Characteristics of Music: R&B

May 12, 2021

The spectrum of genres that make up the whole of music is massive and growing every day. With the definitions of genres changing all the time, and new genres dawning into life all the time, keeping track of what each genre is can be difficult.

With that in mind, we’ve been exploring what makes a handful of genres unique. We started this exploration of the characteristics of musical genres a few weeks ago with a look at pop. From there we took a look at jazz, rock and roll, punk, and funk music. This week we’re going to take a look at a genre that has gone through so many changes, it can actually be defined as two, unique but connected, genres: rhythm and blues.

Rhythm and blues, or R&B for short, is an American genre that was first developed by African American artists during the mid-twentieth century. And ever since, the Billboard Hot 100 and Top 40 charts have been full of R&B hits. But what makes R&B unique?

Let’s find out.

What is R&B?

R&B was first developed by African Americans in the 1940s and has been continuously refined through the decades to today. Derived mostly from gospel, jazz, folk, and traditional blues, R&B emerged around the same time, and in tandem with, rock and roll, another genre that’s continuously reinventing itself.

However, R&B would diverge from rock music in the ensuing decades. In fact, contemporary R&B is not often driven by keyboards, synthesizers, strong bass lines, and looped drum beats. That means that today, R&B has more in common with hip hop then rock.

A Short History of R&B

R&B first exploded onto the urban music scenes of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and LA in the 1940s, driven in large part by the large African American populations arriving in the cities following the Great Migration.

Roots in Church Music

Many of the earliest R&B artists were steeped in blues and African American church music. They brought new songs from the south, and eventually signed recording contracts in northern cities. This early music highlighted electric guitars, double bass, piano, and drum kits.

R&B & Rock ‘n’ Roll

When R&B was first making a name for itself many of the genre’s stars were categorized as both R&B and rock musicians. By the 1950s R&B still shared a lot of its musical characteristics with rock music, but the genres were beginning to take on racial connotations thanks to widespread segregation.

In fact, throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, nearly all white artists playing blues-based pop music were thought of as rock ‘n’ roll, while most African American musicians playing songs with the same influences were considered R&B.

Crooners like Etta James and Sam Cooke helped bring a smoother veneer to pop music, while rock and roll was pushing towards heavier sounds and psychedelic experimentation through the 1960s. It was during this time that R&B began to share more in common with the new and rising genre called soul.

R&B’s Evolution Through the ‘70s

By the 1970s R&B musicians had begun experimenting with syncopated rhythms and more Afrocentric lyrics. Musicians like Isaac Hayes and Al Green mixed church music, African rhythms, and an expanded set of instruments into R&B. This eventually led to the development of both funk and disco.

Contemporary R&B

More recently, R&B has moved away from guitars and more towards a smooth sound designed for dance clubs. More modern R&B artists like Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, TLC, Usher, and Lauryn Hill have all won Grammys by emphasizing virtuosic, soulful singing.  What’s more, performers like Beyoncé, Drake, and Mary J. Blige have continued to push the boundaries of R&B by working with both rappers and electronic music producers.

Contemporary R&B has changed quite a lot from its roots in post-war America, but it is still one of the most popular forms of music in the United States and the world.

3 Characteristics of Classic R&B

Classic R&B from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s share some common characteristics:

Strong Overlap with Rock

In the earliest years of R&B, many of the best artists were actually categorized as rock and roll. These predominantly African American artists went on to inspire many later rock bands, like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

Guitar-based Instrumentation

With such a close relationship to early rock, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that the electric guitar was the central instrument in early R&B. It was backed up by drums, a double bass (and later the electric bass), and a piano. Melodies were mostly performed by the lead vocalist but sometimes were played on a saxophone.

Inspired by Blues and Church Music

Many of the first R&B artists were steeped in blues and gospel traditions. In fact, a lot of early R&B albums share openly Christian themes, while others reworked blues standards for their contemporary listeners.

3 Characteristics of Contemporary R&B

Contemporary R&B shares some of its key characteristics with the original R&B genre of the 20th century, but is also unique in several ways.

Keyboard-Based Instrumentation

As mentioned, early R&B was mostly driven by the guitar. But most contemporary R&B has migrated to keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines. Some R&B artists, like Alicia Keys, prefer acoustic pianos, but the electronic keyboard and software loops have been embraced by the genre.

Incorporation of Hip Hop

As R&B has matured, the line between it and hip hop as blurred somewhat. Albums like Bryson Tiller’s Trapsoul and Drake’s Thank Me Later feature equal servings of singing and rapping. This is a trend that dates back to at least the 1980s when the “new jack swing” style of production was introduced by legendary producers Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle.

Smooth Vocals

R&B vocal virtuosos, like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey, made their incredible voices an integral part of the genre. This tradition has been held up by modern artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Alicia Keys, and Erykah Badu.

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