Dr. Disco, I Presume
September 5, 2007 5:57 PM   Subscribe

What makes disco disco? In particular, what makes it different from funk, r & b or soul? Is it the arrangement? Is it the beat? Is it the horns? Details please.
posted by wittgenstein to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
all beat, no soul
posted by caddis at 6:01 PM on September 5, 2007

It's the beat. From here:

It definitely centers around a strong 1-2 bass beat (usually 4/4), at 120/minute or thereabouts. And that beat is almost always carried with the bass drum.

And text book, classic disco follows the bass drum down beat with a tap on an open hi hat cymbal, on the upbeat immediately following the bass down beat. And the hi hat is closed a fraction before the next down beat.
posted by item at 6:05 PM on September 5, 2007

Well, according to Electronic Dance Music, Part I, a podcast at Pandora, it's a four-on-the-floor bass with a high-hat ride on the off-beat. If I remember correctly.
posted by ctmf at 6:07 PM on September 5, 2007

The first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Disco gives some details of the musical characteristics which distinguish the sound (although it's not contrasted to soul etc in that article)
posted by southof40 at 6:08 PM on September 5, 2007

I'm pretty sympathetic to the 4/4, 120bpm, etc. explanation, but there's an alternate one: Like pop, or bubblegum, or hip-hop, or punk, disco is disco because somebody says it is.

I've recommended it here before, but Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around: A Secret History of Disco is one of the best pop-music books I've ever read.
posted by box at 7:16 PM on September 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Also, musical movements/genres tend to be defined by extramusical factors like styles of dress-- disco being a pretty clear example of this.
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:20 PM on September 5, 2007

it's a four-on-the-floor bass with a high-hat ride on the off-beat

Yup. wikipedia also adds: "soaring, often reverberated vocals and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. Strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and unlike in rock, lead guitar is rarely used." That all sounds about right to me. I'm also inclined to say that minor keys were very common in disco songs.

I'm pretty sympathetic to the 4/4, 120bpm, etc. explanation, but there's an alternate one: Like pop, or bubblegum, or hip-hop, or punk, disco is disco because somebody says it is.

I'd say that disco is disco because many people say it is. But that's just linguistic descriptivism.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:34 PM on September 5, 2007

There is overlap between disco and other similar musics but disco is meant to be danced and danced fast. The more popular disco songs have a rhythym that can be danced to with the hustle although there are other disco dances. Hustle is the main dance you think of when you think of disco dancing.
posted by JJ86 at 6:18 AM on September 6, 2007

The difference between funk and disco is a good one to start with. Classic funk has "everything on the one" — the whole rhythm section hits the first beat of the bar hard and all in unison, while the other three beats are filled with looser and more syncopated stuff. You can find songs where the drummer doesn't play anything at all on the second beat, songs where he leaves off the third beat, songs where he leaves off the fourth beat, but the one is mandatory.

Disco, on the other hand, has the "four on the floor" rhythm that folks have been mentioning. There's equal weight on all four beats, the drummer always plays on all four of them, and the first isn't singled out for special emphasis. This leaves less room for syncopation, and what syncopation there is is less pervasive because there's always that steady "thump thump thump thump" anchoring it.

(If you want to hear the same beat in other styles, try house, which is descended from disco, and early glam like T. Rex, which preceded it.)

There's also a difference in song structure. Funk and disco are both repetitive, but they handle the repetition differently. In funk, the band will sit on a groove for a few minutes, maybe play a few solos, and then suddenly transition to a new one. ("Take me to the bridge!") In disco, on the other hand, you get the orchestral build — a different arrangement each time the melody repeats, getting higher, denser and richer each time, and sort of "spilling over" into the bridge or final verse when it's reached its highest peak.

(FWIW, these slow, carefully orchestrated builds are one of disco's biggest gifts to house music, and to electronic music in general. The techniques are different — tweaking a filter to change an electronic tone rather than adding instruments to change the orchestra's tone, f'rinstance — but the basic idea is the same.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:52 AM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh Jesus, this is actually a huge subject, especially the incestuous relationship between funk and disco. I'd say that generally I'm with nebulawindphone, the four-on-the-floor is a big thing to look out for (although it isn't the only indicator) and the orchestral build is the big giveaway, but equally important is the similarity between tracks. Disco was meant to be DJ-ed so all tracks have to be at a similar tempo (the classic 120). Anyone who has DJ-ed funk will tell you that isn't the case. Lastly as a result of this DJ-ing disco is famed for it's massive introductions (some of which last 1/2 the length of the track in the case of Dan Hartman's 'Relight my Fire') , this is something that doesn't happen in funk.

Actually the who story is a little more complicated than this (as I hinted at above -many funk bands turned to disco even whilst decrying the genre) but for the most part the differences outlined above (and as I said nicely by nebulawindphone) are enough to go on.
posted by ob at 7:37 AM on September 6, 2007

The book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey has a chapter on disco as well as an overall tracing of different musical styles relevant to the history of the DJ. The book starts out kind of dry (covering the history of pre-recorded music and turntables) but picks up once the club scenes start to develop. The chapter on disco (plus other chapters on related sub-genres like Hi-NRG and Italo Disco) is particularly interesting.
posted by gspm at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2007

bwa chicka bow bow.........
posted by chump at 1:40 PM on September 6, 2007

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