In music, a breakdown is a song where various instruments have solo parts (breaks). This may take the form where all instruments play the verse together, and then several or all instruments individually repeat the verse as solo parts.
Disco mixer and remixer Tom Moulton invented the "disco break" or breakdown section in the early 1970s. Moulton had been remixing a dance record (”Dreamworld” by Don Downing) which "immaculated" (went to a higher key) towards the end, and he wanted to cut parts together that were in different keys. To do this, he separated two sections with non-tonal information. 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. 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 — while adding 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.
Examples in music
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 slam dancing.
The drums are usually simple, with a four quarter-note ride pattern with the snare on the third beat. Most commonly, the drummer plays quarter notes on the crash cymbal or china cymbal. In some breakdowns where a very slow tempo is used, the drummer will play half notes, to give the music a very heavy, slow feel. The drummer usually follows the rhythm, or "chugs", (chugs being palm muted strokes on the lowest three to four string of the guitar) on the kick drum. In most cases the drummer will use the kick drum to complement the "chugs" of the guitars. The guitars play a set of rhythmically oriented riffs, usually on lightly palm muted strings to achieve a very high attack noise that decays slowly making the overall sound more thick and "heavy". Sometimes, these are contrasted with either dissonant chords, such as minor 2nd intervals, tritones (flatted 5ths), or pinch harmonics.
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.
Many of the bands that play in the genres of deathcore and metalcore make heavy use of breakdowns; breakdowns usually consist of slow paced strumming on the guitar, or fast syncopated triplet-feel patterns, both of which, are typically palm muted and played on the lowest three strings of a guitar and a bass drop. These strings are usually tuned down from somewhere between drop-D tuning all the way down to an octave below drop-c# tuning. Drop-A tuning can be found occasionally but is very rare in metalcore bands. In deathcore bands like Whitechapel and Carnifex, drop-A is standard. Some bands such as Bermuda play in drop F and lower. Breakdowns in metalcore and deathcore are synonymous with hardcore dancing.
Some metalcore and post-hardcore bands such as Horse the Band, Asking Alexandria, Attack Attack!, Capture The Crown, Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Enter Shikari incorporate synthesizers that add a dance beat style to the breakdown.
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.