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© Nasir Hamid

Soundscape: First and Last Breath

Listen to 'First and Last Breath' by Kate Binnie

Breathing is something we do all the time unconsciously until it fails us or we learn to tune into and harness it. It is an intimate and revealing barometer of our state of mind and physical health. Voiced breath becomes speech, song, laughter and is a vital part of interpersonal connection.

The idea for the soundscape developed from a blogpost I wrote for the Life of Breath project a year ago: First and last breaths – reflections from neonatal and palliative care.

Working as a therapist with people towards the end of their lives, and with a particular interest in the power of breath regulation as a tool for emotion regulation and symptom control, I started making this 'breath-voice collage' by recording an 'anchor' breath, which would act as a metronome throughout the piece. This was the sound of a heartbeat timed to a 'coherent' breath. This breath, commonly used by meditators and yoga practitioners, is timed at five breaths per minute, and has been shown to help people recover from trauma and anxiety disorders, and to relieve physical and psychological pain (see Brown & Gerberg 2012) and I often use this in therapy.  

I then interwove recordings I had saved on my iphone over the years…. my children as babies, their sleeping breaths, an old recording of my partner and I singing our child to sleep. I also recorded the breathing of a patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and his words, describing how he felt about his loss of breath. Lastly, I used a recording of my father’s breathing during his last days in the hospice. During that time, the sound of his breath was extremely important, precious and fragile because we knew it would end. In the liminal phase between life and death I sang to him the songs he loved. The Skye Boat Song was one of his favourites….

Kate Binnie is a music therapist, yoga and mindfulness teacher with an Msc in Palliative Care and a special interest in the relationship between breath and emotion regulation, and how this can be used clinically in the management of refractory breathlessness across advanced disease.