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Funk vs. Disco: What's the Difference?

Funk vs. Disco: What's the Difference?

Author: Katie Kelley

 

Funk and disco are two genres beloved for their ability to make us stop whatever we’re doing and dance. We can’t quite pinpoint it, but there’s just something about this music that seeps into our bones—into our soul—and awakens our human instinct to move to a beat. 


This notable similarity—along with a few others—can cloud the water between funk and disco. 


When the beat launches you into another galaxy, you may not mind the extraterrestrial blend of musicality. But when the record ends and reality sets in, you might be left wondering: 


What’s the difference between funk vs disco? 


Get ready for takeoff, intergalactic groovers. We’re about to light the way to understand the nuances between funk and disco music once and for all.


What’s the Difference Between Funk and Disco?

In their purest, most textbook forms, the difference between funk and disco lies in their construction of rhythm. Funk music emphasizes the first beat of every measure, while disco utilizes a pattern known as “four to the floor,” where every beat is emphasized. 


But, of course, that would be too easy. 


As we know, music is anything but black and white. It moves like water—fluid, flexible, and suspended in the beautiful constant of change.


Funk and disco are so intricately interwoven because they were invented very closely together during a monumental time in American history.


The 70s Era of Dance

Welcome to the 1970s: a time when we claimed social justice, waved pride flags, and raised female voices in power against political scandal and economic unrest. 


With all of this justice fighting, the people of the U.S. needed to let loose. 


Both funk and disco gave them the space:


  • Funk music – The symbol of self-expression in the black community, born in the late 60s of originality, creativity, empowerment, and its undeniably cool groove. 

    • Disco music – the Disco genre arrived slightly later on the scene, adding techno-based rhythm to underground dance halls to create a safe haven for marginalized groups. 

    Powerful Forces of Nature

    Both of these genres were immensely powerful in their own musical right. To aid their force, both were amplified by the heart and souls of millions of people liberating themselves from economic, political, and social oppression. 


    So, what are two equal forces of musical nature to do? Do they resist like fire and earth to create a stone wall, or do they flex like water to one another’s waves as they crash over the celestial beat? 


    A Fusion of Elements

    Whether the intermingling was intentional or not, funk and disco have indeed intertwined through the ages and elements. 


    But don’t worry—this battle isn’t all shields and swords. 


    Each musical genre offers something unique to the music that gives it a category all its own, so at the end of the day, everyone has a seat at the table.


    To understand the nuanced differences between funk vs disco, let’s take a closer look at each musical genre in more detail.


    What is Funk Music? 

    Funk music is distinguished by its famous “one” beat, supporting rhythmic syncopations, blues-inspired harmonies, and layers of delectable musical detail that grooves ‘til dawn. 


    Defining Characteristics of Funk Music 

    If you’ve never listened to funk music before—may we suggest you start? Authentic funk music will lead with one or several of these traits:


  • An emphasis on “the one” – There’s an unmistakable momentum in funk music, and it’s all thanks to “the one,” or the emphasis on beat one in every measure. This concept, invented by The Godfather of Funk, James Brown, is unlike any other genre’s rhythmic structure and lends itself to its danceability. 

  • Intricate syncopations – A syncopation is a rhythm that occasionally emphasizes the less-prominent beats to add variety and interest. Listening to funk, as you groove continuously back to “the one, you’ll occasionally hear instruments emphasize beat three, four, or two. It’s like a lively conversation in musical form. 

  • Blues harmonies – Because the funk genre was born from jazz and blues influences, it gets its tonal structure from those foundations. Blues tonality is a melodic structure all its own: deviating from the basic major or minor chords to deliver a sound ripe with anticipation, bite, and personality—and plenty of room for improvisation. 

  • What is Disco Music? 

    The Disco genre is an upbeat, dance-infused style driven by consistent pulses of rhythmic emphasis, synthesizers and other electronic instruments, and uplifting, catchy lyrical statements. 


    Disco was synonymous with dance in the ‘70s. Thousands of people threw on their most colorful attire and gathered underground in discotheques to dance the night away under the glistening disco ball. 


    Defining Characteristics of Disco Music

    As people, especially those in marginalized communities, relied on discotheques to provide a safe space for fun, the music itself provides a reliable, steady, danceable beat, featuring:


  • “Four on the floor” – The term used to describe disco’s famous rhythm where all four beats in a measure are emphasized. It creates that pulsing sensation that makes you want to pump your fist in the air. An excellent example of this style is The Bee Gee’s hit, “Stayin’ Alive.”

  • Electric instruments – The rise of the 70s brought new musical technology to the table. Disco made electronic sounds famous, like the synthesizer and electric keyboard. While the electric instruments may not always be at the center of disco songs, they add a distinct disco flair.

  • Repeating vocals – Pop on a disco album and shimmy to songs like “It’s Raining Men,” and this point should make immediate sense. To add to disco’s catchiness, vocal statements repeat throughout the song to form unforgettable moments on the dance floor. Amen. 

  • Where Funk and Disco Fuse

    While there are some distinguishable differences between funk and disco, there are certain areas where their electrical lines cross. Herein lies the expertise on how to listen for the difference: 


  • They both dominate the bassline – The most talented bass players are often ones found in a funk or disco band. That’s because both funk and disco are famous for their prominent, powerful basslines that give the music its groove. Like a heartbeat, the bass often leads the underlying rhythm of both funk and disco music.

  • They both use syncopation – Funk was making beats interesting a few years ahead of disco, but both genres occasionally bring syncopation into the mix. Syncopation largely contributes to the danceability of both genres—it’s that extra hit of special sauce that gets your head bobbing and your shoulders popping. 

  • They both use many instruments – In the same way, that funk and disco inspired togetherness in the 1970s, musicians came together, too. Funk legends like George Clinton were known for having a dozen or more musicians on stage at one time—each adding a layer of interest and complexity to the sound and celebration.

    • They both get people dancing – This seemingly-trivial detail didn’t happen by accident. The Black community escaped racial oppression during the Civil Rights Movement by moving together to the beat of funk. And in a homophobic climate in the 80s, members of the LGBTQ+ community danced safely to disco with their loved ones. 

    How to Listen to Both 

    Because who says you have to choose just one?


    If you’d like to fine-tune your ear to the unique qualities of funk vs. disco, you can start by listening to both genres in their most classic forms. As your needle grooves through each album, you might begin to hear the lines blur—and that’s when you know the night has just begun.


    Zeroing in on Funk

    Funk music reigned supremely cool from the late 60s through the 70s. You can’t go wrong with any album by James Brown during this period as he wiped the stage with his slick talent, but we recommend these especially groovy favorites:


    • Ain’t It Funky – James Brown, 1970
    • There’s A Riot Goin’ On – Sly and the Family Stone, 1971
    • Machine Gun – The Commodores, 1974
    • Mothership Connection – Parliament, 1975
    • That’s The Way of the World – Earth, Wind & Fire, 1975
    • Soul Searching – Average White Band, 1976
    • One Nation Under A Groove – Funkadelic, 1978
    • Wait A Minute – James Taylor Quartet, 1988

    Dancing into Disco

    Disco claimed its fame from the late 70s through the 80s—some disco-pop fusion even carried into the ‘90s. Put on your gold flare pants, hang that disco ball, and lace up those dancing shoes. We dare you not to have a smile on your face through these disco albums: 


    • Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees, 1977
    • Bad Girls – Donna Summer, 1979
    • We Are Family – Sister Sledge, 1979
    • I’ve Got You – Gloria Gaynor, 1976
    • From Here to Eternity – Giorgio Moroder, 1977
    • C’est Chic – Chic, 1978
    • Off The Wall – Michael Jackson, 1979
    • Gold: Greatest Hits – ABBA, 1992

    Throw A Funk or Disco Party with Victrola

    There’s one sure similarity between funk and disco music: everyone is invited to the party. Both funk and disco know how to move people in dance and in celebration. No matter what style you tap into, you’re hearing remnants of historic liberation. 


    At Victrola, the only side we’ll make you choose is the one to start the record on. We carry the best funk albums and albums of all genres, from groovy funk to thumping disco and beyond. We provide you with everything you need to design your perfect listening space. 


    Explore our record store to start your funk and disco album collections. Or, let us choose for you, and subscribe to monthly music delivered to your door. 


    We’ll see you on the dance floor.


    Sources: 


    Treble. 10 Essential Disco Albums. https://www.treblezine.com/002-10-essential-disco-albums/


    MasterClass. Funk Music Guide: Understanding Funk Music

    https://www.masterclass.com/articles/funk-music-guide


    MasterClass. All About Disco: Inside the History and Influence of Disco Music

    https://www.masterclass.com/articles/disco-history-and-influence

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