Even though soul music is just over 70 years old, it has a fascinating history and characteristics that separate it from other genres. But what is soul music?
Borrowing elements from African-American gospel, jazz, and R&B, soul music was integral to American life in the 50s and 60s and is still a worldwide wonder today. Let’s discuss the features of soul and some timeless examples.
A good soul music definition can vary by source. Merriam-Webster defines soul music as a genre that “originated in African-American gospel singing” which is “characterized by intensity of feeling and vocal embellishments.” Another factor of its identity is its close relationship with R&B (rhythm and blues).
Alternatively, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defines soul as “music that arose out of the black experience in America” by combining and transforming gospel and R&B. In doing so, they created “a form of funky, secular testifying.” Many people think of “soul” as a musical personification of what it means to be an African-American.
In each definition, soul is a departure from the religious lyrical themes of gospel music while maintaining some of its style elements. Where a gospel song describes faith and joy, a soul song often paints a picture of desire, hardship, or romance. The genre’s music also puts a stronger emphasis on dancing and body movement.
Soul is a funky, twisted collage of rhythm elements from many different sources. Let’s describe some of the musical characteristics that collectively create this unique genre.
First, let’s detail the common elements soul borrows from its predecessor, gospel. Religious music is typically choral with layered vocals, and in the African-American tradition, many of these songs featured hand-clapping rhythms. Chants and call-and-response sections are also common, and each of these gradually became staples of soul.
The hand-clapping rhythms of gospel meshed well with the heavy, consistent thrums of the popularizing R&B genre in the 50s and 60s. Rhythm and blues brought jazzy rock-and-roll elements to the table, and soul was the result.
As an offshoot of gospel chanting, soul music also often features vocal ad-libbing and improvisation. Over time, soul branched off and inspired the funk genre, which heavily relies on losing oneself in the rhythm and spontaneity of dance. Soul maintains this emphasis on movement with its various beat-driving elements.
Soul arrived on the scene during a very dynamic and influential time for American music. Across its genesis, several more genres like progressive rock, doo-wop, psychedelic, pop, and big band left their mark on soul, creating a category that adapts and grows in history like a living being.
Soul music created many more genres of its own, the most notable being Motown, which focused even more on rhythm and pop elements.
With so many different characteristics, soul is best described as a genre that has complex vocals, jazzy elements, African-American themes, and a driving rhythm that makes you want to dance.
Since its conception in the 1950s, soul music has accrued an impressive repertoire of timeless hits. Soul artists span from icons like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles to groovy gurus such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples soul music has to offer.
This 1967 hit sits in the Grammy Hall of Fame for its “historical” and “artistic” value. It was written a year earlier, but Gaye’s rendition rocketed the song to its present iconic state. The song details a man’s struggle in knowing that his lover is about to break their ties after hearing a rumor “through the grapevine.”
The song’s meaning, lyrics, and instrumentals mimic the blues while a consistent tambourine rhythm keeps your toes tapping. The backup vocals, oohs, and ahs take after classic gospel singing tenets. Finally, Gaye ad-libs with every bemoaned “yeah yeah yeah” in his sorrow over the woman. Altogether, these elements create a classic, world-renowned soul song.
Bill Withers’ 1972 “Lean on Me” is the most recognizable track in his fifteen-year music career. This song also secured a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, due to its encouragement of unity and significance during world efforts for peace. This song is lyrically much closer to gospel, as the singer offers themself as someone to rely on in times of struggle.
The song is considered by many to be gospel itself or gospel-adjacent since perseverance and unity are often religious concepts. The choir backing and lead piano take inspiration from church-style organs and hymns, and the song has touches of vocal improvisations during the chorus.
“Lean on Me” is secondarily significant for its retrospective demonstration of black attitudes during the American Civil Rights Movement. By singing about the dependence and coalition of black Americans at that time, Withers created an eternally impactful, soulful song.
1972 was a big year for soul music, with both “Lean on Me” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” hitting the air. This track earned a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and still holds up as an example of soul and funk. The song lyrics warn against the dangers of believing in things “you don’t understand,” suggesting that life is better without the weight of superstitions.
The message departs from gospel with its secular ideals, and Stevie himself is the main source of vocals in this song. However, the driving beat, African-American roots, vocal improv, and use of jazz instruments synthesize into a proper soul song. It stands at the forefront of Stevie Wonder’s grand musical legacy.
In 1967, Aretha released this soulful single. It reached number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and gained even more traction following Franklin’s death. It’s a contemporary gospel-inspired song in which the singer meets someone who makes her feel flawless and helps her find self-worth. In Aretha’s vast repertoire of signature songs, this track sits near the top.
The repetition in the chorus, female vocal backing, and the call-and-response verses are all elements inspired by African-American church songs. The jazzy, orchestral string instruments and a calming ever-present beat create a song that sways and grooves. Altogether, “A Natural Woman” is a strong example of the uniquely soulful sound black female artists make.
This 1966 track hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold millions of copies, making it Percy Sledge’s claim to musical fame. It’s a slow track jam-packed with jazzy instrumentals and Sledge’s soulful tenor outcry. The song describes how helpless and irrational attractions can make us act, a theme befitting the blues.
The song’s style takes after rhythm and blues primarily, evident in its tempo and instrumental accompaniments. Sledge holds long vocal notes, leaning closely into the mic to exemplify his passion. This form of body movement is commonplace with soul performers because it amplifies the struggle, desire, and impulsiveness of love.
In 1999, this song entered the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Martha & the Vandellas rolled out a handful of snazzy soul classics, including this one in 1964. The song was written years prior by Marvin Gaye, but the Vandellas brought it to the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics paint a youthful picture of dancing across the world, illustrating the joy of music bringing people together.
This track is regarded as a top Motown hit as it takes soul in the direction of pop and rock-and-roll. It features a more involved and stark drum beat, but still maintains the vocal qualities of soul and a rhythm that makes you want to dance.
“My Girl” is a 1965 Motown track that made the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. It is at the forefront of The Temptations’ chart-toppers and is credited with the popularization of the Motown genre, which is a pop-infused offshoot of soul music. The song elaborates the singer’s beaming pride and joy: his lover, who is worth more than any riches or fame.
While Motown has pop elements like key changes and innocent lyrics, it is still under the rhythmic umbrella of soul music. One reason is that, like soul, Motown was integral to the black experience in 20th century America. In addition, it still features jazz instruments, interwoven vocal parts, and steady rhythms.
Soul musicians are not just producers of groovy hits and top tracks. Many of them have had an irreversible impact on the love and evolution of music itself. With so many talented artists to choose from, it’s difficult to pick just five worthy of being called the best. Regardless, let’s discuss the primary candidates for that role, their histories, and their legacies.
To call Stevie Wonder a prodigy would be an understatement. Despite being born blind, he joined a Motown record label at age 11 and produced a Billboard number one at 13 years old. Many of Stevie’s hits reference or reflect on his experiences growing up as a blind African-American. Themes of his home life and church are easy to find in his music.
He is attributed not only to soul, but to jazz, R&B, and more. His masterful use of synthesizers in the 70s helped soul evolve into electro-soul and funk. Some of his hit songs include “Superstition,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” and “Higher Ground.” In 2014, he earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to racial peace through music.
This band might be the reason why the Motown genre exists today. The Temptations formed in Detroit, Michigan, the “motor town” itself, and produced an impressive series of top hits with Motown Records. Having sold tens of millions of albums, The Temptations set many records, not only for soul musicians, but for black artists worldwide.
The beautifully distinct vocal harmonies and choreography of the band are its icons. They managed to produce four Billboard number-one singles and fourteen number-one R&B singles, and six of the band's members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
“My Girl,” “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” and “Cloud Nine” are some of their timeless tracks.
Ray Charles deserves a spot on any soul-based list, being that he pioneered the genre almost single-handedly. Like Stevie Wonder, Charles was born blind, but it didn’t stop him from creating beautiful music in the 1950s with ABC records. Regarding black musicians, he was among the first allowed to exercise full artistic control by a well-known record label.
Charles weaved blues, rhythm, jazz, and gospel into each of his hits, including his famous first chart-topper, “Georgia On My Mind.” He continued to integrate country and pop styles into music, facilitating the dynamic evolution of the soul genre. It’s no surprise that he accumulated an astounding 18 Grammy Awards, 5 of which were granted after his death in 2004.
Colloquially crowned as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha has become an icon of black female musical mastery. Her exploits in gospel, soul, and jazz singing netted her 117 featured hits on the Billboard Hot 100. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, being the first woman musician to do so. Rolling Stone ranks her as the number-one singer of all time.
Some of her hits include “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Think.” Franklin has sold over 75 million albums worldwide, making her one of the world’s bestselling musicians. Her popularity has surged again following her death in 2018, and she continues to be an icon for soul musicians and women of all races.
Marvin Gaye is an unforgettable example of both hope and tragedy. Through his music career, he was crowned “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul,” winning several Grammy awards and contributing to the popularization of both genres. Some of his hits include “ I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”.
Unfortunately, Gaye’s impact on music and life itself was mostly experienced posthumously. He experienced a tragic death at the hands of his father in 1984, right before his 45th birthday. His father faced jail time and the horrors of Marvin’s life growing up were revealed. Gaye’s musical career was a triumph through adversity, but it did not resolve happily.
It’s because of the tragedies surrounding Marvin Gaye that he became so influential. Many black artists have produced songs in tribute to him, and he has been inducted into several halls of fame since his death. His soulful, gospel-inspired hits are still among some of the most award-winning songs ever written.
Soul music was first popularized as a concept in America in the 1950s. It began as a synthesis of gospel, rhythm, blues, and jazz, most commonly by African-American singers. Some sources attribute soul’s genesis to the “5” Royales, which were a music group that turned from gospel singing to creating R&B songs.
However, Ray Charles is often cited as the pioneer and primary popularizer of soul music beginning in 1954. Little Richard and James Brown were some of Charles’ contemporaries, each influencing the sound of the genre. Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson are other forefathers of soul.
Each of these artists was viewed as enigmas in their time, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that soul was diverse enough to be called a genre. Artists like Ben E. King and Solomon Burke inspired soul record companies like Stax, which in turn produced more musicians like Otis Redding. From then on, many diverse artists across America jumped on the soul bandwagon.
Stax, Motown, and Atlantic were the primary labels producing soul artists, and their combined popularity played an integral part in the American Civil Rights Movement. Soul songs heralded the humanity, passion, and struggles of being an African-American. The genre began to exemplify what it meant to be a black person in the United States.Today, many soul hits are regarded as classics, and resurgences arise as artists like Aretha Franklin pass away.
In 1994, neo-soul was recognized as an official genre, borrowing many elements of soul but with a modern twist. This includes incorporating influences from the then nascent hip hop genre or the more poppy and smooth contemporary R&B of the 90s, which is perhaps best exemplified by Lauryn Hill in her breakthrough solo album, titled The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Some notable neo-soul artists include John Legend and Raheem DeVaughn. Contemporary examples include musicians such as Solange, Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak.
While soul is seldom considered popular music today, it continues to leave marks that evolve gracefully with current events and with music as a whole. Many rising artists are pushing neo-soul forward in an attempt to mimic the success of the genre which uniquely captures the black experience.
So, what is soul music? Now you know. It’s a harmonic mixture of singers and instruments with a steady beat, an energizing rhythm, and a cultural story to tell. It’s a melting pot of gospel, blues, jazz, and more. It’s constantly changing, evolving, and responding to itself. For many, it’s a musical chronicle of equality, peace, desire, and reconciliation.