What Singers Need To Know About Breaks In Music

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.

Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction

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.

RELATED: How Aretha Franklin Took A Chauvinist Song And Made It A Feminist Song

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

How Aretha Franklin Took A Chauvinist Song And Made It A Feminist Song

Aretha Franklin was one of the best singers of all time. She outdid a lot of men in vocal performance and in wit, as is the case with the song “Respect.”

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin (photo via Mojo Magazine)

This was written by Otis Redding, who debuted it in 1965. But it wasn’t until 1967 that the song became a true hit with Aretha Franklin, but this time it had a feminist twist to it.

Let’s take a look at both versions…

One of the verses in Redding’s version goes like this:

What you want, honey, you got it
And what you need, baby, you’ve got it
All I’m asking
For a little respect when I come home

But Franklin took the song and made it her own lyrically and musically. Her version of the above section is:

What you want
Baby, I got it
What you need
Do you know I got it
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit)

See what she did there?

She took a song about a man coming home to his girl who demands her respect and flipped it on its head. In a way, it’s a direct response to Redding.

In the original, he does all the work and then gives all of his money to her (“And I’m about to give you all of my money”). While she, apparently, sits at home waiting around, fully depending on her man.

But in her version, she equals things out by singing, “I’m about to give you all of my money.”

What she also did was make the song better overall. The whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T thing — that wasn’t in the original. Franklin added that, creating one of the most memorable hooks in music history.

This is a great story, especially given the time period. The 60s were turbulent times, mainly because of the Civil Rights Movement. The 60s were also difficult times for black women.

What most people forget (including me until doing research for this post) is that the original Women’s Rights movement was in 1848, which started with a convention in New York. What happened in the 1960s was just the “second wave” of the movement.

And Aretha was right there amidst it.

The second push from those in the feminist movement in the 60s was “activism that washed into the public consciousness,” charged by a bunch of different events during a decade drenched in change. Each pro-women thing that happened invited a new segment of the world into the movement.

So what Franklin did with “Respect” was not only a genius move musically, but also a genius move for women and feminists. Dare I say, it demanded women get the respect they deserve.