What Makes a Soul Song: Understanding the Characteristics

Ever wonder what makes your heart sway to the rhythm of a soul song? Soul music is a powerful blend of gospel and R&B that speaks directly to the heart. This blog post will dive into the signature sounds and emotional depths that define a classic soul track.

Keep reading – it’s about to get groovy!

Key Takeaways

  • Soul music, originating from gospel and blues, is characterized by intense emotional expression, virtuosic vocals, and prominent rhythm sections.
  • The genre has produced various subgenres such as Motown soul, deep and southern soul, progressive and psychedelic soul, and neo soul. Each subgenre reflects unique styles within the broader landscape of soul music.
  • Throughout its history, influential artists like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding contributed significantly to shaping the sound and style of soul music in different eras.
  • Soul music played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement through emotive vocals that echoed calls for equality and justice. Songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke became anthems of hope during this period.

What is Soul Music?

Soul music is a genre that originated from gospel and blues, known for its emotional delivery and catchy rhythms. It often features vocal performances, horn sections, and a backbeat, all contributing to its distinct sound.


Soul music is a style full of feeling and strong beats. It came from African American gospel singing and has a special way of showing deep emotions. This type of music often mixes in the sounds of rhythm and blues with gospel traditions to make something that really touches your heart.

In soul songs, you can hear powerful voices and big groups playing instruments like pianos, drums, guitars, and horns. The singers pour their hearts into the words they sing, making you feel what they feel.

They use tricks like call and response where one person sings or says something, and others answer back with their own sounds or words.

Origins in gospel and blues

Soul music has its roots in African American gospel traditions and blues harmonies. It evolved from the emotional resonance of gospel singing and the raw, authentic expression of blues music.

The genre is defined by its heartfelt lyrics, melodic soulfulness, and a strong influence from gospel music. Key characteristics include skilled musicians playing big-band gospel-style music with virtuosic vocals and prominent rhythm sections.

Soul also draws on the musical storytelling tradition of blues while incorporating call and response, hand claps, body movement, and a tense vocal sound to create its distinctive style.


Origins of soul music in gospel and blues have shaped its defining characteristics. Soul music is characterized by intense emotional expression, virtuosic vocals, and a prominent rhythm section.

The genre features big-band gospel-style music played by skilled musicians, producing powerful improvisational vocals.

It often incorporates call and response, hand claps, body movement, and tense vocal sounds. Key instruments like the piano, organ, guitar, bass, drums, and horns contribute to its rich and dynamic sound.

History of Soul Music

Soul music emerged in the 1960s as a fusion of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. It continued to evolve through the 1970s and 1980s, influencing contemporary soul music today.


In the 1960s, soul music gained widespread popularity in the United States. It emerged as a powerful form of musical expression, deeply rooted in African American culture and experiences.

During this time, influential artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown helped shape the sound and style of soul music, paving the way for its enduring impact on popular music.

The dynamic vocal performances and energetic rhythm sections of soul music captivated audiences during the 1960s, contributing to its rise as a significant genre in American music history.

1970s and 1980s

Soul music continued to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s, with artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin reaching the height of their careers. This era saw the rise of disco-influenced soul and the emergence of new subgenres such as funk and quiet storm.

The use of synthesizers became prominent, adding a modern twist to traditional soul sound. Additionally, this period marked increased crossover success for soul artists into mainstream pop music.

Contemporary soul music further evolved during this time, incorporating elements from other genres like rock, pop, and electronic music while maintaining its core characteristics. This period set the stage for a new wave of influential artists who carried on the legacy of soul into the following decades.

Contemporary soul music

Moving into the realm of contemporary soul music, the genre has continued to evolve by blending traditional elements with modern influences. Today’s soul artists infuse their music with ethnic pride and respect for artistic sources while maintaining the intense emotional expression that defines soul.

Gospel influence remains strong, contributing to the vocal intensity and musical authenticity that are hallmarks of contemporary soul music. These characteristics, combined with a diverse range of influences from R&B to jazz, have propelled soul music into new and exciting directions, ensuring its ongoing relevance in the modern music landscape.

Subgenres of Soul Music

From Motown to neo soul, soul music has evolved into various subgenres that have each left its mark on the industry. There’s more to discover about the unique sounds of these subgenres – keep reading to find out!

Detroit (Motown) soul

Detroit (Motown) soul, also known as the Motown sound, emerged in Detroit, Michigan. It was characterized by its polished and sophisticated approach to soul music. Motown soul had a distinct pop influence and featured catchy melodies and meticulous production.

The label was home to legendary artists like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, who achieved mainstream success with their smooth and infectious tunes. Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers, played a significant role in crafting the distinctive sound of this subgenre by incorporating jazz-influenced rhythms and tight arrangements.

The Motown record label itself made significant strides in breaking racial barriers by bringing African American music into the mainstream during the 1960s. This unique blend of catchy pop sensibilities with heartfelt soul paved the way for future generations of musicians and continues to influence contemporary music today.

Deep and southern soul

Moving from the polished sound of Motown, we delve into the raw and heartfelt style of deep and southern soul. This subgenre emerged in the 1960s, characterized by its emotional intensity and connection to the African American experience.

Deep and southern soul music often features passionate vocals filled with pain, hope, and longing, accompanied by rich instrumental arrangements rooted in blues and gospel traditions.

Artists like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin epitomized this subgenre with their soul-stirring performances that resonated deeply with listeners.

The sound of deep and southern soul is marked by its unfiltered expression of emotion, making it a powerful force within the broader landscape of soul music.

Progressive and psychedelic soul

Progressive and psychedelic soul emerged in the late 1960s, branching out from traditional soul music. It incorporated experimental elements, such as unconventional song structures, intricate instrumentation, and trippy sound effects.

Artists like Sly and the Family Stone pushed boundaries with their fusion of funk, rock, and soul, while innovators like Isaac Hayes ventured into extended tracks with elaborate orchestrations and mind-bending arrangements.

This subgenre challenged the norms of conventional soul music and paved the way for future explorations in R&B and funk.

Neo soul

Neo soul, also known as nu-soul, is a genre that emerged in the 1990s. It combines elements of traditional soul music with influences from hip-hop, jazz, and R&B. Neo soul artists often incorporate live instrumentation and prioritize songwriting and musicality over commercial appeal.

This subgenre is characterized by its eclectic mix of vintage sounds and contemporary production techniques, creating a fresh take on classic soul music while maintaining its emotional depth and authenticity.

Moving forward to “Influence of Soul Music”, let’s explore how this powerful genre has impacted other musical styles as well as significant social movements.

Influence of Soul Music

Soul music has had a significant influence on other genres, such as R&B, funk, and pop. It also played a crucial role in the civil rights movement and produced many famous artists and producers.

On other genres

Soul music has had a significant influence on various other music genres. Its impact can be seen in R&B, funk, and even hip-hop. Many artists and musicians have been inspired by the emotional depth and powerful vocal performances of soul music.

The genre’s emphasis on rhythm and groove has also made its mark on pop, rock, and contemporary jazz music styles.

Moreover, the use of instruments such as horns, drums, piano, and guitar in soul music has influenced the sound of other musical genres. The emotional connection and intense expression found in soul songs have transcended boundaries to shape the overall approach to songwriting and performance across different types of music.

On the civil rights movement

Soul music played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, providing a soundtrack that echoed the calls for equality and justice. The genre’s emotive vocals and powerful rhythms resonated with activists and supporters, uniting them in their fight for civil rights.

Songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” became anthems of the movement, inspiring hope and determination among those advocating for change.

Soul music served as a unifying force, empowering individuals to stand up against discrimination and inequality.

Famous artists and producers

As soul music became a powerful voice for the civil rights movement, it also propelled several influential artists and producers into the limelight. These individuals shaped the genre and left an indelible mark on the music industry. Here are some of the most notable figures:

  1. Aretha Franklin: Known as the “Queen of Soul,” she had an unparalleled vocal prowess and delivered iconic hits that defined the genre’s sound.
  2. Ray Charles: His innovative blend of gospel, R&B, and jazz laid the foundation for soul music, earning him widespread acclaim.
  3. James Brown: Revered as the “Godfather of Soul,” his electrifying stage presence and revolutionary funk-driven sound revolutionized music.
  4. Berry Gordy: The founder of Motown Records, he nurtured legendary acts like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, shaping soul music’s commercial success.
  5. Otis Redding: With his raw, emotive delivery and timeless classics like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” he cemented his status as a soul music icon.


In conclusion, soul music is a powerful genre with deep roots in African American culture. Its intense emotional expression and energetic vocal quality make it distinctive. The genre’s influence on other music styles and the civil rights movement cannot be overstated.

Soul music continues to inspire and captivate audiences with its rich history and dynamic sound.