How to tell funk from disco

Here’s a short excerpt from my blues tonality paper that I thought would stand alone well on its own.

How do we decide that a song is rock, or folk, or country, or country-rock, or folk-rock? Nearly all American popular and vernacular is informed by blues. We can use this fact to help delineate overlapping and vaguely defined genre boundaries. Just as we can explain genre in terms of characteristic rhythms and timbres, so too can we explain it in terms of the amount of blues harmony present. Good pop and jazz practitioners already do this implicitly. A guitarist or singer needs a sense of how much blues tonality to use in order to sound more characteristically ‘jazzy’ or ‘country’ or ‘rock.’

Let’s use the example of funk. Aficionados like me know when music is funky. But how do we know? The most obvious characteristic to point to is the beat. But you can also hear funk rhythms in disco, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and even country — Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is super funky. We can distinguish funk as a genre more specifically using its harmonic content. Funk is the most heavily blues-based genre aside from blues itself. While rock and country combine blues harmony with diatonicism, funk adds in jazz harmony instead.


Let’s look at a specific pair of examples: “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & The Gang and “Inside and Out” by the Bee Gees. Why is the former funk and the latter disco? It’s not the rhythms. Both songs have impeccably funky beats. The difference is in the harmony. “Jungle Boogie” has no chord changes and all of its melodic components are blues, with some jazzy chromatic embellishment.

“Inside and Out” has a blues-inflected verse, but the rest of the song is modal or diatonic. That’s why it’s disco and not funk.

Country music has its share of blues harmony, but it’s mostly diatonic, and rarely if ever introduces jazz harmony. It’s helpful to look at the example of “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams (1949). In spite of the name, the song is not blues at all; it’s as straight a country song as you could ask for. The harmony consists entirely of diatonic tonality that wouldn’t sound out of place in Mozart. The word “blues” in the title refers more to the song’s melancholy tone, though you can also detect blues inflection in Hank’s flattened thirds.


George Gershwin and James P. Johnson notwithstanding, European-descended classical music can be characterized by its near-total absence of blues tonality.


The most stylistically eclectic musicians will occupy correspondingly larger parts of the diagram. For example, The Beatles’ music touches every section. While most of their music is a blend of diatonicism and blues, they also venture into jazz major in “Sun King” (1969), jazz minor in “Come Together” (1969), Indian-influenced drones in “Within You Without You” (1967), and atonality at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967).


What do you think? Are there any good examples of blues harmony being useful for identifying and distinguishing genres? Maybe in different versions of the same song by different people? Let me know in the comments.

11 thoughts on “How to tell funk from disco

  1. Funk is syncopated rhythmically as well as melodically. Maceo Parker is my example. But the roots of it are firmly planted in jazz and the blues, melodically and dare I say emotionally. Alfred “Pee-Wee” Ellis admitted he copped the horn line used in Miles’s “So What”, and used it in the verses of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”!!! But here’s the thing… Just because something has a groove, that don’t make it funky! Bee Gees’s “Stayin’ Alive” has a nice pulse, a good groove but it’s not funky. Oh, and funk dynamically has a kind of “in your face” thing, which is one of the reasons some Rock icons are considered “funky”. But here is a question, would you consider Chic funky? Listen to the blues saturated rhythm guitar parts in “I want your Love” and tell me that’s not funk?

    • I chose “Inside and Out” as my Bee Gees example because I find the beat to be genuinely funky, but yeah, “Stayin’ Alive” is not funky. A great beat, but not a funk beat. And there are plenty of rock songs that cross the border into funk. Led Zeppelin managed it a few times. Chic is funky as a mofo! Their surface layer might be disco, but the rhythm section is pure funk. Nile Rodgers played in P-Funk as a kid.

      • See, I just learned something from you. I wasn’t aware of the Nile Rogers/P-funk connection. Although it makes perfect sense. But I will disagree with Kyle-Pierre on one minor note.. I do think that Cameo’s “Candy” is funk personified!! Maybe not melodically, but although it seems like it would hold it’s own as a rock song, it has that dyanmic that just SCREAMS funk to me!

        • Okay, my central thesis is that funk as noun is wrong-headed. Music can be funky but it’s difficult if not impossible to define the genre.
          To Aaron, I will concede that the “Candy” reference was a stretch. Does have a certain “head-nodding” quality.
          I considered using “Aligator Woman” as my “post-horn-section-Cameo” reference, but chose Candy because of the major key. However, neither tune contains the funkiness of “Rigor Mortis” or “Fopp” or “Rhyme-Time People” or “Bustin’ Loose”

      • Yeah, my reference to, “playing on the one,” was meant to distinguish funky beats from other grooves. Sorry if that wasn’t clear enough. Groove necessary but not sufficient. In the same way, syncopation is necessary but not sufficient.

        As for blues and jazz influencing funky music. That’s a given. Even outsiders like Keith Richards and Paul McCartney claim the roots.

        What’s truly telling is that players from the Continent claim them as well. Cats like Fela Kuti openly praised Miles for his inspiration and musical influences.

        Steve Miller Band: funky rock group. Check.

        Nile Rogers plays some of the funkiest rhythm guitar that I’ve ever heard. Bernard Edwards was even funkier at finding space in his bass lines. Chic funky. Check.

  2. interesting piece. very useful for musicologists, I think.
    i fear that the nature of your characterization of the genre misses the point, though. the reason hip-hop in the form of “breaking” develops in concert with the increased popularity of funk in the middle ’70s is because of the increased availability of funky grooves that dj’s could exploit.
    the BeeGee track is funky during the verse because it has a groove. while i might say, “i don’t like that bridge,” or “where did that change come from?” the verse is still funky.
    so, DJ Cool Herc would have just layered the verse and discarded the rest. Modern producers would sample the verse the way Warryn “Baby Dub” Campbell did on Snoop Dogg’s, “Ups and Downs.”
    funk is to groove the way jazz is to swing. and “funkiness” can be found anywhere there’s a groove. Puccini’s, “Turandot,” is very funky. By contrast, Cameo’s, “Candy,” not so much. The same goes for K&G’s, “Celebrate.” But the former is called legit (classical), and the latter funk. Stressing funk as label will deafen listeners to funk as groove.
    I found your blog because of your post about PH’s, “Figure.” I found Figure as i was looking for apps to teach basic, musical theory, composition, and some “whole-brain” kids. we don’t spend a lot of time focused on labels. rather, we emphasize expression and feeling. we want them to tell better stories, visually, musically, and logically. they understand groove, even if they don’t understand funk.

    • You and I are operating with different definitions of the word “groove.” Turandot is a lovely piece of music, but I don’t hear a groove there. My requirements for groove include steady tempo and sharp percussive attacks. So K&G’s “Celebrate” does have a groove, corny though it is. Funk, in my understanding, is a subset of groove, along with rock, country, blues shuffle, various Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop, techno, etc.

      • Sorry, I should have been more transparent. Starting with the “Godfather’s” definition of a groove, the rhythm has to be, “on the one.” But also, the notes have to be “right.” Both conditions are met with this funky bit from the first chorus repeats Turandot’s name:
        I could definitely see some B-Boys lock to this.
        By contrast, no DJ would throw, “Celebrate,” into battle mix.
        But to be clear, funk is a continuum. Cats who played with James Brown are funkier than those who didn’t. So, tunes written by Bootsy are funkier than tunes written by George and Bootsy’s Rubberband is Funkier than Parliament from the same era–even though the groups share personnel.
        Groups from Dayton are the funkiest, then New York, then San Francisco, then Chicago, Memphis, Houston, and New Orleans in no particular order. While they all created songs with funky bits, the good ones produced whole songs that are funky–no easy feat. “School-Boy Crush,” for example. Better ones created whole albums. “Summer Madness,” is close with near miss of, “Fruit Man,” but “Open Seasame,” is funky from beginning to end.
        The best create several groove-laidened albums. Ohio Players, pre-“Aligator Woman” Cameo, Heat Wave all created several albums of sungs that are funky from beginning to end.
        But even these great bands didn’t write groove only tracks like, “Popcorn” or “Funky Stuff.” That’s why I prefer to say that a song is funky rather label it a funk song.

    • to start on the bottom funk starts with modal lines,blusey and dance your pants off grooves,.that sounds like James Brown, hit me ! a lot of these old blues dudes were funkin` it up 70 years ago playing on the street. like Maxwell st Chicago…and a lot of folks were dancing their pants off,so if you play a modal groove and throw a few chord bridige in you got a funk song…
      but if you don`t feel it, it will never be funky…

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