Soul is a genre of popular music that originated from African-American communities in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is derived from R&B and gospel music.
The term “soul” has been used by black American musicians to describe their music, and their overall experience with life in the US, since the 1950’s. However, it only got into the mainstream vocabulary as a term referring to music in the early 1960’s. Originally, it was defined as “gospel music sung with secular lyrics”. Soul jazz as a fused genre also emerged at the same time.
The first popular act to incorporate soul music into their repertoire was the gospel-turned-R&B group "The '5' Royals" from North Carolina. The first mainstream superstar artist to sing this new music style was Ray Charles. The blind black singer-pianist’s 1965 single "I Got a Woman" was the first soul hit to break into the Billboard chart in the US. With the rise of disco in the 1970’s, soul lost a lot of its prominence in the American popular music scene. The 1990’s saw the start of the so-called “neo soul” movement, with such artists as D'Angelo and Chico DeBarge. The genre is still around, with an occasional hit here and there even into the 21st Century.
The biggest defining characteristic of soul music is its heavy gospel music influence. One of these key elements is the call and response sections, in which one musical phrase is followed by another responding to it directly. It’s most evident in vocals, but can be done through instrumentation as well. The energetic vocals and the occasional hand claps are also traditions carried over from gospel.
The lyrics are usually repetitive, with heavy emphasis on the rhythm of the song, rather than the words or the narrative. Soul singers tend to perform with exaggerated body movements when they sing their songs live. The instrumentals tend to feature a lot of woodwind instruments, such the saxophone, the trumpet, or the trombone, but also the piano, drums, the electric guitar, and the bass. The average tempo for a soul song is between 60 and 90 beats per minute, slower than other popular genres, such as pop and rock.
Soul most commonly uses major pentatonic chords, with simple and repeating chord progressions, sometimes only two chord phrases that loop. The songs have the classic verse-chorus structure.
Just like with many other popular genres, love, sex, and relationships are common themes in soul music as well. Other topics may be varying in tone, from pain and disappointment to partying and having a good ol’ time.
Stevie Wonder made a name for himself in music in the early 1960’s and continues to perfrom to this day. He’s put out many soul hits during his long career, such as “For Once in My Life” (1968), “Superstition” (1972), and “Sir Duke” (1976). Al Green, who got his start in the 1950’s, is also still around, and has put out such hit singles in the genre as “Let's Stay Together”, and “Here I Am” (both 1972). Some of Tina Turner’s most famous soul songs are “I’m Jealous” and “I Idolize You” (both 1961).
From the younger generation, Alicia Keys sang the soul tracks “Fallin’” (2001), and “No One” (2007). Cee Lo Green released his hit single “Fuck You” in 2010, while Bruno Mars released his smash single "Fly As Me" in 2021 in this genre. The British Adele’s catalog includes the 2010 hit song “Rolling in the Deep”. In 2014, legendary American singer Aretha Franklin made a cover of Adele’s original song, making it more befitting the classic soul genre.
Some of the other better known contemporary soul singers are Leon Bridges, Joss Stone, Kem, and Lalah Hathaway.