In DJ parlance, a break is where all elements of a song (e.g., pads, basslines, vocals), except for percussion, disappear for a time. This is distinguished from a breakdown, a section where the composition is deliberately deconstructed to minimal elements (usually the percussion or rhythm section with the vocal re-introduced over the minimal backing), all other parts having been gradually or suddenly cut out. (Brewster and Broughton 2003, p.79)
The distinction between breaks and breakdowns may be described as, "Breaks are for the drummer; breakdowns are for hands in the air" (ibid). Breaks are virtuoso solos, while breakdowns are created to structure the music for dancing and creating contrast and climaxes. Examples of the elements left during a breakdown include "a single string note, a German woman having an orgasm, or the voice of Satan telling you to take drugs".
In hip hop and electronica, a short break is also known as "the drop", and is sometimes accented by cutting off everything, even the percussion.
A break may be described as when the song takes a "breather, drops down to some exciting percussion, and then comes storming back again" and compared to a fake ending. Breaks usually occur two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through a song (Brewster and Broughton 2003, p.79).
According to Peter van der Merwe (1989, p.283) a break "occurs when the voice stops at the end of a phrase and is answered by a snatch of accompaniment," and originated from the bass runs of marches of the "Sousa school". In this case it would be a "break" from the vocal part.
According to David Toop (1991), "the word break or breaking is a music and dance term (as well as a proverb) that goes back a long way. Some tunes, like 'Buck Dancer's Lament' from early in the nineteenth century, featured a two-bar silence in every eight bars for the break--a quick showcase of improvised dance steps. Others used the same device for a solo instrumental break: one of the most fetishized fragments of recorded music is a famous four-bar break taken by Charlie Parker in Dizzy Gillespie's tune 'Night in Tunisia'."
However, in Hip Hop, "today the term break refers to any segment of music (usually four measures or less) that could be sampled and repeated [see break beat below]....A break is any expanse of music that is thought of as a break by a producer." In the words of DJ Jazzy Jay (Leland and Stein 1987: 26, cited in Schloss 2004), "Maybe those records [whose breaks are sampled] were ahead of their time. Maybe they were made specifically for the rap era; these people didn't know what they were making at that time. They thought, 'Oh, we want to make a jazz record'". (Schloss 2004, p.36-37)
Although DJ Kool Herc is usually credited with being the first to cut between two copies of a record, it is likely that there were a number of like-minded DJ's developing the technique at the same time. For example, Walter Gibbons was noted in first-hand accounts by his peers for cutting two copies of the same record in his Discoteque gigs of the mid 1970s .
Hip hop break beat compilations include Hardcore Break Beats and Break Beats, and Drum Drops (Toop, 1991).
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 is cut too - but an adding of 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.
The drums are usually simple with several cymbals and snare on the third beat. The cymbals are usually a china or fast crash with quarter notes or more common, eighth notes. Also common is the use of crash cymbals with quarter notes, or even half notes, to give the music a very heavy, slow feel. The drummer usually follows the rhythm of the guitar on the kick drum. In metal, the guitars play a set of rhythmically oriented riffs, usually on open strings so as to achieve the lowest and heaviest sound for which the guitars are tuned, so the dancers in the audience can respond effectively. Sometimes, these are contrasted with either dissonant chords, such as minor 2nd intervals, or pinch harmonics. These riffs are often accented by the drummer with double kick bass drums that follow the pattern of the guitars. This kind of breakdown can be traced back to the Los Angeles thrash metal band Dark Angel, whose drummer Gene Hoglan first played this kind of rhythmic double bass drums-guitar oriented breakdown on the title track of Dark Angel's second album, Darkness Descends. Gene Hoglan has used this technique, which he calls 'kick triplets', in various bands in which he played since then, and it had become commonly used in Thrash Metal and especially Death Metal, although not always in the same way it is used in Metalcore. However, this standard formula for breakdowns is not always followed. Many current bands now tend to distort the line between breakdowns and other parts of songs.
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.