Have you ever noticed when you are listening to music that there is often a small simplified portion with fewer sounds? A break is a section focusing more on the beat or even silence before the most energetic part of a song, or before the the chorus kicks in. Depending on the genre of music you are listening to this may be called a break or breakbeat. A break can be a comparatively “empty” or quiet space in a song before vocals or a “bass drop.” A break could also be a portion of a song that was sampled and repeated for a short duration to build up a tension, this is known as a breakbeat.
Our minds are complex devices that work in very simple ways. Dominic Basulto explains in his article on Big Think that our minds are wired to look for patterns when taking in a large amount of information in order to make sense of it, and a song is an example of a large amount of information. Lots of different sounds are going to your ears at once so your brain tries to keep up by looking for patterns. A break takes advantage of the way our brain looks for patterns by breaking them, as stated in this. When a pattern is broken and is marked by your brain as different, it draws our attention. It’s almost like an unexpected slap to the face: you aren’t ready for it and it grabs your interest. This builds immense tension in the song since our brains, after listening to a pattern for so long, are held waiting for the pattern to continue.
In pop, jazz, R&B, and EDM music, a break is used for building tension and grabbing the attention of the listener. For clever examples of a breaks used in these genres we can look at Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Rare by Going Quantum, Let You Get Away by Shaun Frank, and Infinito by Brous One, all included in the playlist below. In most of these examples the breaks are easy to notice and are very obvious; however some songs have more subtle breaks. For example, in the song Infinito by Brous One there are many smaller breaks throughout the song that grab your attention by stopping the bassline, snare, and harp sounds leaving an almost empty space that breaks this pattern of relaxing repetition and catches your attention. These breaks are far smaller but still accomplish the same goal, just on a more subtle scale in order to keep the calm relaxing undertone of the song.
In hip hop and rap, breaks are used in a very similar fashion but with some slight differences. In these genres, breaks are often referred to as breakbeats which is a sample that is played repeatedly to form a beat out of the sample while the rest of the music is cut. When a breakbeat is played you are often left with just the repeated sample or the sample with the rapper’s voice over top.
A good example of a break can be heard in Tyler the Creator’s song, 911/ Mr. Lonely. At about 2:45, when it transitions to the “Mr. Lonely” portion of the song Tyler cuts the other tracks and only has a repeated sample of him saying lonely four times before the new beat and bassline hits, grabbing your attention again.
In rap, a break can often be used to emphasize a specific line or vocal. J. Cole frequently uses a similar method to emphasize an important line. However J. Cole uses breaks in a slightly different way: he fades into a break so that you almost don’t notice that the music even stopped while he raps an important line, then the beat and bassline return and the song picks up. A great example of J. Cole using this is his song No Role Modelz, when he says “She can wear my shirt, ‘for she leave, I’m gon’ need my shirt back”. In this line, the background music fully cuts while he is saying “I’m gonna need my shirt back” grabbing your attention in order to bring a strong emphasis to this one line.
Breaks are simple, underappreciated and powerful tools that are a very central driving point of many different genres in past, present and music to come. Breaks grab our attention or bring emphasis without even realising. Although very subtle, breaks can control the general tone or feeling of a song by cutting sounds instead of playing them.
Check out our Spotify playlist (Warning, Explicit) featuring all the songs mentioned before and have a listen for yourself.
The Melomaniac’s Rhapsody is a regular feature in which columnist WAhrm presents a Spotify playlist organized around a theme or concern. Got a suggestion for this column? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVER ILLUSTRATION BY Jokerlikesjokes
Yes, breaks are very important. They come into the larger picture, as you point out, of tension and release — the drama and interest a work can create.