What is Funk Music?

Niki Foster

Funk is a style of music developed in the United States in the 1960s. It grew out of the soul tradition, but incorporated a more pronounced beat along with influences from rock, R&B, and jazz. Bass and drums are typically prominent in funk music. Other common instruments include electric guitar, electric organ, and a horn section. This style of music had a lasting influence, notable in the disco music of the 1970s and later in hip-hop music. Songs from the 1960s and '70s are often sampled in modern hip-hop tracks.

The saxophone is commonly used in funk music.
The saxophone is commonly used in funk music.

While the bass line is brought to the forefront in funk, melody is downplayed. Rather than the chord changes common in earlier forms of music, a single chord is often used throughout a song. This emphasis on rhythm made for a more danceable form of music than blues or R&B.

Electric guitars are often played in funk music.
Electric guitars are often played in funk music.

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James Brown was one of the pioneers of the funk genre in the 1960s, with such hits as the 1964 single "Out of Sight." His music stood out for its emphasis on the downbeat, the first beat of each measure, in contrast to the backbeat used in traditional soul music. In the 1970s, George Clinton breathed new life into this style of music by incorporating psychedelic rock influences. His two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, gave birth to a new subgenre known as P-Funk. The style grew in popularity, and many jazz musicians of the era began to incorporate it into their music.

While funk's heyday was in the 1970s, its influence remains strong in popular music. In the 1980s, electronic instruments became more common in funk music, but artists like Rick James and Prince carried on the legacy of the 1970s P-Funk artists. While this music traditionally had sexually suggestive lyrics, in the 1980s, they became more explicit. Contemporary bands including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black Eyed Peas, and Outkast continue to perform funk-inspired music, and James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic are among the most sampled musicians.

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Discussion Comments


How's this for aging myself: I remember when I was in high school being on the prom committee, and voting enthusiastically to do a "funk ball" for a prom.

We thought we were so much cooler than everybody else having a funk themed prom, and we figured if we called it a ball then the school authorities might actually let us do it, since that sounds classier than prom (looking back on that the logic seems a bit shaky, but at the time it was very convincing).

Surprisingly enough, they did actually let us have a funk themed prom, and it was, well, I can only say, funky.

It's kind of blended all into a haze of platform shoes, zoot suits, and very bright colors.

Ah, those were the days...


Would you say that funk influenced rap? I'm not much up on funk, rap, or soul (more of a classical music fan), but I can appreciate the genre's importance.

What would you say, did funk influence rap, or the other way around, or neither?


I really liked how you talked about some of the more technical aspects of funk in this article, rather than just focusing on the stereotypes or popular image of the funk movement.

I think too often on sites like youtube, funk and soul both become caricatures of themselves, and people end up missing out on a really cool and influential genre of music.

Good for you for not adding to the hype.


Funk is innovative because of its emphasis on a groove rather than a melody or chord progression. This rhythmic prevalence has allowed an emergence of music based around 16th notes rather than eighth notes. Jazz had been doing this since the bebop era of the 1940's and in some cases, even earlier. However, funk's more repetitive nature allowed for this highly syncopated approach to rhythm to become much more mainstream as it found its way into dance clubs. While the rock and roll of the 1960's also prominently featured this speed of playing, the grooves themselves were not nearly as danceable, and so funk music has had probably the most pervasive influence in terms of introducing 16th note rhythms into highly popular music.

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