’s the (almost) wedding scene.
Well … it was almost a perfect fit. As Robin Frederick points out in his book, Shortcuts to songwriting for film and television, the song was expanded to fit the scene. As anyone who watches television knows, that’s pretty weird. Songs are usually shortened to fit a scene. Not to mention that what was being expanded here was something that was already much more repetitive than normal, as we learned in the previous paragraphs. But still, the rerun of “All We Can Do Is Keep Breathing” just wasn’t enough for Grey’s Anatomy’s musical supervisors. They expanded it even more! That just goes to show how well it worked. It shows you how well it fits in with the emotion of the scene, which is the main reason a song will be placed on television in the first place. Because actually, a song is put on TV to TELL US what emotions we should be feeling at that moment. And clearly this song nailed it for that final scene.
Oh, and see how they aligned the break in tension in Ingrid’s song that I mentioned earlier, with the actress’s line: “I’m free … damn it” (at 2:34 in the Grey’s Anatomy clip). .. Just before she freaks out and takes off her wedding dress. Yes, that is not a coincidence.
Great song and great TV location. See if you can incorporate this kind of moment into your own music. Done right, it could be a great experience for your listeners.