Break (music)

In popular music, a break is an instrumental or percussion section during a song derived from or related to stop-time – being a "break" from the main parts of the song or piece. A break is usually interpolated between sections of a song, to provide a sense of anticipation, signal the start of a new section, or create variety in the arrangement.


A solo break in jazz occurs when the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) stops playing behind a soloist for a brief period, usually two or four bars leading into the soloist's first improvised solo chorus (at which point the rhythm section resumes playing). A notable recorded example is sax player Charlie Parker's solo break at the beginning of his solo on "A Night in Tunisia". While the solo break is a break for the rhythm section, for the soloist, it is a solo cadenza, where they are expected to improvise an interesting and engaging melodic line.

DJing and dance music

In DJ parlance, in disco, hip hop and electronic dance music, a break is where all the elements of a song (e.g., synth pads, basslines, vocals), except for percussion, disappear; as such, the break is also called a "percussion break".

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. The distinction between breaks and breakdowns may be described as, "Breaks are for the drummer; breakdowns are for electronic producers". In hip hop music and electronica, a short break is also known as a "cut", and the reintroduction of the full bass line and drums is known as a "drop", which is sometimes accented by cutting off everything, even the percussion right before the full music is dropped back in.

Hip hop

Old-school hip-hop DJs have described the relationship between breaks, early hip-hop music, and disco. According to Afrika Bambaataa:Musicologist David Toop, based on interviews with DJ Grandmaster Flash, Kool DJ Herc, and others, has written:

Hip hop, disco, and eroticism

DJ Kool Herc’s innovative use of the break-beat came about through his observations of dancers and desire to give them what they wanted. In this case the who was b-boys (otherwise known as break-boys or breakdancers) and what they wanted was an opportunity to move explosively, express themselves, and peacock to women (Brester and Broughton 167). This grounds the conception of the innovation both in the embodied movements of the dancers and in the eroticism and sexuality of the b-boys themselves. As hip-hop used a number of disco tracks, and a number of afro-american and latinx tracks popularized by disco record pools, the eroticism brought out by these tracks can be presumed to be replicated in these hip-hops mixes, albeit altered through the emphasis and repetition of the break-beat. This suggests strong ties between hip-hop and disco so far as their vibrations, in that both are dancer focused and as such the corporeal vibrations between the embodied sensual movements of the dancers and the sounding of the DJ are resonating off each other to create a space for expression and eroticism in the club.


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 false ending. Breaks usually occur two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through a song. According to Peter van der Merwe 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. In bluegrass and other old-time music, a break is "when an instrument plays the melody to a song idiomatically, i.e. the back-up played on the banjo for a mandolin 'break' may differ from that played for a dobro 'break' in the same song".

According to David Toop, "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 segment of music (usually four measures or less) that could be sampled and repeated. A break is any expanse of music that is by a producer. In the words of DJ Jazzy Jay: "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'".

Breakbeat (element of music)

A break beat is the sampling of breaks as (drum loop) beats, (originally found in soul or funk tracks) and their subsequent use as the rhythmic basis for hip hop and rap. It was invented by DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican to New York immigrant, usually credited with being 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. However, it is likely that there were a number of like-minded DJs 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.A particularly innovative style of street dance was created to accompany break beat-based music, and was hence referred to as "The Break", or breaking. In the 1980s, charismatic dancers like Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, and the Rock Steady Crew revived the breaking movement. More recently, electronic artists have created "break beats" from other electronic music, resulting in a broad style classification itself called breakbeat. Hip-hop break beat compilations include Hardcore Break Beats and Break Beats, and Drum Drops.

Notable examples

Musical ensembles which are notable for their use of breaks include The Meters, Creative Source, The J.B.'s, The Blackbyrds, and The Last Poets.

Notable breaks include:
  • The Amen break from "Amen, Brother" (1969) by The Winstons The Amen break is quite often used as a second-hand sample from "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A, which sampled the original.
  • "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band, sampled from the intro. Used by DJ Kool Herc, The Sugarhill Gang in "Apache", West Street Mob in "Break Dancin' – Electric Boogie".
  • "Ashley's Roachclip" by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Used by Eric B & Rakim, PM Dawn, Milli Vanilli, LL Cool J and many others.
  • "Funky Drummer" by James Brown, sampled roughly @ 5:34. Used by Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Ice Cube, etc.
  • "Fencewalk" by Mandrill, used by DJ Kool Herc
  • "Think (About It)" by Lyn Collins
  • "The Bottle" by Gil Scott-Heron
  • "Mardi Gras" by Bob James, cover of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras", sampled from the intro. Used by The Crash Crew on "Breaking Bells (Take Me to the Mardi Gras)" and by Run DMC on "Peter Piper".
  • "Sesame Street" by Blowfly, interesting testimony of breakbeat science as the breakbeat is reconstructed from various places with solo drums in the song. Also known as "Helicopter" break after "The Helicopter Tune" by Deep Blue, which is the common second-hand source of the reconstructed sample.
  • "Scorpio" by Dennis Coffey
  • "Scratchin'" by Magic Disco Machine
  • "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango
  • "Super Sporm" by Captain Sky
  • "Move On Up" by Curtis Mayfield
  • "It's a New Day" by Skull Snaps
  • "Synthetic Substitution" by Melvin Bliss
  • "Impeach the President" by The Honey Drippers
  • "N.T." by Kool and the Gang
  • "Tighten Up" by James Brown
  • "Cold Sweat" by James Brown