Disco Music

The Music's Driving Beats and Orchestral Sound Defined the '70s

Low Angle View Of Illuminated Disco Ball
Tewakorn Ketnuam / EyeEm / Getty Images

Disco music is a genre that developed in nightclubs in the 1960s and 1970s. It's made up of parts of different musical traditions, including soul, funk, Motown and even salsa and meringue. This is music meant to be danced to and was a precursor to club music, trance and hip-hop music of the 1990s and beyond. 

The word disco comes from the French word discotheque, a term used to describe the dance nightclubs people went to during the 1960s and 70s. 

Disco spawned several specific dances, including the Hustle, the Bump, and the YMCA. The latter was popularized by the Village People, one of the first singing groups of gay men to have a song hit the mainstream music charts. 

Disco Musical Style

In addition to a time signature of 4/4 and a fast tempo, disco music was characterized by the so-called "four on the floor" rhythm style. This is when the bass drum plays on the "on" beats and the hi-hat cymbal plays on the "off" beats. 

A reverb or echo effect was often applied to the vocal tracks in disco songs. Most songs followed the traditional pop verse and chorus structure.

At first, disco music was a staple of nightclubs, with disc jockeys playing and mixing songs like "Get Down Tonight" by KC and the Sunshine Band, "Never Can Say Goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor and other artists. But those songs eventually made their way onto the airwaves, and into the mainstream music arena.

History of Disco Music

In its beginnings, disco was about the singers and the arrangements. 

Later on, the tempo of these songs became faster, the playing time longer and songs from other genres such as funk were mixed in. By the mid-1970s, disco music dominated the airwaves with songs like "If I Can't Have You" by Yvonne Elliman and later, "More Than A Woman," "Night Fever," "Stayin' Alive" and "You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees gaining in popularity.

Soon, disco music could also be heard in movies, most notably in the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever," starring a young John Travolta as a disco dancer trying to make it big. Disco became so popular that more mainstream pop and rock artists like Cher, Kiss and Rod Stewart recorded disco songs. By the 1980s, the appeal of disco music dwindled but made a brief comeback during the 90s.

The Legacy of Disco Music

Although its popularity had a relatively short life span compared to other genres of modern popular music, disco produced many classic songs, some by artists who ventured into other genres, like The Rolling Stones, and some by singers and bands whose careers and musical legacies were confined to the disco era, like Donna Summer and the BeeGees. A few of the more notable disco songs of the 1970s and 1980s included:

  • "I Love the Nightlife" by Alicia Bridges
  • "Ring My Bell" by Anita Ward
  • "Good Times" by Chic
  • "Upside Down" by Diana Ross
  • "Love to Love You Baby," "Bad Girls" and "Macarthur Park" by Donna Summer
  • "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc.
  • "Never Can Say Goodbye" by Gloria Gaynor