What Classifies as Soul Music

Soul music originated within the African American community of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a type of music that incorporates and combines stylistic elements from rhythm and blues, jazz music and also gospel music that is traditionally played in African American churches. Soul music is played with musical instruments such as the bass guitar, electric guitar, drums, Hammond organ and clarinet. One of the first breakouts in the soul music genre was Ray Charles. In 1959 he was playing music that incorporated gospel music with the blues. To some extent, his music was controversial as it was new and some did not like the combination of gospel with the blues, feeling that it was sacrilegious.

African American Culture

Soul music reflected the African American culture of the time and became more popular towards the late 1960s; soul music has an earthiness to it and reflects an intensity of emotion. The goal was to make the music more authentic with an increased vitality and life that reflected the struggle of African Americans.


Important contributors to soul music included such notable music artists as Otis Redding, James Brown, Little Richard and Ray Charles. James Brown is often referred to as the “godfather of soul”. Otis Redding and James Brown were both singers that came from Macon, Georgia. Some scholars believe that a distinction can be made between these southern soul singers and singers from further north of the country.

Famous Singers

Soul music did become popular outside of the African American community as well, with such songs as “Stand by me” by Ben E King becoming extremely popular. It was not only men who became important in soul music. There were also terrific women soul singers. For instance, Aretha Franklin became a very well- known and popular soul music singer. She was a gospel singer in her father’s church in Detroit. She later integrated gospel with rhythm and blues and very quickly became known as the “queen of soul”. Different types of soul music were already appearing in the 1960s, with the more pop type soul being played by groups, such as the Temptations, and singers, such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Later, James Brown’s music became known as funk soul.

African American Roots

Soul music can be viewed as a return to African American gospel roots. In Motown in the 1960s, such groups as the Supremes can also be considered to be performing soul music. Another important group that sang soul music was the Jackson 5. Near the time of the civil rights movement, musicians became more politically conscious and started to integrate political overtones into their music.

Today much of soul music still exists in such famous and commercially successful singers as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Usher and John Legend. Some believe though that soul music reached its highest success and importance during the 1960s and that today only elements of soul remain. Nonetheless, the soul music has formed the essential basis for many music genres today.