What Is Motown?

Motown is an important genre in the development of modern music.

The famous Motown Sound continues to play a significant role in influencing present-day musicians across the industry.

Motown is an often misunderstood genre, but you have to know the answer to ‘what is Motown?’…

…in order to understand the roots of much of the music that’s being written and produced today.

Motown is something truly special, and it has it’s roots in a special time for music as a whole.

Let’s dive deeper into the genre of Motown to learn a little more about how it came to be, how it tends to be put together…

…and of course, what it sounds like.

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What is Motown?

Motown is a genre of music that is a little difficult to define.

It is less of a well-defined genre such as Blues or Rock, but more of a sound or musical concept developed by a specific group of people.

The genre itself was born in the studios of Tamla Records / Motown Records, a music production company and recording house in Detroit that was started in the 1960’s.

TL;DL Summary: 

Motown is a genre of music that is similar to R&B, Blues, and Jazz, but has elements of Pop, Soul, and Gospel incorporated into it. This genre was developed by a group of musicians and songwriters working out of Motown Records in the ‘60s and has forever marked musical history.

The writers, producers and musicians at Motown Records developed a unique writing style, and sound, and began writing songs and tracks for an increasing number of artists to record.

Between them these songwriters, musicians, and producers created what we now refer to as the ‘Motown Sound’.

The music was played and performed by such artists as Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robison, and other great names in the industry.

The Motown Sound has its roots in R&B, Soul, and Gospel.

Motown makes use of electric and acoustic instruments, large voice ensembles, brass sections, driving and complex bass lines, melodic instrumentals, and sometimes large choir sections.

It is an upbeat, driving and thriving, strong sound.

Music in this genre is memorable for its catchy hooks, incredible musicality, and vocal performances.

Eventually, the Motown Sound grew to influence Rock & Roll, Blues, R&B, Jazz, and pop in a deeply meaningful way.

Several successful bands came out of the Motown movement.

Typical Characteristics of Motown

There are a few standout characteristics that each contribute to creating the Motown Sound.

Here are a handful of some of the most prominent ones:

A Heavy Backbeat

The Motown Sound is renowned for its backbeat.

It is the backbeat that creates the direction and the very danceable rhythm.

You’ll find that in most Motown tracks, the backbeat is present and prominent for pretty much the entire song.  

4/4 beats or 2/4 shuffles were most favoured. 

Bright and Upbeat Tempo

While you will find that many Motown songs are about unrequited or lost love, and the like…

…you’ll also notice that they still tend to be produced to a bright, upbeat tempo. 

Short Tracks

The vast majority of Motown songs are short. In the region of just about touching on three minutes in many cases.

This track length, combined with front-loaded choruses made them very attractive to the radio stations. 

Clean-Cut and Polished

Synchronized dancers often clicking their fingers, or clapping in-time to either the backbeat or the bassline.

Smart identical clothing for all band members, perfectly coiffed hair

…you get the picture.

The Motown Sound…and the Motown look.

How Motown Started

No one person is really credited with being the founder of the Motown Sound.

But with that said, it’s pretty fair to say that Berry Gordy comes fairly close to holding that impressive accolade

Berry Gordy,  interested in music since his boyhood in Detroit, and following some songwriting success he’d had with R&B singer Jackie Wilson…

…he turned to producing and would frequently scout the Detroit music scene for new acts that he could produce and promote.

In 1957 he discovered Smokey Robinson’s band, The Miracles.

Gordy and Smokey Robinson began collaborating on songs and eventually made plans to establish a record company, to be owned and operated by African-Americans.

To this end Gordy borrowed $800 from the family savings and founded Tamla Records in Detroit.

Tamla Records Renames as Motown Records

With new acts being signed regularly, Gordy renamed Tamla Records as Motown Record Corporation.

Motown being an amalgamation of ‘motor’ and ‘town’ due to their Detroit roots.

By 1964, Berry Gordy had signed the likes of The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes.

Gordy also hired professional songwriters and producers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.

The trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland went on to write renowned Motown hits such as ‘Please, Mr. Postman’,  ‘Stop! In The Name of Love’,  ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’, and ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’.

And so the Motown Sound was born. 

From Detroit to L.A.

in 1972, Gordy decided to move the Motown Records H.Q. from Detroit to Los Angeles.

By this time, Los Angeles had firmly established itself as the hub of the American music industry.

If you wanted prolonged success, but you weren’t based in L.A., you were in for an uphill struggle.

And it’s fair to say that in the few years leading up to this move, Motown Records had seen their trajectory of success begin to fall-away.

The move to L.A. proved the right thing to do.

From 1972 and all the way well into the 1990’s, Motown was once again signing new writers and performers that would keep the label both fresh and relevant.

The 90’s did see the label begin to fade, and in 2005 Motown Records merged with Universal Music Group.

As recently as 2021 Motown Records became independent once again, and has since set about signing some young vibrant acts.

Examples Of Motown Music

It is difficult to define the Motown Sound, as it is so broad and contains so many different artists and musicians…

…but there are several excellent examples of this music that we can draw upon to demonstrate the genre.

Some of the best Motown artists include the following:

  • Marvin Gaye
  • Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  • The Marvelettes
  • The Jackson 5
  • The Supremes
  • The Temptations
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Eddie Holland
  • Martha Reeves And The Vandellas
  • Rick James
  • The Commodores

Several other artists can be listed here, but these are some of the true greats of the genre.

Smokey Robinson described Motown as a “spiritual’ sound that was not indicative of any place or technique, but it was produced by the people who made it…

…those who knew how to draw it out of themselves”.

The Motown Legacy

More than just a record label.

More than just a music genre.

Motown was a force for social and cultural change as it made its indelible mark on society as a whole.

Berry Gordy presenting Martin Luther King with recordings of his speeches – Image: The Telegraph

Well before Berry Gordy Jr. started Tamla Records, Berry Gordy Sr. had moved the family North from Georgia to seek a better life.

And a far better life they found.

Eventually, the African-American owned and managed Motown Records became one of the most successful independent record labels of all time.

With some of the most iconic African-Amercian artists of the time writing, producing and performing…

…Motown Records was impossible to ignore and they found themselves making not just amazing music, but a piece of history too…”the music that changed America”.

Wrapping it Up!

Motown is something intangible that came from a specific group of people who made music in a certain way.

There is no real way to replicate it, even though some artists come close.

Motown is something extraordinary and will forever mark the history of music.

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