What is Soul Music?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Soul music is a popular style of music created by African American musicians that first gained a following during the 1950s. At that time, musicians like Ray Charles and James Brown blended familiar gospel singing with rhythm and blues to produce the first soul sounds. Some found this early music almost sacrilegious, as depicted in the biopic film Ray. To take gospel, one of the great African American contributions to Christianity, and use the singing style to talk about love, women, and good times, seemed to some a trifle risky.

Philadelphia is known for its contributions to soul music.
Philadelphia is known for its contributions to soul music.

Yet these early soul music stylings proved immensely popular. The familiar music of gospel that spoke to the soul was blended with early rock and roll and rhythm and blues. A number of record companies quickly jumped on the bandwagon of producing the increasingly popular soul genre, and some companies were founded on their production of this musical form. While mainstream labels like Atlantic Records quickly signed soul artist Solomon Burke, new companies like Stax Records and Goldwax Records helped the popularity of soul along by recording artists like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and James Carr.

Detroit is known for soul music.
Detroit is known for soul music.

By the 1970s, soul music had changed forms to incorporate more message-based music and also some of the stylings of psychedelic rock. One of the standout albums of this time period is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which thematically deals with continued strife between races in America and the onset of the Vietnam war.

This genre also jumped to funk and disco styles. While singing styles remained similar, the more syncopated danceable beats of disco and funk left an indelible mark on soul. The Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire were two extremely popular bands of the disco movement, bringing soul to the forefront of public attention and creating many mainstream hits.

White singers also began to capitalize on the popular soul style, and their music, often called blue-eyed soul," was appreciated. Of these bands, perhaps the best known is Hall & Oates, who became later better known for their 1980s New Wave hits like “Private Eyes.” Many 1970-1980s bands were influenced by soul music and included full horn sections in their band ensembles.

Soul music continues to exist in numerous forms, and old soul songs may be incorporated into hip-hop music or rap. Vocal tracks by hip-hop artists like Mary J. Blige continue to combine gospel singing roots with contemporary music. Detroit Soul, Deep Soul and Memphis Soul all emerged in the 1960s. Artists in these early forms include Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas. Philadelphia Soul is also an early form, usually incorporating large orchestra parts and performed by singers like Patti LaBelle.

Psychedelic Soul leaned heavily on late 1960s psychedelic rock and funk with soul vocals and was performed by bands like Sly & The Family Stone, and The Fifth Dimension. New soul music of the 1990s and onward is often called neo-soul. While gospel singing roots are strongly in evidence, this music tends to have modern rhythmic expressions, such as those found in hip-hop. Neo-soul artists include India Arie, Alicia Keyes, Babyface, and Joss Stone.

"Praise and worship" is a popular style of gospel music that is sung in some churches.
"Praise and worship" is a popular style of gospel music that is sung in some churches.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I would say that gospel music uses Christian/religious themes almost exclusively. Gospel music can have definite undertones of black soul music or white Southern gospel or country or blues or whatever, but the underlying theme is church-related or spiritual.

Soul music, on the other hand, can deal with either spiritual or secular themes. The music is coming from deep within the performer, but the subject matter could be a lost love, an unfaithful partner or the blues in general. Soul music is not limited to gospel themes, although the delivery can be equally as passionate as a gospel song.

The difference between R&B and Soul music is not as easy to define. Soul music definitely incorporated elements of R&B, but doesn't always follow the standard blues progressions of R&B or early rock and roll. A lot of the power of Soul music comes from the passionate interpretation of the lyrics by the lead singer, whereas many R&B songs succeed because of other elements, such as the guitar or harmonica breaks. A lot of blues bands can cover an R&B song like Howling Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning", but it takes a special vocal talent to cover certain Soul singers such as Etta James or Otis Redding.

Soul music in the 70s did blur the line between smooth R&B and Soul, however. I would say that much of the black music produced during that time would be best categorized as R&B, but certain performers such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Etta James continued in the Soul vein well into the 80s.


Would you say that for the most part, Northern soul music was more of the "blue eyed" variety?

I've always felt too that southern soul music and gospel music were more related. Would you say this is true?

Or was soul music pretty much the same everywhere?

I love soul, and all oldies music, but unfortunately I don't know a whole lot about this history.

Can you clue me in?


Could someone explain to me the real difference between gospel and soul music?

Or for that matter, the difference between RnB and soul music?

I am particularly interested in the answer as it relates to seventies soul music compilations.



I love how you brought in so much history in this article.

I am a self-confessed music history nerd, and I love reading articles about how a genre develops, even if I'm not overly fond of that genre myself.

For instance, while love that classic 60s motown soul music, I'm not so much a fan of it once it morphs into the disco-y 70s soul music.

But I loved to read about how the two are connected, and how the one influenced the other.

Very well done article, I really liked it.

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