Disco Music

Disco is a genre of dance music containing elements of funk, soul, pop and salsa. It achieved popularity during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Its initial audiences in the U.S. were club-goers from the gay, African American, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in Philadelphia and New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco can be seen as a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Disco was popular with both men and women from many different backgrounds, with dances including The Bump (1974), The Hustle (1975) and Y.M.C.A. (1978). The disco sound often has several components, a “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hatpattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. In most disco tracks, string sections, horns, electric piano, and electric rhythm guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs use electronic synthesizers, particularly in the late 1970s. Disco was a key influence in the later development of electronic dance music and house music. Disco has had several revivals, including in 2005 with Madonna’s highly successful album Confessions on a Dance Floor, and again in 2013 and 2014, as disco-styled songs by artists like Daft Punk (with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers), Justin Timberlake, Breakbot, and Bruno Mars—notably Mars’ “Uptown Funk”—filled the pop charts in the UK and the US.

The music typically layered soaring, often-reverberated vocals, often doubled by horns, over a background “pad” of electric pianos and “chicken-scratch” rhythm guitars played on an electric guitar. “The ‘chicken scratch’ sound is achieved by lightly pressing the strings against the fretboard and then quickly releasing them just enough to get a slightly muted scratching [sound] while constantly strumming very close to the bridge.”[67] Other backing keyboard instruments include the piano, electric organ (during early years), string synth, and electromechanical keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes electric piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, and Hohner Clavinet. Synthesizers are also fairly common in disco, especially in the late 1970s.

The rhythm is laid down by prominent, syncopated basslines (with heavy use of broken octaves, that is, octaves with the notes sounded one after the other) played on the bass guitar and by drummers using a drum kit, African/Latin percussion, and electronic drums such as Simmons and Roland drum modules. The sound was enriched with solo lines and harmony parts played by a variety of orchestral instruments, such as harp, violin, viola, cello, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn, tuba, English horn, oboe, flute (sometimes especially the alto flute and occasionally bass flute), piccolo, timpani and synth strings, string section or a full string orchestra. Most disco songs have a steady four-on-the-floor beat, a quaver or semi-quaver hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a heavy, syncopated bass line. Other Latin rhythms such as the rhumba, the samba and the cha-cha-cha are also found in disco recordings, and Latin polyrhythms, such as a rhumba beat layered over a merengue, are commonplace. The quaver pattern is often supported by other instruments such as the rhythm guitar and may be implied rather than explicitly present.

Songs often use syncopation, which is the accenting of unexpected beats. In general, the difference between a disco, or any dance song, and a rock or popular song is that in dance music the bass drum hits four to the floor, at least once a beat (which in 4/4 time is 4 beats per measure), whereas in rock the bass hits on one and three and lets the snare take the lead on two and four (the “backbeat”). Disco is further characterized by a 16th note division of the quarter notes as shown in the second drum pattern below, after a typical rock drum pattern. The orchestral sound usually known as “disco sound” relies heavily on string sections and horns playing linear phrases, in unison with the soaring, often reverberated vocals or playing instrumental fills, while electric pianos and chicken-scratch guitars create the background “pad” sound defining the harmony progression. Typically, all of the doubling of parts and use of additional instruments creates a rich “wall of sound”. There are, however, more minimalistic flavors of disco with reduced, transparent instrumentation, pioneered by Chic.