Characteristics of Music: Funk

May 5, 2021

Music is vast. And new genres are added all the time, only growing the definition of music even further. With so many genres to choose from, and more being added all the time, it can get confusing.

That’s why we’ve been spending some time exploring the characteristics of some of music’s most popular genres, and what makes them unique. We started off a few weeks ago with everyone’s favourite genre, pop. From there, we’ve taken a look at jazz, rock and roll, and last week, punk. Let’s keep this ball rolling with a look at a genre that reached its peak in popularity during the late 1960s and ‘70s: funk.

The distinctive sound that makes funk is a crazy mixture of soul, jazz, and R&B that has gone on to influence countless popular artists, and has been incorporated into all sorts of music.

Let’s dive into what makes funk funky!

The Birth of Funk

The term “funk” actually predates the genre by a few decades. Originating in the early 1900s, “funk” and “funky” were often used in the context of jazz. But over time, the word was expanded from its original meaning of “a pungent odor,” to include “a deep, distinctive groove.”

Emerging in the mid-1960s, funk was originally developed by James Brown’s signature groove that highlighted the downbeat with a heavy emphasis on the first beat of each measure, a 16th note time signature, and syncopation on all bass lines, guitar riff, and bass lines.

Characteristics of Funk

As both its own genre and as an influence on other styles that have come later, funk has at least four identifying characteristics: syncopation, strong downbeats followed by a 16th note groove, seventh chord variants, and grooves driven by the bass guitar.


Syncopation, as we first discussed in our jazz blog, is when a note is accented that wouldn’t normally be accented. Generally speaking, when you play your instrument and tap your foot to keep time, you accent the notes on the downbeat, when your foot touches the ground.

However, musical styles like jazz, and of course, funk, tend to emphasize the upbeat instead. This keeps the music exciting, engaging, and even surprising. Syncopation also helps make funk song easy to dance to! Songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and “Super Freak,” rely heavily on their syncopated rhythm guitar to create the groove.

Strong Downbeats and 16th Note Grooves

One characteristic of funk that is related to syncopation, but also separates funk from other genres that rely on syncopation, is its reliance on strong downbeats followed by 16th note grooves.

James Brown famously directed his band to play “on the one,” which meant he wanted strong downbeat accents – which, as you’ll recall, is the opposite of syncopation. To make up for this, and create that syncopated groove after a strong downbeat, the initial beat is followed by a funky 16th note riff that fills out the measure.

Seventh Chord Variants

Another defining characteristic that funk relies on heavily is the use of densely voices chords, especially 7th chords and variant, like major and minor 9th chords and 13th chords. These chords are usually sustained over several measures as the player locks into the groove.

The Role of the Bass Guitar

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of funk music is the role of the bass guitar. Before soul music became popular, the bass guitar wasn’t a prominent instrument in popular music. But when performers like the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson helped bring the bass to the forefront, funk was able to build on that foundation with melodic lines often used as the centerpiece of a song.

Other funk bassists of note include Boosty Collins, who played with Parliament-Funkadelic, and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone. Graham, in particular, is usually credited with inventing the “slap bass technique,” a percussive way to play the bass that has been developed further by more recent bassists, and has become a distinctive characteristic of funk.

In fact, it’s largely this strong bass line that primarily separates funk from R&B, soul, and other similar genres. What’s more, compared to soul music of the early 1960s, fun tends to use more complex rhythms, coupled with more simple song structures, usually using only one or two riffs.

The basic idea behind funk has always been to create as intense a groove as possible.

Funk’s Influence

Although funk’s popularity as a genre tapered out after the 1970s, many artists from the ‘80s to today have incorporated the funk sound into their music. Artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, and Dumpstafunk have all been inspired by the funk greats of the past.

Funk has also been brought into modern R&B by a number of female performers, like Beyoncé 2003 hit “Crazy in Love” (which samples from The Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman”), Mariah Carey’s “Get Your Number” (which samples “Just an Illusion” by the British band Imagination), and Jennifer Lopez’s “Get Right” (which samples the horn from Maceo Parker’s “Soul Power ‘74”).

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