Music wouldn’t be listenable if it weren’t for breaks. And as a singer, you need to be familiar with them – knowing when not to sing is as important as knowing when to sing.
I’m going to go over what you need to know about breaks in music, but first let’s cover what a “break” actually means.
Simply put, a break in a song is a section consisting of just instruments or percussion, usually allowing a solo instrument or the voice to take the spotlight.
A classic example of this is Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect.” At 1:17 the saxophone is featured for 8 bars, then at 1:55 when Aretha spells out R-E-S-P-E-C-T (which Otis Redding didn’t do in the original), the band plays stop-time for 4 bars i.e. on only the 1st beat of the bar, so her powerful vocals jump to the front and shine.
A more modern example of breaks in a song is in “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. This song is full of breaks. Sometimes only some of the instruments break while other times everything cuts out, allowing Ronson’s and Mars’ vocals to step forward in the recording.
Check it out in the video e.g. at 1:23 and 2:05…
So here’s what you need to know about breaks in music…
They are necessary
Imagine “Uptown Funk” with no breaks. Try to hear “Respect” without those perfectly timed stops. They just wouldn’t sound right.
A song without breaks will be monotone, monochromatic, and any other “mono” you can think of. Breaks within songs are needed for breathing room and variation. As a singer needs to breathe, so does a song.
They can be overdone
Just as lack of breaks can spoil a song, too many can do the same. If we overdo the breaks, they lose their impact. In the same way a skilled singer will only hit those big, high notes for impact and highlight, musical breaks should be used only when needed and in limited amounts.
Breaks need to be pleasant surprise that will elevate the song. Keyword: surprise. If the audience is expecting something, it’s no longer a surprise.
You must know when they’re coming
If you forget that the song is going to the break the band won’t be happy, the song flow may falter and the audience will probably notice. Or vice versa, if you think a break is coming when it’s not and you decide to do a killer vocal run, the music will sound messy.
More importantly no one will hear that standing-ovation-level vocal run you just did! Make sure you practice the song breaks as much as you do the body of the song.
You must know when they’re going
Just as important as knowing when breaks are coming is knowing how long they are for. Is it 4 bars or 8, shorter or longer?
Generally groups of 4 bar lengths are the most common e.g. 4, 8 or 16 bars. Whatever the length of the break you need to know when you need to come back in to the song, and where — is it the verse, chorus or something else. This is the singer’s job.
So learn how to count the bars or listen closely to the musical landmarks that indicate where you are in the break, don’t rely on someone else to bring you in, they might forget, and that’ll be just plain awkward!
The point is, know your breaks!
I originally wrote this for iSing Magazine