What is a Breakdown in Music? Explained by a Producer!

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Breakdowns in music are mainly used to switch things up and give the arrangement some variety. They’re a practical way to transition into a different song or section, or even replace a traditional verse-chorus-bridge setup.

We’ve all felt the power of breakdowns, but where did they come from? Some say they started with Gregory Coleman’s “Amen Break” in the Motown era, while others give credit to Tom Moulton, a famous DJ from the Studio 54 disco scene in the ’60s.

Whatever the origin, breakdowns are a permanent fixture in both live performances and studio recordings. So let’s dive into the world of breakdowns and see how they play out in different genres.

Dance and EDM

Different genres of music have their own way of doing breakdowns. For example, in dance music, the breakdown is when the most repetitive part of the song drops out, usually the kick.

House and electro tracks have a filter section where the whole track filters down and sweeps into a sub-ambient section after the second chorus, only to come back for a full-blast ending.

EDM breakdowns are a bit different, though. Instead of using a low pass filter, they get high-passed and a clap replaces the kick on every quarter note, then starts doubling in tempo from quarter note to eighth note to 16th note to 32nd note until it becomes a raw drop.

But no matter what, the purpose of the breakdown is the same. It distracts you from the traditional form and builds up energy to drop one last chorus.

DJs use breakdowns a lot to go into an instrumental section that might not have a lot of chords. It might be more rhythmic, and they can merge into the next song flawlessly.

In Jungle and Dubstep, the breakdown is usually a half-time feel of the song’s tempo. In Jungle, which is usually a fast 140 to 175 bpm, the breakbeat goes to half-time with a more traditional funk feel.

In Dubstep, everything drops down to the sub area where the kick and the lowest part of the bass just do a triplet motion, followed by some sort of high siren sound.

Funk

Do you remember the band Jamiroquai from the mid-90s? They have a song called “Space Cowboy” that’s an amazing mix of acid jazz and funk.

It channels a bit of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, and in the middle of the song, they break down into a traditional funk breakdown, which mainly consists of drums and bass locked into a riff.

Producers and musicians call this a pedal where you stay on the same tonic note without changing chords, but there’s movement there, so the energy stays up.

JK, the singer from Jamiroquai, at one point, says “this time”, and that’s the sign that you’re ending the breakdown and going into the last chorus.

James Brown was also the king of doing breakdowns live.

In his sets, the breakdown was the part where the audience danced.

In James Brown’s iconic live shows, it was a moment to strip the band down to each member, and then he would announce (starting with the drummer) when every member would come in.

So he would yell “drums,” and the drummer would take a breakbeat solo. Then he would yell “bass,” and the bass would come in with a pedal pattern, and so on and so on.

So in that context, the breakdown was a moment where the musicians in his individual band took the spotlight and were introduced to show off their musical abilities.

Salsa and Latin Music

In salsa and Latin music, percussion players often use the breakdown to take turns doing solos. They switch to a syncopated rhythm that includes some santeria 6/8-type feels.

This tradition originated as a means of giving songs a slowing down and edgy effect by introducing chaos through different percussion players questioning and answering each other. The bass player slides to punctuate where the bars are, and, of course, the Clave keeps everyone tied to the timeline and groove.

Breakdowns in Latin pop sometimes are more horn-based. You can hear hits from acts like Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, or Willie Colón and Ruben Blades featuring these types of breaks.

They change sections by doing punctuated hits with the whole band, accenting beats with the horns, and then letting loose for the chorus. As with most styles, the goal of the breakdown is to get the dancers and audience members more hyped up.

Metal and Punk

Breakdowns in heavy metal and metalcore differ slightly from those in other genres because they are more coordinated and choreographed.

Generally, metal breakdowns involve the drummer playing a halftime beat with accentuated half notes while the rhythm guitarist plays palm-muted chugs, usually consisting of tight, fast triplet feels.

The interplay between the drummer’s double bass drum and the accentuated syncopated palm mutes of the guitar player gives the breakdown in metal the hard, menacing energy that it needs.

One of the greatest examples of a breakdown is Lamb of God‘s “Hourglass,” where the drummer plays double bass drum 64th notes into a crash every bar. The tightness with the palm-muted guitar is out of this world. It is definitely one of the top breakdowns in metal.

Breakdowns also serve a purpose live, as they provide a moment for the crowd to dive into the mosh pit. Even though the breakdowns are different from the sections played during moshing, they act as energy boosters for the crowd.

Bands like Metallica, Mastodon, and Slayer are well-known for their breakdowns.

In punk, breakdowns tend to be a little more rhythmic and active, with sections where the guitarist and bassist play skank rhythms in classic punk style. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols were well-known for this.

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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