A Composer Breaks Down The Music Theory Behind The Weeknd’s “Take My Breath”
Vivek Maddala is an Emmy-winning composer and a regular participant in The Number Ones Comment Section. After reading his takes on the music theory behind several historic hits, we invited him to turn his focus on more current singles. Welcome to our new column In Theory.
Earlier this month, the Weeknd posted a teaser for the first single on his forthcoming album. The mostly instrumental track was pulsating, ominous, and unsurprisingly retro — replete with hints of Jan Hammer, and even Knight Rider. A few days later, we got to hear the full track, “Take My Breath.” It’s a dancefloor-ready banger made of equal parts darkness and euphoria — and everything about it tells me it’s guaranteed to be a massive hit.
Per usual, producer and co-songwriter Max Martin has meticulously calibrated the recording to achieve maximum impact — as though he and his collaborators conceived the product in a laboratory, manufactured it with tight tolerances, and focus-group tested it with every target demographic. The song’s ingredients are all recognizable and have been combined in just the right proportions to stimulate the brain’s pleasure sensors. There’s nothing particularly novel about each component part, and the tune doesn’t break any rules of harmonic theory or any conventions of music production. But I think “Take My Breath” works for exactly these reasons. All of the song’s hooks derive their strength from the fact that there’s something familiar about them — and they’re delivered tastefully, with measured restraint, and with extreme precision.
The Case Of The Missing 3rd
According to a 2017 study published in Musicae Scientiae, pop recordings nowadays use intros that last only five seconds on average (that is, before the vocal enters) — a trend that caters to listeners’ progressively shortening attention spans. In contrast, “Take My Breath’ has a 30-second intro, like one of the Weeknd and Martin’s previous hits, “Blinding Lights.” But why such a long intro, especially given Martin’s reputation for getting to the song’s hook quickly? In the case of “Take My Breath,” it’s because the intro also functions as a kind of hook itself, one that reels in the listener in a surprising way: It works not because of what it’s doing, but because of what it’s not doing.
In music composition, chords are often based on a root note, a “3rd” interval, a “5th,” and sometimes a “7th.” It is the 3rd and 7th of the chord that are most important, and they’re called “guide tones” because they tell you the quality of the chord — i.e., whether it’s Major, minor, dominant, whatever — which greatly affects how it makes you feel. (Other notes that might be in a chord, like the 9th, 11th, or 13th, are called “tensions” or “upper extensions,” and they’re less important, harmonically. The 5th is important only if it’s diminished or augmented — which it’s not, in this case.)
The intro to “Take My Breath” features a four-on-the-floor groove and one chord throughout. A palm-muted single-picked guitar riff plays only the root and the minor 7th of the chord. Partway into the intro, an ostinato synth riff enters playing the root, 5th, and minor 7th of that chord. What’s missing? The 3rd. That’s right: Through the entire intro, they assiduously avoid playing the most important note, making the chord quality ambiguous. See Figure 1 below.
The absence of the 3rd in the intro creates a kind of suspension because we’re unsure how to feel without that crucial harmonic ingredient. Is it Major or minor? Is it foreboding, or does it invoke eager anticipation? Is it a C7 chord (with its inherent feeling of instability and movement) or a Cmin7 chord (with its intrinsic stability, but tempered with a melancholic suggestion)? The ambiguity creates a kind of sensory incompleteness — an incompleteness that engages the imagination of the listener as compensation for what the harmonic language is leaving out. It draws in the listener to complete the chord themselves, filling in the missing 3rd based on their own expectations and biases. I believe this is why the intro lasts as long as it does: It sets the stage by enticing us to invest a part of ourselves in the song even before we hear the first note of the melody.
The tactic of leaving out the 3rd while including the 7th is an important characteristic of Thomas Newman’s film scores, known for their emotional malleability. A great example is his music for the scene “Brooks Was Here” from The Shawshank Redemption. He begins by stacking the same intervals as we hear in the intro to “Take My Breath” (albeit in a different key). We hear the notes A (root), E (5th), and G (minor 7th) creating an ambient chord imparting an elusive feeling that is neither fully anxious nor fully hopeful, but perhaps a little of both. The music is set to an introspective scene narrated by Brooks, who contemplates his ability to adapt to his new life after having just been released from prison. At 36 seconds in, we finally hear a C#, the Major 3rd interval — imparting a momentary sense of optimism — before the note shifts four seconds later to C♮, effectively confirming neither Major nor minor, but vaguely alluding to both. The music doesn’t comment directly on Brooks’ story, but its ambiguity invites the listener to care about it. The inherent uncertainty of the missing (or variable) 3rd creates the same effect in the “Take My Breath” intro. There’s some elusive magic in that harmonic ambiguity.
Another example of this concept can be found in Donna Summer’s iconic 1977 disco track “I Feel Love,” produced by Giorgio Moroder. The intro to that song lingers on the same chord as the intro to “Take My Breath” — the ambiguous C-G-Bb suspension — and it even has a similar arpeggiated synth riff to the Weeknd’s song. Moroder famously used a Moog III modular synth along with the Moog Complement B sequencer to create the arpeggios. I suspect Max Martin, et al., used a software virtual instrument to create their arpeggios — something like Arturia Modular V or Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere. (The synth chords played on the back half of the second and sixth bars of each chorus in “Take My Breath” sound an awful lot like they’re using a Roland Juno 106, specifically Bank A, Patch 68, but it’s possible that’s a virtual instrument too.)
Coming out of the intro, the first note the Weeknd sings is an E♭ (“I saw the fire in your eyes…”). See Figure 2 below.
When we hear the diatonic C-minor melody at the top of the verse, it feels oddly liberating because it releases the ambiguous tension of the intro. However, that relief is soon exchanged for exhilaration when we hear the deep-pocket groove and interlocking disco syncopations that characterize the rest of the song. The 16th-note hi-hat pattern has a smooth but expressive and dynamic feel (the kind of thing Jeff Porcaro called the “lope” in his own hi-hat playing), which results from Max Martin protégé Shellback playing live drums on the track. Undoubtedly, the drum performance was chopped, quantized, and sewn back together in order to satisfy the “on-grid” demands of modern pop music — but it still retains a live feel, even though the snare is triggering a fast-gated-reverb sample in order to thicken the texture and deliver consistency to the backbeat. This, coupled with the propulsive 16th-note rhythm guitar part (played with a dotted-8th-note delay and sweep filter), infuses a human feel juxtaposing the sequenced and programmed keyboards that fill out the highly syncopated groove.
The slinkiness in the orchestration comes from the rhythmic choices (see Figure 2 above), where the negative space (the rests) in one instrument’s part leaves room for another instrument to speak, their alternating gestures and “non-events” working together like the gears in the movement mechanism of a swiss watch. The timbral choices of the instruments also complement each other elegantly, as each instrument occupies its own sonic lane, so it still pops even while supporting other instruments. Max Martin has been known to use sidechain compression on his mixes, but I don’t really hear it in “Take My Breath” — except in the ostinato synth riff, with the first note of each four-note phrase essentially disappearing due to the “ducking” effect of the compressor, triggered off the kick (see Figure 2).
The Weeknd’s verse vocal features a call-and-response format reminiscent of peak-era Bee Gees, and his subtle melismatic delivery on the line “you’re way too young to end your life” in the second verse evokes Thriller-era Michael Jackson. It’s outstanding. The vocal phrasing, with parallel lines in each section, all diatonic in C minor, provides a kind of reliable pattern, one that doesn’t make you think too much or work too hard as a listener — so it’s tailor-made for the dancefloor. Because the only prominent instruments hitting downbeats are the kick and bass, the vocal has ample space to breathe at the top of each phrase, and the entire sonic picture retains clarity.
Circle Of Fifths Relationships
In case it’s not already obvious from Figure 2, “Take My Breath” is in C minor — which happens to share the same key signature as E♭ Major (the former being the “relative minor” of the latter). Let’s call C minor “home” because it feels like the song’s center of gravity. The pre-chorus uses a ♭VII-i-♭VII-i-♭VII-i-♭VII-V7 progression, and the chorus uses a i-♭VI-i-♭VI progression (with a passing ♭VII chord on the way to each ♭VI chord). Below, in Figure 3, is an illustration of the chords’ relationships using the Circle Of Fifths, a kind of musical “periodic table” used to reference the “elements” of Western harmony. (For more background on how this works, please see the first article in this series, on Lorde’s “Solar Power.”)
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the V chord is known as the “dominant” chord, and its principle function is to be pulled towards the tonic (I) chord, like one object being pulled to another by a magnetic field. In this case, since we’re designating the C-minor chord to be the “i” (note the lower-case Roman numeral, indicating it’s a minor tonic), the V chord is the G7 heard at the end of the pre-chorus — and it’s what we could call a “borrowed” chord from a different scale, or a “secondary” dominant. Effectively, it’s this G7 that sets up the big drop when the Weeknd sings the line “Take my breath!” going into the chorus. The V7-i chord change, coupled with how he sings the phrase a cappella (the instrumental tracks stop), gives the drop a great tension-and-release moment. At the end of the second pre-chorus, it’s even more dramatic because the Weeknd adds a flourish to the last note on the G7 chord: He sings a B♭ on top, in effect making the chord a G7#9.
This even-more-tense chord might sound familiar: It’s what Jimi Hendrix made popular when he built his song “Purple Haze” around it. (Jimi used an E7#9, the same chord just transposed down a minor 3rd.) Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker used the chord on “All The Things You Are” in 1945, and Steely Dan used it in “Kid Charlemagne” in 1976. I prefer playing it as a 7#9♭13 chord, which exhibits a slightly prettier color, albeit with a softer edge — a chord voicing I associate with Bill Evans. There are numerous other examples of music using this chord (which could just be described as an “altered dominant 7th”), but hearing the Weeknd incorporate it in this song was a delightful surprise.
You’ll notice there are really only four chords in the song, and the melody adheres strictly to the C-minor (“Aeolian”) scale, so it’s not very adventurous compositionally. I’m reminded of the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” which has only three chords but boasts a far more adventurous melody. On that song, he introduces blues tonality by bending a Major 3rd interval down to a minor 3rd in the pre-chorus, and by “flatting” the 5th in the chorus. It’s pretty rad because he does it in an unexpected way, and it’s what gives that song its distinctive musical identity. A part of me wishes the Weeknd had done some something audacious like that on “Take My Breath.” Alas, the song really does play it safe compositionally.
The song’s arrangement contains an unusual feature that injects excitement: Where we would expect a big crash on the downbeat of the chorus, they do the opposite — a quarter-note rest. The sonic vacuum created under the Weeknd’s voice makes the second quarter note in the chorus (the backbeat) hit so much harder when the “band” comes back in, and it’s a cool effect. This musical choice reminds me of the fast in-and-out crashes on backbeats (not downbeats) of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” — and it even sounds like they might be using the same cymbal, something like a 1970s-era Zildjian “A” series Fast Crash, which has that characteristic short decay and gets out of the way quickly. All of this results in a big drop on “2” that I imagine will create a sensational moment on dancefloors everywhere the record is played.
“Take My Breath” was mixed with a particular characteristic especially suitable for dance clubs: superb mono-downmix compatibility. A lot of people might be surprised to learn that most dance clubs play music in mono, not stereo. The reasons why are outside the scope of what I want to discuss here, but it has to do with phase cancellation and the fact that people dancing in clubs generally aren’t all facing the same direction (a requirement if you want two banks of speakers in a club to present stereo mixes properly, without sounding awful). So if you want your mix to work in any dance club, make sure it sounds good in mono across the recording’s entire frequency spectrum. To wit: “Take My Breath” folds down to mono flawlessly because the low- and mid-bass information (<500 Hz) is already panned hard center -- meaning the kick drum, bass line, and the low range of the guitar, Fender Rhodes, and snare are equally represented in Left and Right channels. Whether the playback system is mono or stereo, it'll sound the same. Mids and highs have varying amounts of stereo panning, with vocal doubles and harmonies panned very wide -- but all with excellent phase coherence. The track thumps and sparkles when played in stereo, but it will also slap in the club. And since vinyl records prefer monophonic bass due to the medium’s physical properties, it seems the Weeknd and Max Martin were planning ahead and assuming the record would be popular on DJs’ turntables. Those guys really thought this whole thing through. If it's ever safe again for groups of people to congregate in densely packed communal spaces for the purpose of bopping to rhythms and pulses, I think the Weekend's "Take My Breath" will have a home in regular rotation next to the other pillars of the dance music canon. Until then, take the track for a spin on your own, and see if you agree.