What Is Disco Music? 7 Examples & History
When people think of the late 70s, disco music, fashion, and culture likely are some of the first things that come to mind. Gold chains, platform shoes, and tight pants still live on in Halloween costumes and family members' old photographs. Love it or hate it, it was impossible to ignore disco if you lived in that era.
Disco music and its accompanying aesthetic burst into the scene and flamed out fast, but its undeniably catchy songs and over-the-top styles make it a force to be reckoned with. Today, we'll look at some of the top disco songs, how the genre started, and how it grew to be a cultural zeitgeist.
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Definition: What Is Disco Music?
Disco music is a form of dance music that was popular for a time in the 1970s through the early 80s. It incorporated several musical and cultural influences, including elements of African, Latin American, and European musical styles and rock and blues influences.
Disco music relied on studio magic like dubbing and electronic effects more heavily than other kinds of music of its time. The genre allowed for a great deal of creative expression, both vocally and technologically.
Many music styles today descend from disco music, including dance-pop, house music, electronica, and more.
Disco Music Characteristics
There are several characteristics of disco music that make it distinctive and easily recognizable. Read on to learn more about the unique characteristics of disco.
A heavy bass drum beat
Disco is known for its use of a strong bass drum beat, performed in a “four on the floor” style. That style is characterized by a rhythmic pattern that sounds four quarter notes consecutively in a 4/4 musical measure. This beat springs from Latin dance music styles such as merengue. You can hear this beat in many other forms of dance music today.
Distinctive Guitar (and Other Strings)
The guitars in disco had a somewhat unusual sound for the era when the genre became popular. The bass guitars play an important role in the disco, keeping the songs' rhythm. If you listen to disco music, you'll also likely notice the “wah Wah” effect in many prominent songs. This effect – which disco adopted from funk music – is created by using a particular pedal that distorts the guitar's sound to achieve this whiny tone.
A guitar style sometimes referred to as “chicken scratch” is another foundation of disco guitar. In this style, the player uses a light squeeze-and-release motion on the frets to produce a rhythmic clanking sound.
Other string instruments also frequently appear in discos, including violins, violas, and cellos. These instruments helped add depth and emotion to the musical compositions. Without strings, you couldn't achieve many of the soaring, romantic moments in disco songs.
Electro-strings are another aspect commonly used in disco. Electro-strings are string sounds produced by a synthesizer keyboard. Synthesizers are all over disco music, and the genre was one of the first popular forms of music to consistently utilize these electronic musical devices.
A hearty horn section is another element of disco borrowed from its predecessor, funk. Horns in disco songs tend to have a big, brassy sound, and while you rarely hear a horn solo in a disco, the horns work together as part of the music to provide the lively, energetic sound that calls people to the dance floor.
Recognizable, repetitive hook
Lyrically, disco music tends to be fairly simple, and you won't find much deep or mystical poetry within most famous disco songs. Mainly, the words tend to be about dancing, sex, love, and partying, which makes sense for a genre that is meant to make people move their bodies and have fun.
Whatever the lyrics of a disco song, it needs a strong hook that people will remember. While a hook isn't always lyrical – there are lyrical, melodic, rhythmic, and instrumental hooks, too – lyrics usually play a role in creating a memorable hook for a song.
The hook is normally part of the song's chorus and often is in the song's title. A hook is usually a phrase repeated again and again throughout the song, and it should express the theme or main idea of the song. It's usually something simple that people can sing along with and be moved by.
Because disco songs tend to have fewer lyrics, many disco hooks appear throughout the song many times over and are often accompanied by a strong instrumental hook, making the lyrics and instrumental elements equally prominent. An example of this is in Lipps, Inc.'s 1980 hit Funkytown.
Examples Of Disco Music
Even if you aren't a disco music fan, you've probably heard some of these hit songs.
I Feel Love – Donna Summer
This song is widely considered to be a masterpiece of its genre. While the lyrics consist of only a few phrases, the instrumentals and production stand out and have gained popular and critical attention.
Italian producer Giorgio Moroder created a unique sound for the time, using layering, reverb, and delay to create a highly futuristic, mysterious, hypnotic sound that stands out even today. I
Feel Love helped launch a new era of electronic music that rose to the top during the 1980s.
Stayin Alive – The Bee Gees
Stayin' Alive is probably the most well-known disco song of all time. The groovy, upbeat song is all about keeping your head above water even when the world seems to be trying to drag you under. It was the perfect theme for the movie it was recorded for; Saturday Night Fever.
In the film, John Travolta plays Tony Manero, a young Brooklynite from a working-class Italian American background. He feels trapped in his life and job and finds escape at his local disco club. Tony shows great promise as a dancer but faces many challenges along the way.
The film and soundtrack were both massive hits and had a robust and long-lasting impact on music and pop culture.
Le Freak – Chic
The song “Le Freak” is known in part for its line “Freak Out!” Initially, that two-word phrase was a lot more vulgar and referred to what some of the band members heard when being rejected from the exclusive disco club Studio 54 in New York City.
Once cleaned up and recorded, the song ended up being a great success, rising to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978 and being a favorite tune at parties, clubs, and roller rinks. Hopefully, the guys from Chic eventually ended up being let into Studio 54. They earned it!
Turn The Beat Around – Vicki Sue Robinson
Turn The Beat Around is one of the most energetic songs in disco. It takes a talented singer with excellent pipes and a generous helping of charisma to make it work.
Initially, this song was meant for a different disco group, but lucky for Vicki Sue Robinson, she was in the right place at the right time. She could claim the song, and demonstrate that she had what it took to perform it.
The song was covered by powerhouse singer Laura Branigan in the 80s and given a Latin spin by Miami-based pop star Gloria Estefan in the 90s. These were both great covers, but the 1976 original recording is without doubt pure disco gold.
Get Down Tonight – KC and the Sunshine Band
The opening instrumental of KC and the Sunshine Band's Get Down Tonight is a high-pitched, magical-sounding guitar riff that's just long enough to let people know it's time to hit the dance floor.
The song makes use of various instruments throughout, including guitars, piano, and soulful horns. Get Down Tonight is very much a funk song, but it's also a disco classic that lit up many clubs around the time of its 1975 release.
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
Just the opening bars of this song is enough to get a crowd in the mood to party. Gloria Gaynor's inspiration song I Will Survive begins with a dramatic slow piano and goes on to deliver a full disco anthem complete with full orchestral performance.
Unlike many disco songs, I Will Survive has extensive lyrics. They describe the narrator's struggle to recover after a difficult breakup and the eventual realization that she is strong enough to make it herself.
While the song is about the end of a romantic relationship, it's been adopted as a general theme for overcoming adversity. For many years, it's been associated with the struggle of the LGBTQ community and has become one of the unofficial anthems of Pride Week.
Dancing Queen – ABBA
The Swedish foursome ABBA charmed American audiences with their sweet harmonies and powerhouse dancefloor hits. Dancing Queen is one of their most famous songs.
The song talks about a young girl who is new to the disco scene. At only 17 years old, she's coming of age and learning how to navigate the social landscape of the discotheque. Her youth and beauty give her the power to choose her dance partners and mesmerize the people around her. Who wouldn't want to imagine themselves in her position?
The song struck a chord with people worldwide, sending Dancing Queen to number one in over a dozen countries and solidifying ABBA as one of the foundational acts in disco and pop music.
Y.M.C.A. – The Village People
If you've ever been to a wedding reception, office party, or other large gatherings, you've probably done the YMCA dance or watched other people do it. The song that spawned the dance – 1978's YMCA by the Village People – is a fun, upbeat track that has held its place as a disco classic for over four decades.
The song's lyrics talk about the positive aspects of staying at the YMCA, a low-cost hostel where young people from other parts of the country often stay after moving to New York City for work. While it seems like a strange topic for a song, the soaring tune, and accompanying dance moves made it a beloved hit for the Village People.
5 Top Disco Musicians
The disco era saw many great musicians. Some lasted through the ages, and others were one-hit wonders. Here are the top five disco musicians.
Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco in the mid-through-late '70s. It seemed like everything she touched turned to gold, cranking out hit after hit and soaring to the top of the charts repeatedly. Songs like “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girl,” and “Love To Love you Baby” are just a few of her many successes.
With a sweet, angelic soprano, and the ability to moan and coo in a sexy way, Summers became one of the genre's top voices and carried her career into the mid-2010s. Sadly, she passed away in 2012, but her legacy in disco music will remain.
The Bee Gees
The Bee Gees started as a relatively typical British boy band of the era. They achieved substantial success and continued performing until internal bickering, and other issues led to their breakup. They eventually buried the hatchet and reformed their band in the 1970s, taking their music in a more R&B direction.
By the late 70s, the Bee Gees' career was chugging along nicely, but they had no idea that a life-changing opportunity was right around the corner; their participation in the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was transformative for the band's career. The popularity of the movie and the songs catapulted the group to a new level of fame.
ABBA is often associated with pop music rather than with disco, but its roots in disco music are undeniable. Their style of music is more along the lines of Eurodisco than the American version, and it opened up the doors for so much of the electronic, dance, and house music that flooded the airwaves from the 80's up to today.
ABBA's enjoyed some of the biggest successes of any disco band, releasing hit after hit throughout the 70s and 80s. Countless musicians have covered their music, and ABBA's greatest hits were featured in the 2008 movie Mamma Mia.
Earth, Wind, and Fire
Chicago-based band Earth, Wind, and Fire proved to be aptly named. They were a force of nature on the disco scene, cranking out hits like September, Shining Star, and Boogie Wonderland.
The band was known for their energetic, passionate stage performances and their longevity in the music business. They have continued working and creating in the industry up to the present day, and have won many awards for their accomplishments.
Dozens of famous musicians, including Amy Winehouse, Will i. Am, Beyonce, Usher, and more have claimed Earth, Wind, and Fire among their influences.
Blondie was one of the disco acts who, like Micheal Jackson, evolved their music seamlessly from the 70's disco sound to the 80's pop (or, in the case of Blondie, New Wave/Pop) sound.
Debbie Harry's ethereal vocals on disco hits like “Heart of Glass” and “Dreamin” won audiences over, and her striking beauty and fashionable style didn't hurt either.
Blondie broke up in 1982 but reformed in the 90s and has continued to make music over the years, collaborating with groups like Arcade Fire and Fallout Boy and having their music used in movies and web series. Debbie Harry has also enjoyed somewhat of an acting career, choosing her roles sparsely and wisely.
The History Of Disco Music
Disco is a fusion style of music that evolved from R&B and funk. It incorporates rhythms from around the world, but it is recognized largely as an American invention.
The word “disco” comes from the French word “discotheque,” which comes to us via the European music scene. Discotheques were dance halls where people went to listen to live music. The style of music played at these venues wasn't necessarily what we'd associate with disco music, but the word disco was later applied to dance clubs in the U.S. that utilized records rather than live bands.
This shift from live to recorded music was quite a change from what had previously been done in dance clubs. From the turn of the 20th century up to the years following WW2, live music was king, and most clubs where people went to socialize and dance featured a band of some kind, even if it was a small local group. Playing recorded music inside a club was seen as cheap and inferior. The disco scene changed all that.
With the emerging technology of the 1960s changing the way music was made and played, recorded music gave more leeway for creativity, for example, the ability to dub and layer tracks. The resulting sounds were otherworldly, futuristic, and exciting for the young people who frequented these new kinds of clubs.
In addition to the new sound technologies, recorded music allowed clubgoers more creative expression. When a band plays live music on a stage, the musicians tend to be the focus of attention. But with recorded music, the dancers themselves are allowed to be in the spotlight. The wild clothes, bright makeup, and jaw-dropping dance moves of disco were born and flourished in these environments.
Socially, disco opened doors for people from minority or marginalized groups to be seen and connect with others. Because disco was created from a wide diversity of musical influences, people with roots from all over the world could feel that it was a genre that belonged to them.
In the late 1960s, this mashup of musical styles began growing in popularity among specific subcultures in the U.S.
Many believe that Philadelphia was the birthplace of disco. Still, it also has deep roots in New York City. From dance clubs that primarily featured Black and Latino musicians, the developing genre branched out to underground gay clubs.
What Is Disco Music? Final Thoughts
Disco is a style of dance music that swept the United States and many other countries during the late 1970s. We see the legacy of disco in other forms of dance and electronic music today. Disco also left its mark in the fashion world, inspiring flashy clothes that are easy to dance in.
While the disco era may come off as a bit cheesy and obnoxious to people today, it's important to remember that the music made during that era laid the foundation for much of the popular music we've enjoyed ever since.
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