What Is A Breakdown In Music?

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The breakdown of a song is when different instruments each have a solo, they each take a “break.” This can be one of the most interesting and exciting parts of a song. In dance music, breaks are a rhythmic section for dancing. As you might imagine, a breakdown can sound very different depending on the instruments and style of music.

In fact, breakdowns are an art in and of themselves. Some music fans pay special attention to breakdowns and have “all-time favorite” lists for their chosen genre of music.

Breaks are extremely important in rap and dance music. Drum breaks from other songs (usually disco and funk) are often sampled and become the rhythmic backbone of new songs.

For some people, the breakdown is the most important part of a song. They’ll wait for it and be disappointed if it’s not there. It can make or break a song for them (pun intended!)

We’re going to take a look at what a breakdown is and then we’ll go through some famous examples in various styles of music. Here we go!

What is a Breakdown?

In general, a break is when each instrument takes a solo. This is most obvious in Jazz or Blues where each player will play a solo. Afterward, all the instruments come back together to finish the song.

A breakdown or break can also describe an instrumental section of the song. The whole band or parts of the band can really shine when they each get a chance to play.

A breakdown can sometimes be a false ending in some songs, where it sounds like the song is about to stop but then carries on with an even more intense rhythm and feel.

This might occur during a bridge or any other part of a song that does not usually have vocals. The excitement at a live show comes from the anticipation of when the next breakdown will happen.

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The difference in Breakdowns Depending on Genre

As we mentioned earlier, breakdowns can sound very different depending on the instruments and style of music.

For example, in metal songs there might be a guitar solo that is backed by drums and bass. The rhythm will be intense and driving, with lots of power behind it.

In contrast, a funk breakdown might have slower drums with a funky bass line. There might be horns or guitars playing in the background, giving it a more soulful sound. In fact, super creative and innovative rhythmic breaks are a very important part of funk music.

It’s really amazing how much variety can be found in breakdowns when you start to look for it.

Famous Breakdowns In Music

As a way to illustrate the concept, we’re going to list out some of the most famous breakdowns in various genres of music.

Let’s start out with perhaps the most famous break of them all. This genre-defying 6-second drum loop has been sampled in music countless times since it was recorded in 1969. It even has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to it.

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The Most Famous Breakdown In Music Ever

“Amen Brother” by The Winstons (The most sampled piece of music, ever!)

The Winstons were a funk and soul group that was popular in the 1960s. You can hear the famous break at the [1:25] mark.

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Breakdown Examples

Here are some famous examples from various styles of music (every video starts at the exact moment the breakdown starts). Enjoy!


“Incredible Bongo Band” by Apache

This is a funky instrumental that has been sampled time and again by hip-hop artists. It’s also just a really cool jam with some awesome bongo playing! This section of the song has been sampled and you might recognize it as the “jump on it” song from The Sugarhill Gang.

“Get on Up” by James Brown

James Brown was the king of funk. He single-handedly (with his amazing band) created the entire funk genre by stringing together entire songs made out of musical breaks. The story goes that he did this so he could dance and extend the amount of time his band could fill on stage. He was known as the “hardest working man in show business.” Seriously, check out some live performance videos and you’ll see how his entire musical style was based around funky musical breaks and slick dance moves.

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“Lethargica” by Meshuggah

Meshuggah is a metal band from Sweden that is known for its extremely complex rhythms. This song is a great example of their signature sound and intense breakdowns. To get the full effect of this brutal breakdown you’ll have to listen to the entire song (highly recommended.)

“Hammer Smashed Face” by Cannibal Corpse

This is a classic metal song from the 1990s. This band is one of “the big four” thrash metal bands which also includes Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica.

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“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs

This song is a classic. It’s one of the finest examples of bluegrass music you’ll ever hear. There are some great banjo and fiddle lines with lots of embellishments throughout.

In bluegrass music, breakdowns are often called “breaks” or “busts.” This song has so many breaks and you can find some great fingerpicking if you listen closely!

“Blue Grass Breakdown” by Bill Monroe

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Disco started as a style by mixing drum breaks from other styles with any other sound that would create an intense rhythmic groove with a syncopated bassline. Here are some of the most famous disco songs:

“Stayin’ Alive” by Bee Gees

“September” by Earth, Wind & Fire

This classic disco track has a great breakdown in the middle. It’s really funky and features some amazing horn playing.

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Rock Breakdowns

“One Step Closer” by Linkin Park

Linkin Park is known for its great breakdowns in songs. This song, which was the first single released from their debut album Hybrid Theory features a very catchy riff that gets even more powerful during the bridge section of this track.

“Freak On A Leash” by Korn

This is another great rock song with a very memorable breakdown. It features some funky scatting and a hard-hitting guitar riff before finally returning to the familiar melodic chorus.

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“West Side Story Medley” drum solo by Buddy Rich

Drum solos are a huge part of rock music. (In fact, there’s plenty of “greatest ever” lists of drum solos alone!) This is just one of the many incredible solos that Buddy Rich performed live on stage.

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Rap music is characterized by an underlying beat, which is often a sample taken from the break of another song. Because it’s so rhythmic vocally, it’s tempting to describe the entire song as a break – but that would be lazy. Rap fans focus on outstanding bars, which are rap verses.

“The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow

The entire song is a play on words between a musical break and literal breaks. (Such as brakes on a car.) The entire song is verses interspersed with musical breaks.

“Lucky You” by Eminem (Feat. Joyner Lucas)

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Breaks in Dance Music

In dance music, breaks are a time to show off some fine dance moves. That’s why breakdancing is called break-dancing. They’re dancing on the rhythmic breaks of other songs.

When people refer to breaks, they might actually be talking about the dance moves rather than the music. Dancers take the opportunity to show off their footwork, spins, and moves.

So, because the point of the music is to dance, a huge part of the song is an instrumental “break.”

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“Procura” by Chichi Peralta

“El Cantante” by Marc Anthony

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Musical breaks in jazz music are often solos. The jazz solo is something of an institution, and there are endless examples of great solos.

In a jazz song, the soloist will often take the opportunity to show off their virtuosity on their instrument. They might play with unusual time signatures or harmonic structures.

“Sweet Louisiana” trombone solo by Wycliffe Gordon

“Naima” by John Coltrane quartet

As you can see, the soloist takes center stage for this song. The main thing to remember about “breaks” in music is that they are essentially solos or instrumental sections of a piece. They show off the virtuosity and talents of all the musicians.

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Start listening for breaks and breakdowns!

Breakdowns are the most exciting part in many songs. They provide a moment in which each instrument or vocalist gets to shine, and often introduce new elements that were not present before. There are many ways to appreciate music, I hope you’ve just discovered why so many people love breakdowns.

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