The Emotion of Breathing, and Its Role in Music and Sound Design

Embracing that most human of expressions

If you haven't listened to Taylor Swift's devastating country ballad "Soon You'll Get Better" yet, please stop reading for three minutes and do it. 

The song is a heart-wrenching letter to her mother, who is suffering from cancer. It features some of Swift's most intimate lyrics, especially in the bridge where she wrestles with her own guilt. The composition is a résumé of her entire songwriting career. The production is stripped down. The breathiness of her vocal performance proves how much she's evolved as as singer over the past few years. And the harmonies by the Dixie Chicks are nothing less than angelic. 

Yet despite all this, it's only one certain second that always gives me goosebumps. It's at 2:41, right before the fiddle comes in. It's a breath.

It's Swift breathing, clearly audible. And it is special, because it hurts. You can feel a lump in your own throat when you hear it. It's an expression of the fear in a hospital room. The most powerful since Death Cab for Cutie's "What Sarah Said." And she does it in one breath. One defining moment of despair, leaving her vulnerable, isolated from the accompanying angels, alone for just a second.

It's the helplessness of a girl trying to cope with her own mother fighting for her life. But also the helplessness of a 30-year-old superstar whom the public loves to call a drama queen who makes everything about herself. A person whose life is nothing like yours and mine—and yet: human after all.

From the very beginning of my career as an adman, I loved being part of the acoustic production of an advert. When recording a speaker or singer, it's common practice to cut out or compress breaths. Most singers even turn their heads a bit when they draw their breath, so the mic doesn't catch it as much. I personally like to keep some of it. Just as producer Jack Antonoff did with Taylor Swift. It just makes the recording more genuine, more human. 

It's because a breath can express so many emotions. Think of an exhausted exhale. Or a sigh of relief. Or the sexiness of a breath. If you don't remember, rewatch Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" for John F. Kennedy. Even before she sings the first note, she only needs to take a deep breath to make the crowd go wild. There's also a breathing sound for craving. "Girl" is one of the most melancholic songs by the Beatles. As John Lennon deeply inhales during the chorus, you can sense his longing for that one dream girl who'd one day turn out to be Yoko Ono. In Paul McCartney's description: "John wanted to hear the breathing, wanted it to be very intimate, so George Martin put a special compressor on the voice."

Breathing can also express negativity—e.g., in a sigh of frustration when your partner finds out you left the cap off the toothpaste, again. On a larger scale, Darth Vader's breath is the ultimate sound logo of evil. Although it doesn't sound like much more than a scuba diver on Gili Islands, it became the rhythmic anthem of one of the most iconic villains ever. At the same time it reminds us of what's inside the seemingly soulless armor, what's behind the mask: a tragic human being—one whose identity is painfully revealed to Luke Skywalker in perhaps the greatest plot twist in cinema history.

Breaths are also an important aspect of creature vocal design. Think of Jurassic Park and Alien. A more recent example is the 2016 sci-fi heavyweight Arrival, which creates an audible contrast between aliens and humans by focusing on the latter. The whole film is a feast for sound-editing enthusiasts, but what really made an impression on me was when Amy Adams first encounters the Heptapods (the aliens) and tries to talk to them. Nervously she repeats: "Human, I am human" while breathing heavily in her helmet. It's her breath that reminds us of her mortality in the face of this intimidating unknown species.

The award-winning composer Simon Heeger recently showed me a similar effect in the gripping teaser trailer for The Revenant. And you can find it in great advertising, too. In Under Armour's "Rule Yourself" by Droga5, Michael Phelps' shiver (almost at the end) is one of the most powerful scenes in advertising history. It's a mundane moment of weakness for a godlike athlete. There's even a reaction video of Phelps himself tearing up when first shown the film.

Under Armour | Rule Yourself: Michael Phelps

It's only a breath that makes a God human. Or a devil. Take the Sufjan Stevens song "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." It's a shockingly poetic take on a serial killer who murdered about 30 people. At the very end, you can hear Stevens breathing, hesitating, holding it, breathing again. It's this what makes the song even more terrifying, because you can hear a measure of tender empathy for Gacy.

Another great composer who knows how to add a pinch of humanity via breath is Hans Zimmer. If you listen to space-movie soundtracks nowadays, the pipe organ is omnipresent. Composers think it's the ultimate space instrument since they all steal it from Zimmer's score for Interstellar. But what they don't get is that the organ doesn't only represent the idea of the infinity of the universe. I mean, surely its overwhelming vehemence adds some religiosity in the sense of that the organ represents mankind's attempt to portray what's beyond us. Just imagine—until the telephone, the organ was known to be the most complex man-made device ever invented.

But that's not it. The true purpose of the organ in Interstellar is to represent the human being. As Zimmer says: "There's something very human about it, because it can only make a sound with air and it needs to breathe. And on each note you hear the breath, you hear the exhale."

We all know Interstellar as a complex movie about a lot of scientific details. But we also know they all don't matter in comparison to the heart of the story. As Richard Roeper of Chicago Sun-Times wrote, its "overriding message [is] about the powerful forces of the one thing we all know but can't measure in scientific terms. Love." The score perfectly captures this, because at first, director Christopher Nolan didn't tell Zimmer the story or the genre. He gave him just a one-pager with some dialogue and the general idea of a father and his relationship to his child. The following night, Zimmer wrote a four-minute piece for piano and organ that asserted feelings of "what it meant to be a father,"instead of writing a sci-fi score.

The concept of air and breath resonates throughout the score: Zimmer assembled a group of woodwind players and made them play strange noises. He also asked the choir not only to sing but to breathe collectively. He wanted "to hear the exhalation of 60 people as if the wind flows through the dunes in the Sahara." In a making-of Zimmer explained: "The further we get away from Earth in the movie, the more the sound is generated by humans—but an alienation of human sounds. Like the video messages in the movie, they're a little more corroded, a little more abstract."

Nolan once said of the soundtrack: "You feel human presence in every sound. And I think that was very important to keeping the film about not just the space that we're looking at, but the people in that space."


Here's a Spotify playlist of the songs mentioned in this essay.

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Karl Wolfgang Epple
Karl Wolfgang Epple is executive creative director of thjnk in Germany.

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