It's probably my favourite genre, but I'm curious what gives it its signature sound. I know syncopation in melodies and the backbeat is one thing, as well as the particular chord sequences that are used. But what else musically gives it its sound? Also what's the typical instrumentation? (I feel like there are these synths.) You can immediately identify the music as R&B just from the sound of it. And you can hear the main differences between Neo Soul and modern R&B like The Weekns and Tinasge, for examples. I want to write more in this genre so any tips would be great too.

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    R&B has at least two distinct sounds. The R&B from the '60s, and modern day 'R&B'.
    – Tim
    May 4, 2017 at 6:39
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    A couple things I would point out that aren't mentioned in the accepted answer. R&B often uses more jazzy chords than you would find in many other popular genres, such as Major and Minor 7 chords, Major and Minor 6 chords, more diminished and augmented chords (though still not incredibly common). You also tend to find that guitars don't play full voicings, ie, not playing all 6 strings, especially not playing the lower pitched strings as much. Bass tends to have a more important role than you would find in a lot of other genres, being significantly more likely to have a lead line. May 5, 2017 at 19:16
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    "More important role" doesn't sound entirely right now that I reread. I mean to say that it plays a more prominent role. You are more likely to hear the bass as a defining feature as opposed to the incredibly important and underrated role that it plays in other genres. Hell, Motown wouldn't be what it was without James Jamerson. May 5, 2017 at 19:18

2 Answers 2


Modern R&B

I don't listen to much R&B but that could be an advantage: Having listened to the examples you give (some links to specific examples would help further, if you can provide some?), this is what I'm hearing:

  • Bass synth, often fairly strong in the mix
  • Very little in the midrange like guitars or middle-keys synth, leaving loads of room in the sound spectrum for vocals
  • electronic drums, usually quite understated: heavy/charismatic bass drum, tiny splat of a snare (almost a hi-hat or a snare ghost-note) and usually no 8 or 16-beat hi-hat pulse which a human drummer would 'normally' play.
  • Usually very little or no effects on the drums (eg ambient reverb), giving a clean unfussy 'studio' sound
  • 'Minimalist' drum pattern, again leaving loads of room for other instruments to poke through
  • There seems to be a tempo range: generally quite slow like less than 90 bmp
  • Vocals have loads of room to be heard so are quite often soulful or very rhythmic (sometimes rap)

These are generalisations based on the examples you've given, but I daresay there are tunes whcih break these notions and are still considered R&B.

Regarding R&B of the 1950s/60s: This is generally a blues progression (12 bar or variations thereof), or similar kind of chord sequence, but played to a more up-tempo rhythm usually a 4/4. Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode is a classic example, as is Route 66 by Troup, also covered by the Rolling Stones.

The recording techniques of the time also give the 50's / 60's R&B a particular sound. The technique was usually to have one or (later on) two microphones and to position the instruments such that they were correct in the mix. the electronics were valve-based and microphone technology was at its early stages.

This all resulted in a "60's sound" which is generally a bit more harsh than modern recordings with a lot more ambient sound, mainly room reverberation.

Such recordings have a slightly intangible warmth which is very pleasing to the ear.

  • Since this answer is based on the examples provided and I haven't listened to those, I can't say it's wrong at all, however, this doesn't sound to me like it encompasses the entirety of R&B, especially looking at older R&B. If the OP is looking for a description of the examples, then I imagine this is perfect but the answer that I imagined would include aspects of older R&B as well, which would include much less, if any, synth, looking at the really far back stuff at least. May 5, 2017 at 19:12
  • The OP gives no examples of older R&B. As the two are uttelry different styles, I had't included that description. But I can .. May 9, 2017 at 8:53
  • Right, I get that and agree. Like I said, your answer doesn't sound wrong to me at all. If that's not what the OP is looking for, then I wouldn't think that you need to do anything further. May 9, 2017 at 13:24

As far as I have read about it, it brings out the harmonies (usually of a bluesy character) to the front, juxtaposed to the jazz-influenced syncopated beats.

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