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In popular music, a break is an instrumental or percussion section or interlude during a song derived from or related to stop-time – being a "break" from the main parts of the song or piece.

A solo break in jazz occurs when the rhythm section stops playing behind a soloist for a brief period, usually two or four bars leading into the soloist's first chorus. A notable recorded example is Charlie Parker's solo break at the beginning of his solo on "A Night in Tunisia".

In DJ parlance, a break is where all elements of a song (e.g., pads, basslines, vocals), except for percussion, disappear for a time. This is distinguished from a breakdown, a section where the composition is deliberately deconstructed to minimal elements (usually the percussion or rhythm section with the vocal re-introduced over the minimal backing), all other parts having been gradually or suddenly cut out. (Brewster and Broughton 2003, p. 79)The distinction between breaks and breakdowns may be described as, "Breaks are for the drummer; breakdowns are for hands in the air" (ibid).

In hip hop and electronica, a short break is also known as the cut and the proceeding reintroduction of the full bass line and drums is known as "the drop", and is sometimes accented by cutting off everything, even the percussion.


A break may be described as when the song takes a "breather, drops down to some exciting percussion, and then comes storming back again" and compared to a fake ending. Breaks usually occur two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through a song (Brewster and Broughton 2003, p. 79).

According to Peter van der Merwe (1989, p. 283) a break "occurs when the voice stops at the end of a phrase and is answered by a snatch of accompaniment," and originated from the bass runs of marches of the "Sousa school". In this case it would be a "break" from the vocal part.

According to David Toop (1991), "the word break or breaking is a music and dance term (as well as a proverb) that goes back a long way. Some tunes, like 'Buck Dancer's Lament' from early in the nineteenth century,featured a two-bar silence in every eight bars for the break—a quick showcase of improvised dance steps. Others used the same device for a solo instrumental break: a well-known example being the four-bar break taken by Charlie Parker in Dizzy Gillespie's tune 'Night in Tunisia'."

However, in Hip Hop, "today the term break refers to any segment of music (usually four measures or less) that could be sampled and repeated [see break beat below]....A break is any expanse of music that is thought of as a break by a producer." In the words of DJ Jazzy Jay (Leland and Stein 1987: 26, cited in Schloss 2004), "Maybe those records [whose breaks are sampled] were ahead of their time. Maybe they were made specifically for the rap era; these people didn't know what they were making at that time. They thought, 'Oh, we want to make a jazz record'". (Schloss 2004, p. 36-37)

Break beat

A break beat is the sampling of breaks as drum loop (beats), originally from soul tracks, and using them as the rhythmic basis for hip hop and rap songs. It was invented by DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaicanmarker, the first to buy two copies of one record so as to be able to mix between the same break or, as Bronx DJ Afrika Bambaataa describes, "that certain part of the record that everybody waits for--they just let their inner self go and get wild," extending its length through repetition (Toop, 1991). The dance the boys and girls ended up doing to break beats was called the Break, break dancing. Breaking was abandoned in favor of doing the Freak in 1978 until it was revived and enhanced by Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, and the Rock Steady Crew. More recently electronic artists have created "break beats" from other electronic music. Compare with "breakbeat" below.

Although DJ Kool Herc is usually credited with being the first to cut between two copies of a record, it is likely that there were a number of like-minded DJ's developing the technique at the same time. For example, Walter Gibbons was noted in first-hand accounts by his peers for cutting two copies of the same record in his discothèque gigs of the mid 1970s . Hip hop break beat compilations include Hardcore Break Beats and Break Beats, and Drum Drops (Toop, 1991).


Breakbeat as a genre did not appear in any commercial sense until well after the advent of inexpensive digital sampling equipment. An early example of genre outside of a hip-hop context is the group Coldcut in Great Britain, who looped small sections of analogue tape to form such records as "Beats and Pieces" and "That Greedy Beat". They were inspired by a number of New York hip-hop DJ's.


Disco mixer and remixer Tom Moulton invented the "disco break" or breakdown section in the early 1970s. Moulton had been remixing a dance record and found that the performance had "immaculated" (gone up in pitch as live performances are prone to doing), and this fact would be noticed unless he separated two sections of the recording with non-tonal information. [68193] He edited in a section of drums, and the aesthetic effect was immediately found to be pleasing to dancers. The placement was also useful for club DJ's, providing a rhythm-only section of the recording over which to begin mixing in the next record to be played.

Moulton has maintained that his innovation was an accident (ibid). The placement followed the patterning of a traditional pop recording: it replaced the bridge typically found in such a record after the second chorus. A clear example is the breakdown in "My Lovin' (Never Gonna' Get It)" by En Vogue: a sampled male voice can be heard introducing this part of the record with the sentence "and now it's time for a breakdown". Longer tracks often have two, three or more breakdowns.

Initially the transition to the breakdown was an abrupt absence of most of the arrangement in a disco record as described above. HiNRG records would typically use a pronounced percussive element, such as a drum fill, to cover the transition, and later genres reach the breakdown section by a gradual reduction of elements. In all genres the stripping away of other instruments and vocals ("breaking-down" the arrangement) helps create intense contrast, with breakdowns usually preceding or following heightened musical climaxes. In many dance records, the breakdown often consists of a stripping away of the pitched elements (most instruments) - and often the percussion is cut too - but an adding of an unpitched noise sound effect. This is often treated with a lot of reverb and rises in tone to create an exciting climax. This noise then cuts to a beat of silence before returning to the musical part of the record.

Metal and punk

Breakdowns are sometimes found in songs of these genres as they can be used to eschew traditional verse-chorus-verse songwriting. When played live, breakdowns are usually responded to by the audience moshing or hardcore dancing. Vocalists also tend to throw in a single, repeated statement throughout the breakdown, giving those who are not dancing or moshing an opportunity to sing along. Many metalcore bands rely on having memorable breakdowns rather than memorable choruses as a breakdown can be used as a replacement to the chorus for a climactic riff.

The drums are usually simple with several cymbals and snare on the third beat. The cymbals are usually a china or fast crash with quarter notes or more common, eighth notes. Also common is the use of crash cymbals with quarter notes, or even half notes, to give the music a very heavy, slow feel. The drummer usually follows the rhythm of the guitar on the kick drum. In metal, the guitars play a set of rhythmically oriented riffs, usually on open strings so as to achieve the lowest and heaviest sound for which the guitars are tuned, so the dancers in the audience can respond effectively. Sometimes, these are contrasted with either dissonant chords, such as minor 2nd intervals, tri-tones (flatted 5ths), or pinch harmonics.

These riffs are often accented by the drummer with double kick bass drums that follow the pattern of the guitars. This kind of breakdown can be traced back to the Los Angeles thrash metal band Dark Angel, whose drummer Gene Hoglan first played this kind of rhythmic double bass drums-guitar oriented breakdown on the title track of Dark Angel's second album, Darkness Descends. Gene Hoglan has used this technique, which he calls 'kick triplets', in various bands in which he played since then, and it had become commonly used in Thrash Metal and especially Death Metal, although not always in the same way it is used in Metalcore.

In punk rock, breakdowns tend to be more upbeat, using the floor toms and snares to create a faster, 'rolling' rhythm. This provides audience members with an opportunity to skank, mosh, or circle pit.

In bluegrass

In bluegrass music, a break is a short instrumental solo played between sections of a song and is conventionally a variation on the song's melody. A breakdown is an instrumental form that features a series of breaks, each played by a different instrument. Examples of the form are "Bluegrass Breakdown" by Bill Monroe as well as "Earl's Breakdown" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", both of which were written by Earl Scruggs.

Notable breaks/breakdowns

See also


  1. Toop (1991).
  • Brewster, Bill and Broughton, Frank (2003). How to DJ Right: The Art and Science of Playing Records. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3995-7.
  • Schloss, Joseph G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6696-9.
  • Toop, David (1991). Rap Attack 2: African Rap To Global Hip Hop, p. 113-115. New York: Serpent's Tail. ISBN 1-85242-243-2.
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.

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