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What Is a Cry Break?

Guitars making a weeping sound can enhance a cry break in music.
A cry break is a common feature of country music.
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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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In music, a cry break is a vocal technique which often indicates sorrow or emotional distress. In mid-note, the singer cuts off a note, then resumes it, creating a brief gap. The similarity between this gap and a sob gives it the name "cry break." The cry break can either be a pronounced sobbing sound or a small hitch in the middle of a note.

In American music, the cry break is a common feature of country and western music. It is particularly associated with the work of legendary country singer Hank Williams. Many country songs focus on themes of loneliness and heartbreak; Williams and other country singers used the cry break to convey this emotion, suggesting that they were so wracked with sorrow that they had to pause in mid-note to sob. The most famous example of this technique in country music is probably Williams's 1949 hit "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," in which cry breaks pierce the drawn-out "o" sounds in "lonesome."

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Other vocal techniques complement the use of the cry break in country singing. The note after the break may be higher than the original note, suggesting that the singer's voice has broken. The singer may also add vibrato or tremolo to the note, making it pulse rapidly to suggest the shaky breathing associated with crying. These techniques enhance the narrative of the song, suggesting that the singer is genuinely experiencing the emotions described in the lyric. Instrumental sounds play a similar role, with guitars evoking the sound of weeping.

This technique is so closely associated with country and western music in the United States that it forms part of the common cultural stereotype of the country singer. Country singers' widespread use of this technique and other forms of vocal color have given the genre a readily identifiable sound that is sometimes parodied in other forms of music. This stereotype goes hand-in-hand with the widespread association between country music and songs about tragedy.

The cry break appears in other forms of music in addition to American country music. It is a feature of traditional Mexican singing, for instance, as well as many other forms of singing in which vocal technique is used to express intense emotion. It also occurs in the traditional music of the South Pacific, where it is one of a number of techniques employed in ritual wailing. Ritual mourning wails in some indigenous tribes in South America also use the cry break to give the impression of weeping.

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