Style of dance music that arose in the mid-1970s, characterized by hypnotic rhythm, repetitive lyrics, and electronically produced sounds. Disco (short for discotheque) evolved largely from New York City underground nightclubs, in which disc jockeys would play dance records for hours without interruption, taking care to synchronize the beats so as to make a seamless change between records. Artists such as Donna Summer, Chic, and the Bee Gees had many hits in the genre, which peaked with the release of the film Saturday Night Fever (1977). Disco faded quickly after 1980, but its powerful influence, especially its sequenced electronic beats, still continues to affect much of pop music.
Learn more about disco with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Disco is a genre of dance-oriented music whose origins are hard to define. In what is considered a forerunner to disco style clubs in February 1970 New York City DJ David Mancuso opened The Loft, a members-only private dance club set in his own home. Most agree that the first disco songs were released in 1973, though some claim Manu Dibango's 1972 Soul Makossa to be the first disco record. The first article about disco was written in September 1973 by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1974 New York City's WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show.
Musical influences include funk, soul music, and salsa and the Latin or Hispanic musics which influenced salsa. The disco sound has a soaring, often reverberated vocals over a steady "four-on-the-floor" beat, an eighth note (quaver) or sixteenth note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and prominent, syncopated electric bass line. Strings, horns, electric pianos, and electric guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and unlike in rock, lead guitar is rarely used.
Well-known late 1970s disco performers included Bee Gees, Donna Summer and The Jacksons. Summer would become the first well-known and most popular female disco artist, and also played a part in pioneering the electronic sound that later became a part of disco (see below). While performers and singers garnered the lion's share of public attention, the behind-the-scenes producers played an equal, if not more important role in disco, since they often wrote the songs and created the innovative sounds and production techniques that were part of the "disco sound". Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco's popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It's Friday contributed to disco's rise in mainstream popularity and ironically the beginning of its commercial decline. However, disco was very important in the development of Hip hop music (especially the subgenres of crunk, snap, and hyphy), British New Wave, and disco's direct descendants: the 1980s and 1990s dance music genres of house music and its harder-driving offshoot, techno.
The early "disco" sound was largely an urban American phenomenon with such legendary producers and labels such as SalSoul Records (Ken, Joe and Stanley Cayre), Westend Records (Mel Cheren), Casablanca (Neil Bogart), and Prelude (Marvin Schlachter) to name a few. They inspired and influenced such prolific European dance-track producers such as Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Marc Cerrone. Moroder was the Italian producer, keyboardist, and composer who produced many songs of the singer Donna Summer. These included the 1975 hit "Love to Love You Baby", a 17-minute-long song with "shimmering sound and sensual attitude". Allmusic.com calls Moroder "one of the principal architects of the disco sound".
The disco sound was also shaped by the legendary Tom Moulton who wanted to extend the enjoyment of the music — thus single-handedly creating the "Remix" which has influenced many other latter genres such as Hip-Hop, Techno, and Pop. DJs and remixers would often remix (i.e., re-edit) existing songs using reel-to-reel tape machines. Their remixed versions would add in percussion breaks, new sections, and new sounds. Influential DJs and remixers who helped to establish what became known as the "disco sound" included David Mancuso, Tom Moulton, Nicky Siano, Shep Pettibone, the legendary and much-sought-after Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, and later, New York–born Chicago "Godfather of House" Frankie Knuckles. Disco was also shaped by nightclub DJs such as Francis Grasso, who used multiple record players to seamlessly mix tracks from genres such as soul, funk and pop music at discoteques, and was the forerunner to later styles such as hip-hop and house. Karen Cook was the first female disco DJ on record. She spun the vinyl hits from 1975 – 1978. Trained by Sam Meyer, discjockey at Barbary Coast in Houston, her first job was at Mean Green Inn on her college campus of University of North Texas in Denton, TX. She went on to work at the most popular Houston Club at the time, Todds, owned by McFaddin Kendrick. She created such buzz that they hired her not only for their premiere exclusive member-only club, 'Elan, but also enlisted her to program the music for other dj's at their many properties throughout the US. She was famous for the ability to match the tone, beat AND style of a song in a segue and had a technique she used to create the sale of more drinks.
The Bee Gees used Barry Gibb's falsetto to garner hits such as "You Should Be Dancing". In 1975, hits such as Van McCoy's "The Hustle" and Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" and "Could It Be Magic" brought disco further into the mainstream. Other notable early disco hits include The Jackson 5’s "Dancing Machine" (1973), Barry White’s "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" (1974), LaBelle’s "Lady Marmalade" (1974)and Silver Convention’s "Fly Robin Fly" (1975). Chic's "Le Freak" (1978) became a classic and is heard almost everywhere disco is mentioned; other hits by Chic include the often-sampled "Good Times" (1979) and "Everybody Dance" (1977). Also noteworthy are Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real" (1978) and Walter Murphy's various attempts to bring classical music to the mainstream, most notably his hit "A Fifth of Beethoven" (1976).
The rich orchestral acompaniment that became identified with the disco era conjured up the memories of the Big Band era which brought out several artists that recorded and disco-ized some Big Band Music including Perry Como, who re recorded his 1929 and 1939 hit, Temptation in 1975 as well as some unlikely Country artists such as Bill Anderson (Double S) and Ronnie Milsap (High Heel Sneakers). Even the I Love Lucy theme wasn't spared from being disco-ized.
Prominent European pop and disco groups were Luv' from the Netherlands and Boney M, a group of four West Indian singers and dancers masterminded by West German record producer Frank Farian. Boney M charted worldwide hits with such songs as "Daddy Cool", "Ma Baker" and "Rivers of Babylon." All three charted in the United States. In France, Dalida released "J'attendrai", which became a big hit in Canada and Japan.
Disco hit the airwaves with Marty Angelo's Disco Step-by-Step Television Show in 1975, Steve Marcus' Disco Magic/Disco 77, Eddie Rivera's Soap Factory and Merv Griffin's, Dance Fever, hosted by Deney Terrio, who is credited with teaching actor John Travolta to dance for his upcoming role in the hit movie Saturday Night Fever. Several parodies of the disco style were created, most notably "Disco Duck" and "Dancin' Fool". Rick Dees, at the time a radio DJ in Memphis, Tennessee, recorded "Disco Duck"; Frank Zappa parodied the lifestyles of disco dancers in "Dancin' Fool" on his Sheik Yerbouti album.
Most disco songs have a steady four-on-the-floor beat, a quaver or semi-quaver hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a heavy, syncopated bass line. This basic beat would appear to be related to the Dominican merengue rhythm. Other Latin rhythms such as the rhumba, the samba and the cha-cha-cha are also found in disco recordings, and Latin polyrhythms, such as a rhumba beat layered over a merengue, are commonplace. The quaver pattern is often supported by other instruments such as the rhythm guitar and may be implied rather than explicitly present. It often involves syncopation, rarely occurring on the beat unless a synthesizer is used to replace the bass guitar.
In 1977, Giorgio Moroder again became responsible for a development in disco. Alongside Donna Summer and Pete Bellotte he wrote the song "I Feel Love" for Summer to perform. It became the first well-known disco hit to have a completely synthesised backing track. The song is still considered to have been well ahead of its time. Other disco producers, most famously Tom Moulton, grabbed ideas and techniques from dub music (which came with the increased Jamaican migration to NYC in the seventies) to provide alternatives to the four on the floor style that dominated. Larry Levan utilized style keys from dub and jazz and more as one of the most successful remixers of all time to create early versions of house music that sparked the genre .
Disco songs were arranged and composed by experienced arrangers and orchestrators, and producers added their creative touches to the overall sound. Recording complex arrangements with such a large number of instruments and sections required a team that included a conductor, copyists, record producers, and mixing engineers. Mixing engineers had an important role in the disco production process, because disco songs used as many as 64 tracks of vocals and instruments. Mixing engineers compiled these tracks into a fluid composition of verses, bridges, and refrains, complete with orchestral builds and breaks. Mixing engineers helped to develop the "disco sound" by creating a distinctive-sounding disco mix.
Early records were the "standard" 3 minute version until Tom Moulton, came up with a way to make songs longer, wanting to take a crowd to another level that was impossible with vinyl discs of the time (which could usually hold no more than 5 minutes of good-quality music). With the help of José Rodriguez, his remasterer, he pressed a single on a 10" disc instead of 7". They cut the next single on a 12" disc, the same format as a standard album. This method fast became the standard format for all DJs of the genre.
Because record sales were often dependent on floor play in clubs, DJs were also important to the development and popularization of disco music. Notable DJs include Rex Potts (Loft Lounge, Sarasota, FL), Jim Burgess, Walter Gibbons, John "Jellybean" Benitez, Richie Kaczar of Studio 54, Rick Gianatos, Francis Grasso of Sanctuary, Larry Levan, Ian Levine, Neil "Raz" Rasmussen & Mike Pace of L'amour Disco in Brooklyn, Preston Powell of Magique, Jennie Costa of Lemontrees, Tee Scott, John Luongo, Robert Ouimet of The Limelight, and David Mancuso.
The 12-inch single format also allowed longer dance time and format possibilities. In May, 1976, Salsoul Records released Walter Gibbons' remix of Double Exposure's "Ten Percent", the first commercially-available 12-inch single. Motown Records’ "Eye-Cue" label also marketed 12-inch singles; however, the play time remained the same length as the original 45s. In 1976, Scepter/Wand released the first 12-inch extended-version single, Jesse Green's "Nice and Slow." This single was packaged in a collectible picture sleeve, a relatively new concept at the time. Twelve-inch singles became commercially available after the first crossover, Tavares' "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel."
Some cities had disco dance instructors or dance schools which taught people how to do popular disco dances such as "touch dancing", "the hustle" and "the cha cha." There were also disco fashions that discotheque-goers wore for nights out at their local disco, such as sheer, flowing Halston dresses for women and shiny polyester Qiana shirts for men with pointy collars, preferably open at the chest, often worn with double-knit suit jackets.
Some notable professional dance troupes of the 1970s include Pan's People and Hot Gossip. For many dancers, the primary influence of the 1970s disco age is still predominantly the film Saturday Night Fever(1977). In the 1980s this developed into the music and dance style of such films as Fame (1980), Flashdance (1983), and the musical A Chorus Line(1975).
The popularity of the film Saturday Night Fever prompted major record labels to mass-produce hits, a move which some perceived as turning the genre from something vital and edgy into a safe "product" homogenized for mainstream audiences. Though disco music had enjoyed several years of popularity, an anti-disco sentiment manifested in America. This sentiment proliferated at the time because of oversaturation and the big-business mainstreaming of disco. Worried about declining profits, rock radio stations and record producers encouraged this trend. According to Gloria Gaynor, the music industry supported the destruction of disco because rock music producers were losing money and rock musicians were losing the spotlight. Many hard rock fans expressed strong disapproval of disco throughout the height of its popularity. Among these fans, the slogan "Disco Sucks" was common by the late 1970s and appeared in written form in places ranging from tee shirts to graffiti.
Disco music and dancing fads began to be depicted by rock music fans as silly and effeminate, such as in Frank Zappa's satirical song "Dancin' Fool". Some listeners objected to the perceived sexual promiscuity and illegal drug use that had become associated with disco music. Others were put off by the exclusivity of the disco scene, especially in major clubs in large cities such as the Studio 54 discotheque, where bouncers only let in fashionably-dressed club-goers, celebrities, and their hangers-on. Rock fans objected to the idea of centering music around an electronic drum beat and synthesizers instead of live performers. Some have contended that there was also an element of bigotry to the anti-disco backlash; in his book A Change Is Gonna Come, Craig Werner wrote, "the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia.
To further complicate matters, several prominent rock bands recorded songs with disco influences, such as Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" (1978), The Rolling Stones’ "Miss You" (1978), and Kiss' "I Was Made For Lovin' You" (1979). Though these fusions of rock and disco were initially met with critical and commercial acclaim, many of the bands were subsequently viewed as "sell-outs". Since the advent of disco and dance music, rock music has absorbed many of the rhythmic sensibilities of funk-influenced dance music, while nevertheless retaining a distinct sound and audience culture.
Some historians have referred to July 12, 1979 as "the day disco died" because of an anti-disco demonstration that was held in Chicago. Rock station DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, along with Michael Veeck, son of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, staged Disco Demolition Night, a promotional event with an anti-disco theme, between games at a White Sox doubleheader for disgruntled rock fans. During this event, which involved exploding disco records, the raucous crowd tore out seats and turf in the field and did other damage to Comiskey Park. It ended in a riot in which police made numerous arrests. The damage done to the field forced the Sox to forfeit the second game to the Detroit Tigers who won the first game. The stadium suffered thousands of dollars in damage.
The television industry — taking a cue from the music industry — responded with an anti-disco agenda as well. A recurring theme on the television show WKRP in Cincinnati contained a hateful attitude towards disco music. The anti-disco backlash may have helped to cause changes to the landscape of Top 40 radio. Negative responses from the listenerships of many Top 40 stations encouraged these stations to drop all disco songs from rotation, filling the holes in their playlists with New Wave, punk rock, and album-oriented rock cuts.. Indeed, Jello Biafra of anarcho-punk band The Dead Kennedys likened disco to the cabaret culture of Weimar Germany for its apathy towards government policy and its escapism (which Biafra saw as delusional). He sang about this in the song "Saturday Night Holocaust", the B-side of the song "Halloween".
It should be noted that, unlike in the U.S., there was never a focused backlash against disco in Europe, and discotheques and the Disco culture continued past 1980 in Europe.
It was during this backlash and decline that several record companies were folded, reorganized or sold. TK Records closed in 1981. ABC Records was sold to MCA Records in 1979, which shut down the label. Casablanca Records' founder Neil Bogart was forced out in 1980 by label owner PolyGram. RSO Records founder Robert Stigwood left the label in 1981.
In addition, dance music during the 1981–83 period borrowed elements from blues and jazz, creating a style different from the disco of the 1970s. This emerging music was still known as disco for a short time, as the word had become associated with any kind of dance music played in discothèques. Examples of early 1980s dance sound performers include D. Train, Kashif, and Patrice Rushen.
During the first years of the 1980s, the "disco sound" began to be phased out, and faster tempos and synthesized effects, accompanied by guitar and simplified backgrounds, moved dance music toward the funk and pop genres. This trend can be seen in singer Billy Ocean's recordings between 1979 and 1981. Whereas Ocean's 1979 song American Hearts was backed with an orchestral arrangement played by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, his 1981 song "One of Those Nights (Feel Like Gettin' Down)" had a more bare, stripped-down sound, with no orchestration or symphonic arrangements. This drift from the original disco sound is called post-disco.
During the early 1980s, dance music dropped the complicated melodic structure and orchestration which typified the "disco sound." Examples of well-known songs which illustrate this difference include Kool & the Gang’s "Celebration" (1980), Rick James’ "Super Freak" (1981), Grace Jones's "Pull Up to the Bumper" (1981), Carol Jiani's "Hit N' Run Lover" (1981), Laura Branigan's "Gloria" (1982), The Pointer Sisters’ "I'm So Excited" (1982), Prince’s "1999" (1982), The Weather Girls's "It's Raining Men" (1982), Madonna’s "Holiday" (1983), Irene Cara’s "Flashdance (What A Feeling)" (1983), Angela Bofill's "Too Tough" (1983), Miquel Brown's "So Many Men, So Little Time" (1983), Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" (1983), Jocelyn Brown's "Somebody Else's Guy" (1984), and Klymaxx's "Meeting in the Ladies Room" (1984).
Early house music, which was developed by innovative DJs such as Larry Levan in New York and Frankie Knuckles in Chicago, consisted of various disco loops overlapped by strong bass beats. House music was usually computer-driven, and longer segments were used for mixing. Clubs associated with the birth of house music include New York's Paradise Garage and Chicago's Warehouse and The Music Box.
The trend continued in the 2000s with hit songs such as Kylie Minogue’s "Spinning Around" (2000) and "Love at First Sight" (2002), Sheena Easton's "Givin' Up, Givin' In" (2001), Sophie Ellis-Bextor's smash single Murder on the Dancefloor (2002), S Club 7's singles Don't Stop Movin' (2001), Alive (2002) and Love Ain't Gonna Wait For You (2003), The Shapeshifters' "Lola's Theme" (2003),Janet Jackson's "R&B Junkie" (2004), La Toya Jackson's "Just Wanna Dance" (2004), and Madonna’s 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor echoes traditional disco themes, particularly in the single "Hung Up," which samples ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)."
In the mid-late 2000s, many disco-influenced songs have been released, becoming hits, including (2005) Gorillaz's Dare, Ultra Nate's "Love's The Only Drug" (2006), Gina G’s "Tonight's The Night" (2006), The Shapeshifters' "Back To Basics" (2006), Michael Gray's "Borderline" (2006), Irene Cara's "Forever My Love" (2006), Bananarama's "Look on the Floor (Hypnotic Tango)", Dannii Minogue's "Perfection" (2006), Akcent's "Kings of Disco" (2007), the Freemasons "Rain Down Love" (2007), Claudja Barry's "I Will Stand" (2006), Suzanne Palmer's "Free My Love" (2007), Pepper Mashay's "Lost Yo Mind" (2007), Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s "Me and My Imagination" (2007), Maroon 5's "Makes Me Wonder" (2007) Justice’s "D.A.N.C.E." and "Phantom pt II" (2007), and Estelle's "American Boy (feat. Kanye West)" (2008). Music producer, Ian Levine has also produced many new songs with such singers as George Daniel Long, Hazell Dean, Sheila Ferguson, Steve Brookstein and Tina Charles among others for the compilation album titled, Disco 2008, a tribute to Disco music using original material.
In 1994, the World's Largest Disco was founded. A revival of a 1979 one-time event of the same name held in the Buffalo, New York metropolitan area, this widely popular event takes place annually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the Buffalo Convention Center and draws a capacity crowd of 7,000 people each year.