Breathing in Music: Measuring and Marking Time

(This is post is derived from a poster presentation at the Making Time in Music conference, hosted by the Faculty of Music of Oxford University, Sept 14-16th, 2016)


Our breath marks time for the entirety of our lives. Whether a period of 2 seconds or 20, we know roughly how it will continue or be adjusted to new demands, and this need for fresh air imposes an inescapable rhythm just beyond what is readily heard as metrical. We use breath to communicate with speech and affective displays, but we also monitor each others’ breathing and use this information to coordinate interactions: breathing in anti-phase when in dialogue, or together when synchronising actions. Obviously, musical activities such as singing and playing wind instruments involve exhalations and the particular physical constraints of our respiratory system. Other components of breath are used to prepare and set the timing of actions. For example, the inhalation at the beginning of a piece defines tempo and intensity for many solo performers and small ensembles, and some types of musicians are extremely practiced at picking up all that is needed to play in synch from one careful gasp. We might consider breath to be auxiliary to the actions of music making, just a means to the sound, but this biological system may be play a fundamental role in our understanding of music and musical time. There is growing evidence that listening to music can engage our respiratory system, drawing us into a specific physical division of time. This coordination is not so strict as breathing with the heard performers, but rather a subtle alignment of phase at specific moments in a particular piece. For this to occur, even intermittently, our respiratory system must be engaged in the work of understanding what we hear. Voluntarily or unconsciously, breathing informs synchrony on the scale of milliseconds, seconds, and minutes, and this phasic and adaptive system promises to be powerful in defining musical time both physically and metaphorically.

Respiratory structure: Quasi-periodic

Phases and common states:

  • inspiration, expiration, post-expiration pause
  • interruptions, still (held breath) or active (cough)

Many kinds of breathing behaviour

  • Quiet breathing:, using ~10% of lung capacity, discrete, regular, using elastic expiration, not consciously controlled or action driven, typical when attending outwardly.
  • Active breathing such as vocalising, effortful work, affective displays
    • Exhalations expel more than relaxation threshold
    • Timing and depth of breath balanced to support activity needs (sound production, core stability, etc.) and healthy CO2 concentration in blood stream.
  • Reflex – for airway integrity
  • Mixed respiratory behaviour, typical for thinking and processing.
Figure 1: Respiration sequences from one audience member during 45 seconds of silence for the baseline recording for psychophysiological measurements. Their respiratory sequence shows mixed behaviour: deep irregularly timed breaths typical during silent thinking. Compare this to the quiet breaths of Figure 2.

How and when we breathe is influenced by many systems

  • Medulla (brain stem) influences depth and rhythm for safe rate of gas exchange (reactive system)
  • Cerebellum for basic motor programs for muscles of chest
  • Motor Cortex for practiced/learned motor control
  • Peripheral nervous system, influencing rhythm in coordination with large muscle groups and reflexes

Respiration is very co-determined.

Figure 2: Respiration sequence from one audience member during the performance of a Schumann String Quartet, along with the sound wave envelop of an audio recording taken at the same time. Vertical lines mark moments when the performers of the quartet inhaled audibly. The breaths of this audience member are typical examples of Quiet Breathing: Relatively shallow inspirations, elastic expirations, with a fairly stable period length form breath to breath. Compare to the mixed breaths of Figure 1.

Breath as a Measure of Time

  • Respiration highly precise in time for some behaviours, like vocal communication, not so for others.
  • Respiration so practiced that it should be useful model to define expectations, just like limb controlling motor system seems to be relevant for perceiving and planing rhythmic behaviour.
  • Anecdotal evidence of listeners being consciously sensitive to fine details in respiratory behaviour. Ex: Anna Toivianen’s description of vocal production in the context of Empathetic Listening to Bjork’s Undo, focusing on inspiration and control of vocal folds for dramatic articulation. (2008)
  • Expectations of respiratory cycle useful for navigating dialogue (ex: Watanabe & Okubo, 1997)

However, less precise modes of respiration shown in temporal relationships to music when not part of sound source. When evoked as a marker of time, of action.

Figure 3: Respiration sequence from a participant who sang along to a recording of Endless Love (feat. Mariah Carey) by Luther Vandross. Vertical lines mark audible inhalations in the music. Notice the sharp inspirations and long linear expirations of this type of well-timed active respiratory behaviour. Compare this to the quiet breathing by the same participant in Figure 4.

Breath as a Marker of Time

Breath is also used for marking a musical moment without engaging in long term entrainment or involvement in sound production.

  • Common in Music performance for coordination of small ensembles, ex: string quartets, with preparatory inhalations
  • Also measured in pianists (King 2006):
    • Some showing reliable use of sustained states, inspiration and expiration, at phrase beginnings and ends.
    • Idiosyncratic, alignment dependent on performer and piece
  • Also noticeable during music listening:
    • inhalation onsets aligned (background figure and figure 4) with heard music during quiet breathing, for some listeners, for some music.

Timing of breaths marking musical moments are less strict than in use of breath for sound production, perhaps because of control system or conflict between systems influencing respiration rhythm.

Figure 4: Respiration sequence from a participant while listening to a recording of a Beethoven String Quartet. Vertical lines mark audible inhalations in the audio recording. Here we have breath shapes typical of quiet breathing, and their shape is compared to a model of regular quiet breathing, with expected state change times in black and red lines measuring the length of timing deviations. Compare this to the respiration sequence from the same listener singing in Figure 3.

What does this alignment mean?

When does this marking behaviours occur?

    • In music listeners, it seems to be less regular than phrases. In performers, perhaps more frequent.
    • The moments may change with performance and listening, perhaps related to attention and interpretation.

In the listening study, participants report having no awareness of breathing with the music, no conscious strategy, however this behaviour seems to be more prominent in musician subjects. Are they:

  • more practiced at using respiratory system for musical sounds, and engage the system sympathetically?
  • more practiced in repeating specific musical experiences to specific musical works?
Figure 5: Composite of respiratory sequences from 48 listenings to a French Canadian folk song, 12 each from 4 participants. Each row is a listening, yellow reporting chest expansions, i.e., inspiration, dark green marking expirations. Sections between dampening teal are intervals during which significant coordination of inspirations occur with the music. Alignment with music is not absolute, and is more common with some listeners and some music.


Respiration is a part of the musical experience, even when it is not involved in sound generation, and the particularities of the respiratory cycle give us temporal information about performers and listeners.

Empirical evidence of breath acting as a marker of time leaves us with many questions:

  • What is being marked?
  • Who does this and under what circumstances?
  • Why is the respiratory system involved at all?


King, Elaine (2006) Supporting Gestures: Breathing in Piano Performance. Music and Gesture. Ed. Anthony Gritten and Elaine King. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, UK.

Tarvainen, Anne. (2008) Empathic Listening: Towards a Bodily-Based Understanding Of A Singer’s Vocal Interpretation. Music Senses Body: Proceedings from the 9th International Congress on Musical Signification. Ed. Dario Martinelli. Umweb Publications, Rome.

Watanabe, T. & Okubo, M. (1997). Evaluation of the entrainment between a speaker’s burst-pause of speech and respiration and a listener’s respiration in face-to-face communication. In Robot and Human Communication, Proceedings., 6th IEEE International Workshop on, IEEE.

Watson, Alan H. (2009) The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance Related Injury. Scarecrow Press, USA.

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