Can you please explain why 'white' soul rhythm means accented on the first and third beat while 'black' soul rhythm is on the second and fourth?

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    Not my area but I'm curious: do you have any links to pages that use these terms? Google-fu has failed me. – user48353 Mar 8 '19 at 2:59
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    Also could you cite some example songs that show what you’re asking about? I’m just not hearing it. – Todd Wilcox Mar 8 '19 at 5:44
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    The idea that styles of dance music associated with white peoples (country, etc) tend to accent 1 and 3 in a 4/4 beat, while those associated with the black part of the population (jazz, etc) is a common one. I've not heard any reference before to there being two types of soul music based on this distinction, but maybe someone has noticed one... as per comments above it would be interesting to know where you found reference to this. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 8 '19 at 7:11
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    @AlbrechtHügli I assumed that Randy means soul as a musical style, but then historically that would be thought of as a black style ("2/4") and though I have heard of "white soul" and "blue-eyed soul", I thought that was generally seen as white singers taking on a 'black' style - I could be wrong though as I'm not very familiar with soul. I think it is fair to say that offbeat / upbeat accenting and syncopation is seen as typical of historically black-influenced music, although as Tetsujin says, the boundaries are (happily?) a lot more blurred now. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 8 '19 at 11:00
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    @topomorto, I think you'll agree that these conversations are most appropriate in the context of specific cultural and historical analysis. "Country" and "jazz" are vast terms each spanning many decades and sub-genres. Maybe 'bebop in New York the 1940s and 50s' would be more appropriate. To that end, I am a suspicious of "the idea" that white people vs. black people accent different beats. This claim is far too broad and sweeping to be a legitimate historical claim. – jdjazz Mar 9 '19 at 23:43

I'm not certain it extends as far as actual music played by actual musicians of any race, creed or colour, but it is a phenomenon of sorts when it comes to the general public.

Watch any predominantly white audience clap along to a song & unless the beat is very clearly pointed out to them - a rock song with a snare on the backbeat etc, or the singer doing his best Freddie Mercury at them - they will tend to clap on the one & three.
This has always been known, in my musical circles, as "white man's clapping".
Most actual musicians, of any ethnicity, tend to find this rather amusing.

A predominantly black audience will, without guidance, tend to clap on the 2 & 4.
Most actual musicians, of any ethnicity, tend to find this rather cool.

I have no clue whether this is racial or cultural; though maybe a gospel music vs relatively staid 'church of england' type musical upbringing provides sufficient hint to the young that they automatically lean towards one interpretation or the other as they get older.

Though discussing, very broadly, 'race' in this, I'm trying really hard not to do anything other than describe a simple observation. I have no academic studies I can point to, this is just what I've noticed over the years.
I also get the feeling that this type of delineation would tend to apply more to the older generation [ie my age] than the young; as the cultural divisions have blurred considerably in even my life-time.

Late Edit
This 'phenomenon' was made into a running joke in Steve Martin's 'The Jerk' (1979)

Thanks to Brian who points out in comments, Harry Connick's neat way of turning the audience round, when they were probably driving the whole band crazy by sluggishly clapping along on the 1 & 3.

Timestamp 3:25 if you just want the performance without the explanation

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  • Actually reading your answer I get even another assumption: the use of the word “cool” has brought me to this: Could it be that there is more than a culture difference but a difference of subculture! Our after 2nd war generation was very suppressed by an authoritarian school system and society. Our solidarity with the black power movement and civil rights movement was very strongly. Could it be that off-beat clapping was a kind of protest? Could it be that the next generation will march in step again. This assumption of mine is not quite a new one! – Albrecht Hügli Mar 8 '19 at 10:59
  • Perhaps another factor is that black people have traditionally tended to do a lot less military marching. – PeterJ Mar 8 '19 at 11:57
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    Do watch the Harry Connick Jr video youtube.com/watch?v=4hYYgz-AJKU where he plays a 5/4 bar to change the audience from clapping on 1 and 3 to 2 and 4. Absolute genius! – Brian THOMAS Mar 8 '19 at 13:06
  • @BrianTHOMAS - Love it. I've seen [or rather heard] it done elsewhere, but never had anyone paint it out so broad for a general audience to understand it. – Tetsujin Mar 8 '19 at 13:57
  • “Most actual musicians, of any ethnicity, tend to find this rather amusing.” Not sure; lots of musicians here in Germany actually don't seem to know what it's about when I cringe at the audience's 1 and 3 clapping. Especially among classical musicians it doesn't seem to be clear that 2 and 4 is correct for Rock! – leftaroundabout Mar 9 '19 at 23:37

Can you please explain why 'white' soul means accented on the first and third beat while 'black' soul is on the second and fourth?

This is just plain not true. There's a reason that James Brown's biography is titled "The One." Here are a couple of writers talking about this:

“The one,” in James Brown lore, is the source of that which makes funk funky, and everybody knows by now that James Brown more or less made funk a world onto itself. Specifically it’s the first beat in a measure, but “the one” is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else – the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself – into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude.

--Mark Reyonolds

Pinpointing the moment funk was born (or even where it came from) is about as difficult as explaining what exactly it is. A seminal moment, however, was two years earlier with James Brown’s 1965 hit “Papa Got A Brand New Bag.” Here is where his band began emphasizing the first beat of every measure (the “one”), making the entire groove more danceable, and new guitarist Jimmy Nolen turned himself into a part of the percussion section.

--Natalie Weiner

So unless you think that James Brown exemplifies "white soul," this statement just doesn't hold water.

There's a general problem that people want simple explanations of complicated things about musical style and taste, so when someone comes up with an overly simplified explanation, it gets propagated as if it were true. Some other examples:

  • In baroque music, you always play dotted rhythms as if they were double-dotted.

  • Swing feel means playing eighth notes as triplets.

  • Blues feel comes from a scale called the blues scale.

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    ..and yet if it was noteworthy that Brown's band began emphasizing 'the one', isn't that in agreement with the idea that some of the traditions they were building on didn't emphasise that first beat? – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 9 '19 at 20:22
  • @topomorto: If you listen to various styles of popular music on a radio in the US, you will find that in most of them, it's very common to emphasize 2 and 4 more than 1 and 3. I'm not convinced there's any correlation at all between upbeat versus downbeat emphasis and white versus black styles of music. Brown may have just been doing his innovation as a change away from general pop-music norms, not previous norms in soul. – Ben Crowell Mar 9 '19 at 22:10
  • These days, of course! This whole "1&3 = white, 2&4 = black" thing hasn't actually been the case at any point in my lifetime, from what I've seen - but it does have some truth IMO when you go back to into the history/development of popular music (between, say, the 1920s and 1960s). – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 9 '19 at 22:18
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    @topomorto: Sure, an oversimplification can still have a kernel of truth in it, even if it's just historical. For instance, an ethnic stereotype could have been ultimately based on some kernel of historical fact, but that doesn't mean we should propagate it. – Ben Crowell Mar 9 '19 at 22:55
  • Of course - and with careful phrasing we can talk about particular periods in musical history without giving the impression that the same facts hold true now. I guess I made my comment because I thought that "plain not true" was a little strong; according to my (admittedly woolly) impression of music history, musicians associated with black cultures are to be credited with strong contributions to the development of offbeat/syncopated rhythms within popular music in the early and middle part of the 20th Century. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 9 '19 at 23:08

There is no such distinction.

The racist attitude behind the idea is something like 'backbeat is black music and white people get it wrong.'

The notion is loaded with fallacies.

  • How can such a claim be made about a whole group of people? It can neither be denied nor proven.
  • It assumes that everyone can keep a steady beat, how do you distinguish if someone just looses the beat versus they don't perceive the backbeat?
  • How exactly do you determine how someone accents the backbeat? If I stomp my foot on 1 and 3 and clap on 2 and 4, where is the emphasis? From a musical stand point you do need two points of emphasis to get the backbeat feel. Beat 1 needs an accent to simply make it clear it is 1 and 2 needs an accent to create the syncopation of backbeat. Are certain accent gestures on 1 unacceptable as misunderstanding of backbeat?

The discussion seems to end up asking whether people clap on the downbeat or the backbeat and is the difference based on race. I've never seen race make a difference. Some people may loose or miss the beat or just have a bad sense of rhythm, but if the music has a backbeat all people clap to it.

So where does the idea come from?

My guess is that it comes out of the historical cycle of black music genres being first forbidden then accepted by white society. That happened with everything from jazz to hip hop. At one point rock and roll was not openly accepted in white society. But after it was assimilated into white society everyone understood the backbeat.

Here's a fun comparison.

The back beat seems hard to miss...

...on which beat does Tom tell them 'clap your hands?'

You can watch the rest and see a lot of the audience (they look quite white to me) clapping. I think I see people on and off the back beat through out.

This girl seems to loose the beat...

And now the same song with Wilson Pickett and a black audience. It's interesting to see what happens with the audience when Pickett leaves the stage. I see clapping, snapping, and stepping on the backbeat, and I also see a bunch of shaking with no regard for the backbeat...

What conclusion could anyone possible draw from watch these examples? It certainly isn't that the white people clap on the downbeat and black people clap on the backbeat.

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    [oh, but the lad can sing a bit!] Great bit at about 2:10 when he asks them to do the 'na na na' 2 girls at the front lose it as soon as they even think about trying to sing along & swap to the 1 & 3. – Tetsujin Mar 9 '19 at 11:20
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    Hi Michael - as this currently stands, it is really a comment to Tetsujin's post, not an answer. Do you want to edit to include an answer, or shall I move it to a comment? – Doktor Mayhem Mar 9 '19 at 17:36
  • @DoktorMayhem, I thought the video spoke for itself to show this white/black thing is a fallacy, but I added an edit to elaborate an answer. – Michael Curtis Mar 10 '19 at 19:17
  • Thanks Michael - definitely deserves an upvote now. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 10 '19 at 20:54

I remember that we used to clap in sunday school to 1 and 3 in the chorus and when I discovered to clap off-beat I had first difficulties with this “new” rhythm.

I remember this off-beat clapping and also syncopation came from the spirituals by Afro- American gospel groups (was on concerts of “black nativity” by THE STARS OF FAITH. And I waited always for the moment when the audience lost the off-beat and dropped into to marching beat.

I also remember that this rhythm and finger snipping was exciting to me and how I was driven by it and got a certain satisfaction and appeacement!

I don’t see any reason why it is not in the white soul to clap off-beat except of tradition, as the off-beat clapping is nothing else than the um-pa um-pabin march music.

But I know that even clapping on 1 3 was confusing me with singing: as a little child I couldn’t do both things together, and with the off-beat things were even more difficult! This observation was later confirmed when I asked my classes to clap while singing. They stopped singing when they started to clap even if off-beat clapping can be trained very easily by stamping on your feet on 1 and 3 and clapping on 2 and 4.

For pianists and all jazz musicians, rock and pop and classic music this will never have been problem.

So I would say it has been a difference - also the syncopation- between the white and the black soul but no more in our days.

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In an episode of the television show “The Monkees” explains why Wh**e people have soul.


In an episode of the television show “The Monkees” explains why Wh**e people have soul.

Davy Jones of the Monkees: Hey Charlie, Charlie listen…listen. I wanna ask you a question man. Oh, first of all let me introduce you to the people. This is Charlie Smalls, he’s a friend of mine from New York and now we’re out in California and we’re writing songs together. This is one of our first songs, right?

Charlie Smalls: Right

DJ: Tell me…why don’t I have soul? You’ve known me all these years. Why don’t I have soul?

CS: You do have soul but I have to explain it to you…uh…rhythmically. That’s the only way I can really talk is in music. Your soul would emanate on the accented beats 1 and 3. Where my soul emanates on the accented beats 2 and 4. And to give you a good example of that The Beatles…

DJ: Yeah

CS: Play hard and funky on 1 and 3.

DJ: (Laughs) funky?

CS: But Really. Ringo plays the hardest 1 and 3 I’ve ever heard in my life. Now if you clap four I’ll show you. 1-2-3-4 (they clap together)

CS & DJ: (Clapping together) 1-2-3-4

DJ: (Counts) 1-2-3-4

CS: Uhn-pat-uhn uhn-pat uhn-pat-uhn uhn-pat uhn-pat-uhn uhn-pat

CS: That’s…

DJ: Yeah right.

CS: …the whole thing….as long as it swings its soulful

DJ: That’s 1 and 3 right

CS: Yeah…right

CS: Now an example of 2 and 4 would be more of a Motown sound

DJ: 1 and 3…1 and 3 is like wh*te soul…right?

CS: Right, exactly…

DJ: and two and four is the motown…

CS: 2 and 4 is motown soul brothers so you know (turns to look at cigar store indian behind them) give me five over hear…uh

DJ: laughs

CS: It would be the motown soul…clap again (they clap together) 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4

DJ: (counts) 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4

CS: uhn-Bop-ski dun dun-bop uhn-bop-ski dun dun-bop uhn-bop-ski dun be dun-bop

DJ: Oh yeah the accent now is on the 2 and the 4

CS: I almost got carried away excuse me I’m sorry

DJ: Laughs

CS: but you can do the same thing if you take a two soul which is emanating from Brazil and you play (shakes percussion can) uhn-be dooby dooby uhn-be dooby dooby

CS: One

CS & DJ: (together) Two uhn-dooby dooby One uhn-dooby dooby-Two

DJ: One Two…yeah right

CS: (hands can to Davy and starts playing the piano) right

CS: (inaudible) these songs together…come up with the same toon

DJ: yeah… right

CS: You wanna try it again? Let’s sing

DJ: I know a girl…her name is Ann…she is the girl that I dream of…she give me love I never knew…she show you how to love me too

CS: la-la-lala-la-lala-la

DJ: It’s all the same right? So everybody’s got soul?

CS: Everybody’s got soul

DJ: It’s just a different kind of soul

CS: Swing it and you got soul

DJ: A 1 and 3 and a 2 and 4…this is a 1 and 2

CS: Everybody swings

DJ: Hey!!!

CS & DJ: (together) la-lala-la

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  • OMG. I'd heard that The Monkees were a cheap and cheesy show, but I wouldn't have imagined it could be that cheesy! – leftaroundabout Mar 10 '19 at 1:32
  • @leftaroundabout Charlie Smalls is cheesy. Wow. Shaking my head. – Randy Zeitman Mar 10 '19 at 2:05
  • the quoted conversation starts around here youtu.be/X9nCNHUieLI?t=21m9s – Michael Curtis Mar 10 '19 at 19:21
  • Ringo didn't play a backbeat? Sorry, that wasn't a convincing claim for 'white soul.' – Michael Curtis Mar 10 '19 at 19:31

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