(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.