Songwriting: The effective use of tension and release in Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing”

Have you ever been curious about a great way to build tension in your songs, so you can have a moment of booming release? Ingrid Michaelson actually 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 along. 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 refrain “Keep Breathing”.

Verses 1 and 2 (minus the choruses) tell us:

Pour 1: The storm is coming but I don’t care 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 direct… It’s this nonchalant, blanket 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. By the time the second verse ends and moves on to the second chorus (“All I know is that I’m breathing…”) we have exactly two minutes left on 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 a slight variation in the words of the phrase, and after the second chorus, it lingers on the word “now” for a bit, but other than that, it’s all “All we can do is keep breathing” for balance of the song!

Normally, this repetition of both lyrics and melody means you won’t need that Ambien 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 vocals is changing drastically. And not only is it changing, but it is generating tension.

At about 2:07, almost all the instruments have disappeared from the song by the time he says “All I know is I’m breathing.” Then, each time the phrase is repeated, more instruments begin to appear below the voice. It’s starting to create a tension. The snare drum has a big influence on this. As it recedes and becomes stronger and stronger, we are building up a very strong tension that calls out to be released. This has to break soon, right? And it’s going to lead to something big, right?

So what happens? The tension breaks at 2:41 when the persistent snare beat ends and transitions to a regular drum beat. At the same time, vocal harmonies singing “ahhhh” kick in in the background. The tension has officially eased. So, let’s see what the lead vocal is doing at this point, because it SHOULD be doing something different now… Nope. Still breathing.” Exactly the same as before the tension was released. However, we still feel the release because of what is happening UNDER the words.

But there’s more. There’s 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? Correct… repeat. No matter what is happening in the WORLD around you, your BREATH keeps happening. And… whatever happens in the arrangement of this SONG below the words (drums, guitars, etc.), the LYRICS AND MELODY keep repetitive and keep happening, over and over again. The same thing they did on the breath before.

When you stop breathing, you are dead. When this song stops repeating, it’s over.

So now we can see why nearly two minutes of the same lyrics and melody work here. Because there’s a whole world changing under the lead vocal. And at the same time, the repetition of the main voice is strongly linked to the meaning of the words.

Now THAT’s good writing (and arranging). It’s a structure that supports meaning, accomplished in a big way. (You can’t see it, 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 placement 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 is 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 TV knows, that’s pretty rare. Songs are usually shortened to fit a scene. Not to mention, what was spreading here was something that was already much more repetitive than normal, as we learned in the previous paragraphs. But still, repeating “All We Can Do Is Keep Breathing” just wasn’t enough for Grey’s Anatomy’s music supervisors. They extended it further! That just goes to show how well it worked. It shows you how well it fits with the emotion of the scene, which is the main reason a song will be placed on TV in the first place. Because, actually, a song is staged on TV to TELL us what emotions we should be feeling at that moment. And clearly this song hit the nail on the head for that final scene.

Oh, and look at how they lined up the break in the tension of Ingrid’s song that I mentioned above, with the actress’s phrase: “I’m free… damn it” (at 2:34 of the Grey’s Anatomy clip). ..right before she freaks out and takes off her wedding dress. Yeah, that’s no coincidence.

Great song AND great placement on TV. See if you could incorporate this kind of moment into your own music. If done right, it could be a great experience for your listeners.

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