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In music, a breakdown is part of a song in which 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 DJ, 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 pleasing to dancers at the club. 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.
Moulton says his innovation was an accident. The placement followed the pattern of a traditional pop recording: it replaced the bridge typically found in such a record after the second chorus. An 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. Hi-NRG 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, creating tension on the dance floor before the return to the musical part of the record.
Heavy metal and punk rock
Breakdowns are sometimes found in metal and punk songs, as they can be used to eschew traditional verse-chorus-verse songwriting. When played live, breakdowns are usually responded to by the audience with high-intensity moshing (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 guitarist 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 form a circle pit.
Many of the bands that play in the genres of deathcore and metalcore make heavy use of breakdowns. Modern 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 drop-A tuning. Breakdowns in metalcore and deathcore are synonymous with hardcore dancing in live shows.
Some metalcore and post-hardcore bands such as Horse the Band, Killswitch Engage, Asking Alexandria, Attack Attack!, Lamb of God, Unearth, Capture the Crown, Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Enter Shikari incorporate synthesizers that add a dance beat style to the breakdown.
Some bands that include breakdowns in their music, also use "mosh calls" or pre-breakdown lines. For example, the band "The Hearkening" from Flushing, New York, uses the line "Not yet grasshopper" before the breakdown in their song "Developed in a Darkroom", too which the audience responds with violent spin kicks, windmills, and hitting the air.
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.
- Discoguy. "Tom Moulton Tribute", Disco-Disco.