Lockdown Lesson 14

The History of Dance Music
In last week’s lesson we looked at the development of rock music during the thirty years between 1950s to 1970s, as well as a few recent examples from the last 20 years. This week, we are going to take a similar journey, charting the history of modern dance music, which has its roots in soul, Motown and disco.

1950s: Rhythm and Blues
In 40s and 50s, a style called rhythm and blues (R&B) was very popular. Like rock’n’roll, R&B had its roots in African American gospel (church) music and the blues. Many of these early R&B songs were based on traditional spirituals and gospel music, but with lyrics re-written in a secular (non-religious) style. Musically there were a lot of similarities between rhythm and blues, and rock’n’roll. However, while rock’n’roll became marketed towards white Americans of European descent, R&B very much kept its African American identity. R&B lyrics would often discuss issues that were particularly important to the black community at that time: the quest for freedom and equality, or economic hardship, as well as more universal themes such as love and loss. Let’s hear some rhythm and blues from one of its most well-known pioneers, Ray Charles.

And a slower take on the genre by the Nat King Cole, who was also a famous jazz pianist.

1960s: Soul Music, Motown, Funk

While R&B and rock’n’roll had similar roots, over time they became very distinct genres, each leading to very different styles of music. While rock’n’roll led to new genres such as prog-rock, punk, and metal, by the 60s R&B had evolved into a new style called soul. This genre tended to emphasise the singer, who would often weave complicated melodies over a more laid-back band. Soul tracks also commonly featured orchestral instruments such as strings and brass.

You may have noticed in the last lesson that many of the early rock bands tended to be men. Soul, on the other hand, gave us some of the great female singers of the 20th century such as Aretha Franklin, “the Queen of Soul”.

America being the huge country that it is, different styles of soul developed throughout the USA, which are often referred to by their place of origin. Here’s some Memphasis Soul, which often featured organs and guitars. Drums would often have a continuous ‘driving’ beat, while backing vocals may be “doo wop” (noises rather than words) in style. You can also hear a strong blues influence.

Across the pond, the UK also had its own style evolving, called Northern Soul. This had lots of energetic brass and upbeat rhythms that went on to influence ska music many years later. These songs were often by American singers, who didn’t have much success in the USA and didn’t realise they had a huge following in the UK until many years later!

Back in the USA, the most popular form of Soul by far was Motown. This style came from Detroit – the Motor town, which was home to the Ford car factories. Motown had a very polished and pop friendly style, featuring lots of orchestration that made it soundtrack friendly for Hollywood. This helped it to reach an even larger audience. Here are The Supremes, who were one of the most well known Motown groups from this time.

Another type of music was also developing out of soul at the same time: funk. This is a danceable style, based around strong bass lines, offbeat drum grooves, and discordant (clashing) harmonies derived from jazz.

And one from James Brown.

1970-80s: Disco
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the bassline driven groove of funk, along with the lush orchestration of soul led to a style that’s the basis of most dance music we hear today: disco. Its driving “four to the floor” rhythm (a steady bassdrum on every beat of the bar), and its “boots-and-cats-and” percussion remains the backbone of modern house and techno music.

Confused by “boots and cats”? Here’s why I mean:

Here’s some 70s disco from Earth Wind and Fire

Some disco artists kept a slightly more soulful, funky approach, such as First Choice.

Into the 80s now with a disco track by the Brothers Johnson. Can you already hear the influences on house music, in particular the strong beat and basslines?

This is all we have time to look at today – modern day dance music is a huge topic which we will cover in a future lesson. Next week we’ll finish off our study of rock music, looking at rock from the 90s up to today. The lesson after that we’ll return to modern dance music such as house, trap, and drum and bass. Let’s finish off with a more modern take on disco by Daft Punk, from 2013: