What makes funk music funky?

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Promotional image for ‘Awaken, My Love!’

The art of skipping a beat

By Katie Czenczek, Staff Writer


Out all of the various genres that erupted out of the 1960s African-American music scene, funk music is the genre to most likely to get you up and dancing. A blend of R&B, soul, and jazz, this genre spiked in popularity during the ’70s when groups like Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown, and Funkadelic were at large. Later, as electronic beats became more popular in the ’80s, artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Kool and the Gang all fell into their genre with their danceable and memorable hits.

In the 21st century, and this year in particular, there has been a revival of funk music. Acts such as Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars and the combined efforts of Childish Gambino and Ludwig Göransson have brought funk music to a contemporary audience. Tracks such as the rightfully-titled “Uptown Funk” and Gambino’s “Redbone” both have characteristics of funk music, and sound almost like odes to the songs that came before them. Both Mars and Gambino and Göransson are up for nominations this year at the 2017 Grammy Awards, and there’s a good reason for it: You can’t stop the funk.

However, defining what funk exactly is can prove to be quite the challenge.

The blend of R&B, soul and jazz often makes it easy to categorize funk songs as one of those three genres, but such classification then fails to fully describe the very special and eclectic mashup of genres that defines funk. As far as music theory goes, one of the defining features of funk music is the use of the syncopated beat.

Syncopated beat is a term that describes the intentional “disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm,” as described by Wikipedia. In order words, syncopated beats veer away from the standard four-count beat, or “one, two, three, four,” and move onto a “one-and-two-and-three-and-four” beat, thus causing disturbances in the rhythm of everyday pop songs. The reason that pop songs are so easily stuck in your head is the opposite reason for why funk beats make you want to get up and dance. The disturbances in the flow of rhythm allows for empty gaps to fill in the space of the song, which triggers an impulse in your brain to anticipate the next beat. As you anticipate the beat, your body fills in the gaps by dancing.

Blair Fisher, the Music Technology Coordinator at Douglas, said in an interview with the Other Press that what separates funk from rock and blues is the happy medium between simplicity and complicatedness.

“Bass and drums provide the foundation, and in my opinion, funk tends to be more complicated and interesting (both rhythmically and harmonically) than rock or blues. The other rhythm instruments will often play sparsely—filling the gaps left by bass and drums,” Fisher said.

When done right, the way that funk artists have been doing since the ’60s, the beat is almost unstoppable. There needs to be a balance between staying on beat and adding syncopation to the song, similar to when writers break traditional writing structure and format their work in a meaningful way. In both instances, it takes a nuanced and advanced grasp of the structure of music and writing in order to pull it off.

However, it also helps to have some horns, singing chops, and background singers to fully fill out the song, said Fisher.

“Add in some horns, a great singer, some background vocals, and you have the basic ingredients.”