A Diversity of Sounds in Disco Music

Many people claim “All disco sounds the same.” This study will definitively disprove that argument using specific examples showing the incorporation of sounds and motifs from such musical traditions as jazz, reggae, soul, gospel, funk, rock, heavy metal, country, and the music of many cultures around the world (Indians, Brazilians, Cubans, Arabs, Balinese, Chinese, Greeks, etc.).

Disco music developed in the early 1970s to cater to nightclub audiences. For this reason, there is a mostly consistent beat to keep people moving on the dancefloor. The basic tempo of disco is approximately 120 beats per minute (that’s about 2 beats per second), with alternating bass and snare drumbeats, and often cymbals filling the gaps between the beats. While most disco falls into the range of 115-130 beats per minute, disco can be as fast as 135-140 beats per minute, or as slow as approximately 100 beats per minute. At a minimum, in addition to the beat (which must be sustained at about 2 beats per second through substantial portions of the song, usually for at least 30 seconds worth), disco usually features a bass guitar player, and often a rhythm guitar player as well. This bass playing usually must be in a disco/funk style rather than the kind of rock style heard in songs like “How Long” by Ace or most of “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard. In the absence of the bass guitar or a synthesized sound indistinguishable from live bass to still qualify as disco the overall sound must trend towards disco rather than electro and there usually must be one of the following combinations: (a) prominent rhythm or rock guitar combined with horns and/or real strings, or (b) prominent real strings combined with two or more other real instruments. If any lyrics can be heard in the song, at least some of those lyrics have to be sung rather than spoken, or else the song is generally classified as rap. Songs are not disco if they have the pattern 2 standard beats per second then 3 beats in the next second and 2 and 3 in succession in the beat pattern that continues; exceptions are hustle-disco songs where the extra beat does not break the consistency in the timing of the other beats and does not sound the same because it is played on a different type of drum.


  • DISCO This type of traditional disco is the most basic and common of all. It is highly danceable, with a mostly consistent beat, often has a catchy repeated chorus and background vocals, and often has a repetitive bassline pattern. Disco usually has both bass players and rhythm guitar players to build the groove. Even without moving out of this one category, one can find a lot of diversity – some basic disco songs are punctuated by saxophones, flutes, harps, latin percussion, sound effects, and other unexpected sounds, and only some of them contain violins. Disco from Europe with simple melodies and uncomplicated lyrics, and sometimes a slightly slower tempo, is often called “Eurodisco”. The band Chic’s arrangements often employed a stripped-down version of disco, emphasizing a heavy bass and intricately-played rhythm guitar, often with little or no input from a string section, that became very popular and imitated during the early 1980s.       —- Examples of disco:
           “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson (1976)
           “Shake Your Groove Thing” by Peaches and Herb (1978)
           “Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance” by Melba Moore (1978)
           “Dance With You” by Carrie Lucas (1979)       —- Examples of Eurodisco:
           “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention (1975)
           “Spring Affair” by Donna Summer (1976)
           “In the Navy” by the Village People (1979)
           “Soy tu Venus” by Baccara (2004)       —- Examples of stripped-down disco:
           “Good Times” by Chic (1979)
           “I Shoulda Loved Ya” by Narada Michael Walden (1979)
           “Paradise” by Change (1981)
           “Rock It” by Lipps, Inc. (1979)
    This lightweight kind of disco is, as the name implies, very popular, with particularly “poppish” sound and content that makes it more suitable for radio play than nightclub spinning. The singing is often typical of other pop songs.
           —- Examples:
           “Sandy” by Jorge Santana (1978)
           “Different Worlds” by Maureen McGovern (1979)
           “Daddy Cool” by Boney M (1976)
           “On the Shelf” by Donny and Marie Osmond (1978)
    This takes traditional disco to a whole new level, loaded with violins, violas, cellos, trumpets, trombones, vibraphones, and other orchestral instruments. Sometimes it sounds like a symphony set to a disco beat. Many songs of this type do, in fact, have entire orchestras participating.
           —- Examples:
           “Love Ballad” by George Benson (1979)
           “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” by Barry White (1974)
           “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by M.F.S.B. featuring the Three Degrees (1974)
           “Runaway” by the Salsoul Orchestra featuring Loleatta Holloway (1977)
    These are usually disco versions of musical standards that retain the typical bombastic and energetic singing style of the theater. This is usually a specialized variety of orchestrated disco.
           —- Examples:
           “I Could Have Danced All Night” by Mary Welch (1979)
           “Maybe This Time” by Norma Lewis (1983)
           “If My Friends Could See Me Now” by Linda Clifford (1978)
           “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” by Festival (1979)
    Yet another kind of orchestrated disco, this kind sounds like it would work in a concert hall with the audience sitting down, but for the disco beat. There are lots of disco versions of compositions by Beethoven, Bach, Puccini, Rymsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Strauss, and others.
           —- Examples:
           “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy (1976)
           “Flight ’76” by Walter Murphy (1976)
           “Classically Elise” by Dino Solera and the Munich Machine (1976)
           “Butterfly Disco” by James Adler and Madame Moth (1979)
    This type of “high energy” disco, also known as “gay disco” due to its popularity among American homosexual club-goers during the 1980s, uses a faster tempo than most disco songs, and the bassline can be distinctive or ultra-bouncy. Lots of electronic sounds can be heard.
           —- Examples:
           “Fire Night Dance” by Peter Jacques Band (1979) – 133 beats per minute
           “Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven” by Two Tons of Fun (1980) – 131 beats per minute
           “Up on the Roof” by Viola Wills (1980) – 125 beats per minute
           “Disco Kicks” by Boys Town Gang (1981) – 134 beats per minute
    With this kind of disco, the tempo is usually slower than for most disco songs, with noticeably less than 120 beats per minute, but the disco flavor is still very evident. Mellow disco is often very relaxing and not particularly designed for dancing.
           —- Examples:
           “Hot Butterfly” by Bionic Boogie (1978) – 95 beats per minute
           “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention (1975) – 101 beats per minute
           “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer (1975) – 97 beats per minute
           “You Stepped into My Life” by Melba Moore (1978) – 110 beats per minuteELECTRO-DISCO
    This kind of disco lacks violins throughout the duration of the song but does have electronics or keyboards present.
  • Has electronica + lacks strings = electro-disco
  • Has electronica + has strings = disco
  • Lacks electronica + has strings = disco
  • Lacks electronica + lacks strings = disco
    With electro-disco, often the electronic influence is heavy throughout the song. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, electro-disco became increasingly common, and led the way towards the eventual domination of totally electronic forms of dance music. Early releases of “italo-disco” from Italy were often electro-disco, but as time went on all real instruments were removed from the italo-disco repertoire.
    —- Examples:
    “Happy is the Only Way” by Sine (1977)
    “Dancer” by Gino Soccio (1979)
    “Saturday Night” by Herbie Hancock (1980)
    “New York Moving” by Ahzz (1981)DISCO-SOUL / R&B-DISCO
    Since disco was largely born from African-American soul music, it is only natural for disco to draw from the soul tradition. Disco-soul tracks have noticeable roots in 1960s Motown and 1970s Philly soul. The singing is ultra-soulful and deep in meaning. The messages are often about romance.
    —- Examples:
    “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls (1976)
    “Hold On I’m Coming” by Precious Wilson (1979)
    “Can’t Do Without You” by Eddie Horan (1978)
    “Helpless” by Jackie Moore (1980)GOSPEL-DISCO
    These tracks are very soulfully sung, with religious themes drawn from the African-American church tradition. Sometimes a gospel chorus sings along.
    —- Examples:
    “My Sweet Lord” by Roberta Kelly (1978)
    “Sell My Soul” by Sylvester (1980)
    “He’s a Friend” by Eddie Kendricks (1976)
    “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” by the Gospelaires of Dayton, O. (1978)FUNK-INFLUENCED DISCO
    The most distinctive element here is the extra-funky bass playing, more funky than usual! You may also find prominent horns.
    “Funky disco” means standard disco or electro-disco with an extra funky flavor. Usually this means that the bass player comes from a funk background and plays in a particularly stellar and heavy manner. These songs are, nevertheless, obviously disco rather than funk, and their tempo is usually around 120 beats per minute rather than a bit less than that.
           —- Examples of funky disco:
           “Walk Right Now” by the Jacksons (1980) – funky disco
           “We Got the Groove” by the Players Association (1980) – funky electro-disco
           “First True Love Affair” by Jimmy Ross (1981) – funky electro-disco
    “Disco-funk” designates a hybrid that can simultaneously fall into the funk and disco categories, because it’s even more funky than “funky disco”. For instance, the words might be sung in a “funk” manner (for comparison, think the Brothers Johnson with their funk hit “Get the Funk Out Ma Face” and the Commodores with their funk hit “Brick House”). Some of these songs may have a tempo around 110-115 beats per minute. The drum beats might sound more funky and more interesting than a typical disco beat sound.
           —- Examples of disco-funk:
           “Skate to the Rhythm” by High Inergy (1979) – electro-disco-funk
           “You and I” by Rick James (1978) – disco-funk
           “All Night Thing” by Invisible Man’s Band (1979) – disco-funkROCK-DISCO
    This popular form of disco incorporates classic rock stylings. Usually the rock influence is the use of a prominent rock guitar, and often there’s a 1970s hard rock attitude in the way the lyrics are sung. Altogether this style is gritty and raw. Many rock musicians during the 1970s appreciated disco and tried their hand at it, but somehow a sharp split emerged between rock fans and disco fans by the end of the 1970s, even though there was potential for additional cross-polination between the two genres.
    —- Examples:
    “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer (1979)
    “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones (1978)
    “Spacer” by Sheila and B. Devotion (1979)
    “For Your Love” by Chilly (1978)PUNK-DISCO
    Punk rock fans usually didn’t like disco, but at least one major punk band, Blondie, decided to experiment with disco anyway. The result was a number one hit on the Billboard Pop chart.
    —- Example:
    “Heart of Glass” by Blondie (1978)METAL-DISCO
    These songs have a heavy metal sound, especially due to the aggressive guitars, making these songs edgy and loud.
    —- Examples:
    “20th Century Foxes” by Angel (1980)
    “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” by KISS (1979)
    “Fire” by Mantus (1980)
    “Danger! High Voltage” by Electric Six (2001)COUNTRY-DISCO
    Based on country music from the American South, this style of disco is an unusual and rare blend. Did Americans really need to make such an abrupt change from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Urban Cowboy”? Maybe they could have mixed the two some more!
    —- Examples:
    “Baby I’m Burnin'” by Dolly Parton (1978)
    “Double S” by Bill Anderson (1979)
    “I Can’t Wait Any Longer” by Bill Anderson (1978)
    “Yippy-i-aye Yippy-i-yo (Ghostriders in the Sky)” by Boots Clements (1981)BLUEGRASS DISCO
    This music evokes the Appalachian Mountains region and Texas with its use of the banjo and traditional American bluegrass and folk melodies.
    —- Examples:
    “Tennessee Waltz” by Silver Blue (1978)
    “Disco Banjo (Mister Banjo, Yellow Rose of Texas, Oh Suzannah)” by Leslie O’Hara (1978)

    This very rare kind of disco draws from the cajun and zydeco musical heritages of the French Cajun and Creole peoples of Louisiana, USA.
    —- Examples:
    “Bayou Village” by Voyage (1978)
    “Nuclear Night” by Crystal Disco Band (1979)
    “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” by Silver Blue (1978)

    Jazzy disco brings in another uniquely American style of music, jazz, along with the big band swing variety of jazz. Sometimes the singing is jazzy, but one constant is the emphasis on the horn section or (in the case of George Benson’s music) the jazz guitar. Improvisation is one of the great things about jazz, and you can hear creative jazz musicianship in many of the songs in this sub-genre of disco. Some of these songs are original while others are disco remakes of jazz standards.
    —- Examples:
    “Minnie the Moocher (Disco Version)” by Cab Calloway (1978) – old-fashioned jazz
    “Cherchez la Femme/Se Si Bon” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976) – old-fashioned jazz
    “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye” by Tuxedo Junction (1979) – old-fashioned jazz
    “Turn the Music Up!” by the Players Association (1979) – contemporary jazz
    “Love X Love” by George Benson (1980) – contemporary jazz

    The disco boom in India occurred several years after those in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom, especially during 1982 and continuing until the late 1980s. Indian disco songs were often included on 1980s Bollywood film soundtracks. They often featured Indian instruments and Indian-styled sweeping violins and blaring horns. Sometimes extra drums give them that Indian flavor; other times Indian string or wind instruments do the trick, such as the sitar. Some of the tracks are in the English language, while others are in Hindi or another language of India.
    —- Examples:
    “I am a Disco Dancer” by Vijay Benedict and the “Disco Dancer” Chorus (1982)
    “Raat Baaqi Baat Baaqi” by Asha Bhosle, Bappi Lahiri, and Shashi Kapoor (1982)
    “Yaar Mila” by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle (1983)
    “Osa Osa” by Bappi Lahiri (1983)

    The tropical islands in the Pacific provided inspiration to several disco artists. Hawaiian disco songs, for instance, have Hawaiian themes, instruments, and patterns. The music evokes images of sandy beaches and dancing women in grass skirts.
    —- Examples:
    “Tahiti, Tahiti” by Voyage (1979) – Tahitian flavored
    “Blue Hawaii Disco” by Bart Bascone (1979) – Hawaiian flavored
    “Moon of Monakoora” by Nohelani Cypriano (1979) – Hawaiian flavored
    “Aloha-Oe, Until We Meet Again” by Goombay Dance Band (1980) – Hawaiian flavored

    The European group Voyage explored many international styles of music, and among these were the Kechak (Kecak) dance songs of the Indonesian island of Bali. With Kechak, a choir of men sit in a circle and repeatedly chant something approximating “chak-a-chak-a-chak” in a hypnotic way.
    —- Example:
    “Kechak Fantasy” by Voyage (1979)

    These songs draw from the traditional music of China.
    —- Examples:
    “Take Me to Chinatown” by Ultimate (1979)
    “Dheere Dheere” by Zoheb Hassan (1982)
    “Let Me Be Your Radio (Radio Show)” by Red Dragon Band
    “China-Na” by Jumbo (1976)

    This very rare kind of disco utilizes instruments of Japan, such as the koto (a 13-stringed zither), to create a strikingly beautiful sound.
    —- Example:
    “Lion Dance” by Hiroshima (1979)
    “Doctor Dragon Theme” by Doctor Dragon (1976)

    This type of disco draws from the music of the Arabs, Persians, and Anatolian Turks.
    —- Examples:
    “Sandstorm” by La Bionda (1978)
    “Orient Express” by Voyage (1978)

    Reggae music from Jamaica, with its characteristic staccato guitar chording, plays a role in several disco songs. The music of other Caribbean islands is also represented here, such as that of the Bahamas and of Trinidad. K.C. and the Sunshine Band was influenced by the junkanoo music of the Bahamas. You can hear prominent Trinidadian steel drums in the music of John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Orchestra.
    —- Examples:
    “Good Times” by Risco Connection (1979) – reggae-influenced
    “I’m Caught Up” by Risco Connection (1980) – reggae-influenced
    “Nassau’s Disco” by Mucho Plus (1979) – Bahamas-influenced
    “Trinidad” by John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Orchestra (1978) – Trinidad-influenced
    “Gotta Go Home” by Boney M (1979)
    “Caribbean Girl” by Goombay Dance Band (1980)
    “Praise Jah” by Oluko Umo

    Latin American and Spanish influences are very prominent in latin-disco. This type especially draws from the music of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Spain. Sometimes the latin flavor manifests itself in the style of horn playing, other times with the Spanish guitar, often joined by castanets, and sometimes also the lyrics are in Spanish.
    —- Examples:
    “Como Vamos A Gozar (Good Times)” by Charanga 76 (1979)
    “Que Sera Mi Vida (If You Should Go)” by Gibson Brothers (1979)
    “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda (1977)
    “Everybody Salsa” by Modern Romance (1981)

    This crucial sub-genre of disco usually has an extra hustle drumbeat attached to the end of every 4 beats, and this extra beat doesn’t sound like the other beats, hence maintaining the usual 4/4 disco bassdrum-snaredrum-bassdrum-snaredrum pattern. This music is often played for couples dancing to hustle steps. The hustle was a dance that developed among Latino communities in the USA in the early 1970s, and became popularized thanks to Van McCoy’s monster hit “The Hustle”.
    —- Examples:
    “Hey Girl, Come and Get It” by the Stylistics (1974)
    “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (1975)
    “I’ll Play the Fool” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976)
    “Crying” by Instant Funk (1979)

    This style of disco contains the rhythms and/or energetic style of jazz trumpet playing that are common in Brazil, especially in samba music. Some of these songs have typical Brazilian percussive instruments like cuicas, cowbells, claves, conga drums, etc. Others have a Brazilian style of horn playing. Some of the songs are sung in Portuguese. This music can evoke the spirit of Carnival.
    —- Examples:
    “Disco Samba” by Two Man Sound (1979)
    “Brazilian Lullaby” by the Mike Theodore Orchestra (1977)
    “I’ll Tell You” by Sergio Mendes Brasil ’88 (1979)
    “Mude o Baile” by BsB Disco Club (2002)

    This type of disco is inspired by the traditional instrumentation of various European cultures, and is sometimes sung in European languages to enhance the regional flavor.
    —- Examples:
    “Disco Bouzouki” by Disco Bouzouki Band (1977) – Greek flavor
    “Marathon” by Neoton Familia (1980) – Greek flavor
    “Stivali E Colbacco” by Adriano Celentano (1979) – Italian flavor
    “Scotch Machine” by Voyage (1978) – Scottish flavor
    “Rasputin” by Boney M (1978) – Russian flavor

    These songs often feature African drumming patterns and may be sung in the Swahili language.
    —- Examples:
    “A.I.E. (A’mwana)” by Black Blood (1975)
    “Su Ku Leu” by Tantra (1980)
    “Ashewo Ara” by Kabbala (1982)
    “Shakara Oloje-Lady” by Ephraim Uzomechina Nzeka

    Born from stripped-down disco (a specialty of groups like Chic and Change) and funk, with artists like the Fatback Band, Sugarhill Gang, and Kurtis Blow leading the way, mainstream rap soon lost its disco undercurrent, but during the 1980s there were some songs that still incorporated disco rhythms and sounds with a combination of sung and spoken lyrics. One minute the song is old-school rap, the next minute it’s disco.
    —- Examples:
    “Use Your Body and Soul” by Crown Heights Affair (1980)
    “Queen of the Rapping Scene (Nothing Ever Goes the Way You Plan)” by Modern Romance (1981)
    “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” by Indeep (1982)
    “Get Down to the Floor (Can You Feel It?)” by James Taylor Quartet (JTQ) featuring Roy Ayers (2003)

    House music was largely developed in Chicago during the early 1980s. Many house songs incorporate the piano as a major instrument. The house beat is more mechanical and computerized than many kinds of disco beat, and generally louder, but with hybrid disco-house songs the overall sound remains disco at its core: there’s still a real bass player and often a real rhythm guitar player and/or even a violin section. Sometimes there are computer-generated builds and fades within a song. Disco-house became very popular in nightclubs around the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some disco-house tracks include samples of old disco classics, while others are entirely original, and others still are remixes of current pop hits.
    —- Examples:
    “I Don’t Understand It” by Ultra Nate (2001)
    “Don’t Stop the Music” by Lionel Richie (2001)
    “Love Don’t Cost A Thing (Full Intention Club Mix)” by Jennifer Lopez (2001)
    “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” by Modjo (2000)

    Conclusion: Far from being uniform, predictable, and boring, disco is in fact the most diverse music there is!


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