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What Is a Cry Break?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated: Feb 08, 2024

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."

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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Inaventu — On Oct 20, 2014

If you want to talk "Queen of the cry break", look no further than the late Tammy Wynette. Practically every hit song she ever had depended on at least one strategically placed cry break. Wynette would sing about divorce or loneliness or heartbreak and sound like she was recording the song during a crying jag.

By AnswerMan — On Oct 19, 2014

I heard country singer Kellie Pickler sing a really heartbreaking song about leaving her small town and family behind. There's a line towards the end when she speaks directly to her mama and lets her know she's alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. She can barely sing, and you can tell she's really emotional and crying. It's a true story, so I figured she was just overwhelmed by the memories.

Two weeks later, I heard her performed the same song live on another program, and sure enough, she started crying again at the exact same part in the song. Now I'm sure it's a cry break, since she does it every time. I'm not saying the emotions aren't real, but I'm saying the crying is part of the song itself.

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