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Motown (genre)

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Motown Sound is a Black American pop music[4] signature sound of a team of producers, songwriters, arrangers, vocalists, and instrumentalists from a small Detroit, Michigan record company Motown that eventually became the largest[6][5] black-owned enterprise in the country, a national competitor in the previous mass white market.[6] The sound rested on skills and experiences of rhythm and blues[6] and jazz[10][6][5] musicians and had a crossover appeal.[7] It was called "clean R&B that sounded as white as it did black."[10] House names include Spinners,[1] Diana Ross and the Supremes,[1][2][7][4] Marvelettes,[6] Temptations,[1] Martha & Vandellas,[1] Marvin Gaye.[7]

"[Gordy] was crazy about music . . . he was always around music. Jackie Wilson was a fried of ours. We all used to box at Brewster Center. Jackie and I were like brothers. We used to sing; we had a little quartet, used to sing in churches. Berry got this idea, that he wanted to make this record. It was made at his sister's little studio on Farnsworth and St. Antoine. And, he hired all jazz musicians . . . we didn't charge him anything. And the record become popular and made money. And that's how Motown actually started."[6]


The basic features are melodic memorable hooks, strong back-beat, layered instrumental sound, and enough variation in the form.[4] Also:

  • rhythm timekeeping subdued in the mid-range register to give voices a greater prominence[4]
  • "correct and effective" use of the tambourine giving it a "high-energy" groove component (a signature component)[1][4]
  • bell-like sound of the vibraphone[1]
  • hand clapping[10]
  • simple back beat patterns doubling the snare drum or complicated and intricately faster, rhythmic patterns,[1] and even shuffle rhythms[6]
  • "idiosyncratic bass" (the so-called "Detroit bass sound")[1]
  • organ,[1] and gospel-derived[6] sound of a lead vocalist and their answering chorus (call and response)[6]
  • sometimes strings[6][1] and horns[1][2] (French horn[4]) adding the sound a mainstream pop appeal[2]

Architects of the sound: Lamont Dozier,[7] Eddie[7] and Brian Holland,[7] Berry Gordy.[7] Two musicians most identified with the Motown Sound are James Jamerson (bass),[6][8] and William "Benny" Benjamin (drums),[6] Earl Van Dyke (piano),[8] Robert White (guitar).[8]


Motown specialized in a type of soul music it referred to with the trademark "The Motown Sound". Crafted with an ear towards pop appeal, the Motown Sound typically used tambourines to accent the back beat, prominent, and often melodic electric bass-guitar lines, distinctive melodic and chord structures, and a call-and-response singing style that originated in gospel music. In 1971, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone that the sound consisted of songs with simple structures but sophisticated melodies, along with a four-beat drum pattern, regular use of horns and strings and "a trebly style of mixing that relied heavily on electronic limiting and equalizing (boosting the high range frequencies) to give the overall product a distinctive sound, particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio".[11] Pop production techniques such as the use of orchestral string sections, charted horn sections, and carefully arranged background vocals were also used. Complex arrangements and elaborate, melismatic vocal riffs were avoided.[12] Motown producers believed steadfastly in the "KISS principle" (keep it simple, stupid).[13]

The Motown production process has been described as factory-like. The Hitsville studios remained open and active 22 hours a day, and artists would often go on tour for weeks, come back to Detroit to record as many songs as possible, and then promptly go on tour again. Berry Gordy held quality control meetings every Friday morning, and used veto power to ensure that only the very best material and performances would be released. The test was that every new release needed to fit into a sequence of the top five selling pop singles of the week. Several tracks that later became critical and commercial favorites were initially rejected by Gordy; the two most notable being the Marvin Gaye songs "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "What's Going On". In several cases, producers would re-work tracks in hopes of eventually getting them approved at a later Friday morning meeting, as producer Norman Whitfield did with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg".

Many of Motown's best-known songs, including all the early hits for the Supremes, were written by the songwriting trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland). Other important Motown producers and songwriters included Norman Whitfield, William "Mickey" Stevenson, Smokey Robinson, Barrett Strong, Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Frank Wilson, Pamela Sawyer & Gloria Jones, James Dean & William Weatherspoon, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Gil Askey,[14] Stevie Wonder, and Gordy himself.

The style created by the Motown musicians was a major influence on several non-Motown artists of the mid-1960s, such as Dusty Springfield and the Foundations. In the United Kingdom, the Motown Sound became the basis of the northern soul movement. Smokey Robinson said the Motown Sound had little to do with Detroit:

People would listen to it, and they'd say, 'Aha, they use more bass. Or they use more drums.' Bullshit. When we were first successful with it, people were coming from Germany, France, Italy, Mobile, Alabama. From New York, Chicago, California. From everywhere. Just to record in Detroit. They figured it was in the air, that if they came to Detroit and recorded on the freeway, they'd get the Motown sound. Listen, the Motown sound to me is not an audible sound. It's spiritual, and it comes from the people that make it happen. What other people didn't realize is that we just had one studio there, but we recorded in Chicago, Nashville, New York, L.A.—almost every big city. And we still got the sound.[15]


In the United States, Motown Sound was one of prototype elements of disco[8][9] during the late 1960s and early 1970s and was influential in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the Northern soul scene was born out of admiration of the Motown music.[1]

Two features of Motown Sound survived in disco: Inverted Motown's "four-on-the-top" beat and gospel break deployment.[16] Gospel break involves "emptying the track of most instrumentation then gradually build it back up" which was employed extensively it came to be called "the disco break."[16]

The sound is like an old lover. You may be married and have children but if somebody mentions that name, Motown, oh boy. That feeling is not going to go away. Motown is a special place in time that will never come again, but will never be forgotten.

— Ivy Hunter, co-writer of "Dancing in the Street" (1964)[7]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Newton, Tony (2011). Gold Thunder: A Legendary Adventures of a Motown Bassman. Quantum Media Publishing. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png p. 120
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Coffey, Dennis (2004). Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars. University of Michigan Press. p. 83. ISBN 9780472113996 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  3. Ryan, Jack (2012). Recollections, the Detroit Years: The Motown Sound by the People who Made it. Glendower Media. ISBN 9780914303046. p. 178. Quote: "Gordy, you see, wanted his artists to appeal to a broader base of fans."
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Michael Campbell (2005). Popular music in America: the beat goes on. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. ISBN 0-534-55534-9. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png (Chapter 50, Page 215)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Vincent, Rickey (2013) Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers' Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music, Chicago Review Press, p. 278, ISBN 9781613744956 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 Bjorn, Lars and Jim Gallert (2001). Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-60. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-06765-6 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.. p. 199
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 Connell, John, and Chris Gibson.Soundtracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Nowell, David (1 May 2012). "Selected Pages". The Story of Northern Soul: A Definitive History of the Dance Scene that Refuses to Die. Pavilion Books. ISBN 9781907554728. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  9. 9.0 9.1 Richard Trombley, "Disco and the New Dance Music" Encyclopedia of Music in the 20th Century, edited by Lol Henderson and Lee Stacey (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999). ISBN 9781579580797 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.; ISBN 9781135929466 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Posner, Gerald (2002). Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power'. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-50062-6 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.. p. 37
  11. "The Motown Story". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2016-12-11.
  12. Chin, Brian & David Nathan, "Reflections Of..." The Supremes [CD boxed-set liner notes] (New York: Motown Record Co./Universal Music, 2000).
  13. Williams, Otis & Patricia Romanowski, Temptations (Lanham, MD: Cooper Square, 1988; updated 2002). ISBN 0-8154-1218-5 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png., p. 157.
  14. Yourse, Robyn-Denise (May 19, 2006). "Diana Ross: old wine in 'Blue' bottles". The Washington Times. News World Communications. Retrieved September 16, 2012 – via Questia Online Library.
  15. Hirshey, Gerri (1994 [1984]). Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-306-80581-2 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  16. 16.0 16.1 Echols, Alice (2020-01-29). Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. ISBN 9780393077018. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png

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