Rhythm & Blues Musicology

Rhythm-and-Blues or R&B is a medley of diverse, but similar, types of popular music genres produced and primarily supported by African-Americans beginning in the early 1940s. R&B embraces such genres as jump blues, club blues, black rock-n-roll, doo-wop, soul, Motown, funk, disco, and even hip-hop. The term rhythm and blues was first coined in 1949 by Jerry Wexler, who would become prominent with Atlantic Records, to aptly characterize and differentiate black rock-n-roll from white rock-n-roll in the early and mid-1950s. (In the early and mid-1950s black disc jockeys considered white artists, such as Elvis Presley, to be performing the newest style of R&B, while their white counterparts used the term rock-n-roll as a blanket categorization to describe the similar style of both white and black artists).

R&B has become an American institution and has offered perhaps the single greatest influence on all contemporary genres of popular music worldwide for much of the 20th and 21st centuries. This influence can be found in styles of rock-n-roll, country, blues, gospel, hip-hop, and jazz as well as in a variety of non-Western forms of music, such as Nigerian juju (a style of popular dance music) and Algerian rai (a popular rebellious lyrical style). Contemporary Euro- American émigré youths have likewise been influenced by various styles of R&B, as black urban mores have also infused into a wide variety of immigrant cultures.

Bill Withers

Regardless of the vast dissimilarities between genres, such as hip-hop and jump blues, there are common musical and social aspects that connect the many forms of R&B. Musical rhythm is the most important distinguishing characteristic of R&B music and its sub-styles. While all genres of R&B typically depend upon four-beat building blocks (measures or bars) and employ a backbeat (beats two and four accented in each measure), the specific approach to the expression of musical time (the so-called groove) is one of the primary means of differentiating one genre from another, and even one player or band from another.

Timbre (the quality or effect of a sound—e.g., a listener’s ability to distinguish a saxophone from a guitar, or differentiate one vocalist from another) is a significantly unique feature of R&B. The majority of R&B forms and/or subgenres considerably rely on timbre variants during the course of a piece to get and keep a listener’s interest. To give the music a wide range of emotional expression, R&B artists often alternate between soft, easy timbres and discordant, raspy timbres.

There are five other common but essential elements found in R&B in addition to rhythm and timbre. Firstly, R&B incorporates an early blues lyrical structure consisting of a three-lyric line structure and a twelve-bar form. The second common element, derived from West African and altered jazz, is call and response (a musical resonance effect wherein a singer or instrumentalist will sing or play a phrase and another vocalist or instrumentalist will answer with another phrase). The third common element is the continual recurrence of musical notes, rhythms, phrases, or verses. The fourth common element is the use of minor chords or blue notes, while the fifth common element is a closely integrated and intricate unification of instruments, making it more difficult for the listener to be able to aptly distinguish the separate sounds or instruments being played at a given moment.

Sade Adu

Lastly, most R&B performances share familiar instrumentation, with the performing ensemble divided into a rhythm section and a horn section. Characteristically, the rhythm section consists of guitar, bass, piano, or keyboard and a trap or jazz set, while the horn section typically features saxophones, trumpets, and occasionally trombones. It is this emphasis on horns that occurs in most styles of R&B which has historically differentiated it from white rock music.

The history of R&B isn’t as ambiguous or obscure as its parent genres, originating in pre- and continuing through post-World War II. It was in the newly shifted demographics of the Midwest, Northeast, and West Coast, when hundreds of thousands of southern blacks relocated to take advantage of the high-paying wartime jobs, when new styles and sub-genres originated, reflecting the changing predilections of the African-American demographic – these changes directly lead to the development of the stylish sounds of R&B.

The overwhelming sociological revolutions of the World War II period were book-ended between two momentous technological advances: the 1930’s pre-war invention of the electric guitar and the music industry’s post-war discovery of the German-invented tape recorder. The significance of the latter not only made simpler the previously arduous recording process, in addition, it largely removed the prohibitive costs of recording with the relatively affordable technology of magnetic tape, which allowed entrepreneurs to establish independent record companies. And because the major, well-established American record labels (with the exception of Decca Records) showed hardly any interest in the R&B genre, newly established independent companies, such as Atlantic and Modern, were essential in the production and distribution of R&B recordings.

Additionally, the rise of American broadcast television in the late 1940s offered an important industrial change. Speculating that television would soon make radio obsolete, several radio station owners sold their stations at bargain prices. As a result, the new radio station owners, seeing the need to create their niche in the marketplace, frequently turned to newly urbanized African-Americans. In 1948, the Memphis radio station WDIA lead the way for other developing black-oriented radio stations, allowing the new independent record companies to air R&B to their niche black urban audience.

Even though R&B was now being broadcast in niche markets and performed throughout the United States, its first recordings began nearly simultaneously on both coasts. The Tympany Five, a small ensemble, was founded by veteran big-band jazz musician Louis Jordan in 1938. Signed to New York-based Decca Records, Jordan recorded primarily in the up-tempo, horn-driven style known as jump blues. His compositions tended to be based on traditional 12-bar blues and featured appealing horn-section riffs, simplified rhythmic solos, and humorous lyrics. Jordan’s original jump-blues style quickly spread among black musicians, with distinctive regional variants emerging in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis. It was Jordan’s style of jump blues that influenced practically every R&B artist from the 1940s to the early 1960s, including James Brown, B. B. King, and Chuck Berry.

James Brown

While Jordan was developing his jump-blues style, a more serene, subdued style known as club blues was being cultivated by a number of pianists, including Nat “King” Cole and Charles Brown. Often referred to as sepia Sinatras, these artists reflected the crooning vocal style that ultimately characterized this genre. By playing ballads with a highly rhythmic piano style, Cole, like Jordan, was able to break the racial barrier and sell his music to both black and white audiences.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, two other styles of R&B were popular. One was a jump-blues modeled sub-style instrumental, which featured a near discordant, honking tenor saxophone sound; the other was the soon-to-geometrically-explode vocal-group genre.

In the 1950s, the leading sub-styles of the R&B genre began to be heavily marketed toward teenagers instead of adults. The vocal-group style of the 1940s gave way to 1950s doo-wop, which largely featured slower tempo close-harmony singing. Artists were now singing songs rife with lyrical themes that openly expressed concerns of American teenagers, such as school, cars, and of course, rebellion and romance.

But the real music revolution of the 1950s was led by two black rock-n-roll artists: guitarist Chuck Berry and pianist Little Richard. Until their innovation of rhythm in which they subdivided the basic quarter beat into two eighth notes, earlier blues-style artists performed in a three-eighth-note, or triplet, shuffle subdivision. Berry and Little Richard’s up-tempo, iconoclastic approach produced a more electrifying, propulsive groove. And because both artists considerably increased the tempo of their music, it created a frantic style that attracted a large teenage audience. And just like the doo-wop groups of the time, both artists wrote lyrics that embodied the youthful fantasy of their audience. Although Berry and Richard Little were pioneers, creating a new style of music, their true influence wasn’t realized until later decades, as trends in R&B increasingly diverged from rock-n-roll beginning in 1960. It was in this and in later decades when mostly white musicians emulated and developed their up-tempo, frantic style.

In the 1960s the three most dominant forms of R&B were: (1) the gospel-music influenced Chicago soul; (2) the Motown sound, which joined refined songwriting with a clear-cut vocal method; and (3) southern soul, the most heavily gospel-influenced style of R&B.

Curtis Mayfield

Chicago soul was inextricably epitomized by the work of the legendary singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield had a strong propensity to write compositions that included several different lead singers exchanging vocal lines in the traditional jazz call-and-response style. Further trademarks of Mayfield and the Chicago soul genre included the recurrent utilization of falsetto (an artificially high voice – later popularized in the seventies by the Bee Gees), the writing of idiosyncratic parts for stringed instruments, the employment of the vibraphone (a musical percussion instrument), and a song structure that included diminutive two-bar and four-bar interludes, often arranged for unique instrumental combinations such as vibraphones and guitar.

In 1959, the Motown record company was established in Detroit. The small label grew so rapidly in reputation for signing and developing talent it became the standard for the “Motown” sound – so much so that the name of the company became synonymous with a designation for the new Motown genre. The bulk of Motown artists (with few exceptions, such as Stevie Wonder) were vocal groups that modernized the doo-wop style of the 1950s with a heavy, even beat. The productions were also more elaborate than the fifties doo-wop, laden with strings and horns. A trendy style of American songwriting known as Tin Pan Alley heavily influenced Motown compositions and arrangements; as a result their songs became exceedingly well crafted. The Motown record company characterized the sound of American youth through most of the 1960s, making it an unprecedented success for an independent record label.

Southern soul, another R&B sub-genre, was created by singer and pianist Ray Charles and by singer and songwriter James Brown, who later became known as “the Godfather of Soul”. On many of the earliest soul records, Charles would reinvent traditional religious songs by transforming them into a secular love songs. This style was fully achieved by Memphis-based Stax Records and by New York-based Atlantic Records in the mid to late 1960s, on recordings with vocal artists such as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.

The Memphis-based Stax Records developed its own unique, identifiable sound around a studio band consisting of instrumental group Booker T. and the MG’s, keyboardist Isaac Hayes, and the Mar-Key Horn Section (later known as the Memphis Horns) just at the same time Motown records was developing its unique style. Stax was able to achieve real cross-over appeal that translated into record sales, selling to white audiences while engendering sizeable record sales among black audiences due to their star artists, such as Redding and soul duo Sam and Dave, who produced a light, gospel-derived sound.

Owing to further refinements such as the addition of string accompaniments, southern soul continued to be a major presence in popular music throughout the 1970s, boasting such successful artists as the Staple Singers (a family vocal group) and singers Isaac Hayes and Al Green.

Issac Hayes

At the height of soul music’s popularity in the late 1960s, substantial transformations in cultural mores began to be expressed by many black Americans. It was during this time that Black militancy began to make its presence felt, bolstered by an accompaniment of a marked sense of African heritage. Consequently, this cultural and social prominence of African identity found its reflection in popular music.

The 1967 James Brown song “Cold Sweat” signaled the birth of funk. Defining characteristics of African music were unequivocally dominant in funk, such as bringing rhythm to the foreground and de-emphasizing melody and harmony. And like much indigenous African music, funk tracks frequently consisted of a multipart groove in which every instrument actually played a different rhythm, but all sounds would nevertheless fit together, much like a jigsaw puzzle. Contrary to these complex multipart rhythms, entire funk verses and choruses were often written without a chord change. This counter-intuitive style appealed to a number of artists and was widely adopted, perhaps the most significant among them were soul group Sly and the Family Stone and vocalist George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, who fused their funk style with distinct white rock-n-roll elements.

Disco, like funk, was a dance-oriented style that rivaled funk’s popularity in the early 1970s and eventually exceeded it by the middle of the decade. In sharp contrast to funk, disco was dominated by strings and synthesizer arrangements that emphasized the first and third beat, producing a heartbeat-like rhythm. Disco was born from an unlikely yet in-common amalgamation of minorities, principally Latino, black, and gay subcultures. Because of these minority parents, disco prominently featured women, tongue-in-cheek, and gay artists, such as Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Wild Cherry, and The Village People. The genre was met with great derision by mainstream rock musicians and rock fans, but despite the opposition with which it was met, disco managed to give rise to a handful of highly original ensembles, such as Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Fatback Band. The epitome of disco was marked by the 1977 popular movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta, and the soundtrack, contributed by the Bee Gees. Ironically, this proved to be the beginning of the end as the movie and the ubiquitousness of the Bee Gees’ music created an immutable backlash that brought the disco phenomenon to a decided and abrupt end.

By the end of the 1970s, disco had lost its popularity and in the 1980s, it gave way to a number of other genres. Rock-n-roll was beginning to enjoin a rebirth and evolution, but it was during this period, that superstars such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Janet Jackson found success by borrowing from a number of styles while incorporating funk and other styles of dance music. Michael Jackson was heavily influenced by ethnic music from Central and South America and other regions. Although a number of hybrid styles were created during this time, most popular R&B music remained dance-oriented. And with the rise of MTV in the early 1980s, the dancing abilities of performers gained much greater significance.

The most substantial occurrence in popular music in the 1980s and 1990s has been the advent of rap (now referred to as hip-hop), which began as a genre of folk music in New York City’s south Bronx in the mid to late seventies. Hip-hop soon redefined and defied notions of musical composition, copyright protection, and intellectual property.


The roots of hip-hop lie in African and African American verbal games, present in Jamaican Patois (a language derived from English, French, Spanish, African, and Native American); by the late 1960s and 1970s dub artists (DJs talking over recorded music); the work of American disc jockeys of the 1940s and 1950s; and the poetry of a number of black writers of the 1960s, such as the Last Poets and the Lost Prophets. The Jamaican dub and toasting styles of declaimed, semi-spoken vocals were taken to the Bronx by Jamaican émigrés and eventually were fused with a variety of new technologies, such as electronic drum machines and sampling (electronic fragments of existing recorded music).

These culturally-topic rhymes were often layered over samples of earlier artists to form new songs. The first hip-hop recording was “Raper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang (1979) which became a novelty hit. Because of its lack of audience diversity and obscurity from the mainstream, the genre was quickly panned by music critics as merely a fad. Critics cited not only its decidedly lesser audience but the artist’s seeming lack of talent because of their reliance on pre-recorded music.

But in 1986, Run-DMC (now largely credited as being the godfather’s of modern hip-hop) covered Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” and the cover achieved popularity with white audiences. And in 1987, just one year later, racially charged and militantly politically conscious rap found its most prominent voice in Public Enemy. In the late 1980s, one of hip-hop’s most controversial subgenres, gangsta rap, rose to prominence with the debut album Straight Outta Compton (1988) by the group Niggaz with Attitude (N.W.A.).

In the 1990s, hip-hop came to be defined by characteristic elements such as sampling, scratching (a percussive technique distinguished by running a record needle manually across vinyl records), declaimed vocals, and drop bass.

The vocal-group tradition of R&B continues, as does the prominence of solo vocal acts, such as singers Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Luther Vandross.