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What Is Rhythm and Blues?

By Emily Daw
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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Rhythm and blues (R&B) is a style of music that grew out of 1940s black American music styles including blues and jazz. The style, chord structure and rhythms of rhythm and blues music deeply influenced both black and white American pop music during the 20th century. This term's meaning expanded in the late 20th century to include any predominantly black form of music.

As its name suggests, one of the major influences on rhythm and blues music was the blues. The blues is a style of music based off of a very specific 12-measure chord progression: four measures of the I chord, two of the IV chord, two of the I chord, one of the V or V7 chord, one of the IV chord, and two of the I chord. Rhythm and blues music adopted this progression in the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes tweaking it along the way, and made it more a part of mainstream American pop music.

Other influences on rhythm and blues include jazz, swing and boogie. Early R&B music usually featured a solo vocalist with a brass-heavy orchestra accompaniment. It usually had strong, often syncopated rhythms well-suited to the dance hall.

Especially during the 1950s, there was a give-and-take relationship between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Although the first was predominant in black culture and the second in white culture, the two often borrowed from one another. Elvis Presley, for instance, recorded a number of songs that feature blues-influenced structures and vocal styles. One of the most famous of these was "Hound Dog."

Leading up to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many black artists used their music as a platform to speak out against segregation and racial inequalities. Big Bill Broonzy's "When Will I Get To Be Called A Man" describes the life of a black man who is constantly referred to as "boy" by white people. Most music was not as explicit about racial themes as this song, but many other songs had undercurrents of social unrest.

Since about the 1980s, rhythm and blues has often been used to describe any music style performed by African American musicians and geared primarily toward African American audiences. This encompasses a wide range of styles, from gospel and soul to rap. Contemporary R&B music continues to address themes of injustice in American society from both religious and secular perspectives.

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Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On Jun 23, 2014

To answer the question @Lationne asked, the reason there are labels like country, rock and roll and rhythm and blues is because these labels give people who are buying music an idea of whether they will like a particular piece of music or not. Think how different and how much more complicated buying music would be if you had no idea what type of music was out there.

If you like country music then you know when you go to buy music that you can go to the country section and find the type of music you want to listen to. Without categories, you would have to search through a lot of music and artists that you have no interest in. his is really helpful to the consumer.

By Laotionne — On Jun 22, 2014

Have you noticed that music is often defined more by who performs it or who listens to it instead of what the music really sounds like. Why is it that we are so concerned with putting labels on music and people? The only thing we should be concerned with is whether the music is good or bad. Those are the only two labels we need.

However, as mentioned in this article, original rhythm and blues hits have led to rock and roll musicians and other musicians being influenced. So now, most categories of music are influenced by other types of music from other categories.

When you see a successful black singer switching to country music and having success, I think this speaks to just how much the music world has changed and continues to change. And successful white rappers have also helped to remove some of the stereotypical beliefs about rap music.

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