An Overview of Motown Music

A basic look at "The Sound of Young America"

Photo of Motown Records
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"Motown" is both a style of music and a label; in fact, no other label (with the possible exception of its grittier '60s brother, Stax) is more identified with the sound it produced. Although Motown started as a straight R&B label and later moved into genres from Psychedelic Soul to New Jack Swing, for the purposes of this discussion, we'll be discussing "The Motown Sound" as it's usually understood by fans and historians.

The signature label sound that Berry Gordy created at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan was a pop-soul hybrid he correctly dubbed "The Sound Of Young America." The typical Motown song was a bright, uptempo number done as a 2/4 shuffle or a hard 4/4 beat. Lyrically it dealt almost exclusively with romance, with love won and lost; it also typically featured a very elaborate production which included a sax-heavy, rhythmic brass section, sweet strings, glockenspiel or other bells, and a surprisingly funky bass line, usually provided by the legendary James Jamerson. Solos were generally eschewed in favor of pop songcraft, and singers typically walked the line between hardcore gospel testifying and smooth jazz balladry. (Indeed, most of the "Funk Brothers," the backing band on many Motown songs, were jazz musicians by trade.) Most Motown songs were written on piano and based on a piano riff, although there were occasional ballads that broke the mold (the Temptations' "My Girl").

As the 60s wore on, soul got grittier and more socially aware, and while the better Motown artists made the transition with spectacular results (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye), others, like the Supremes' Diana Ross, were forced to go pop to compete. The Motown Sound gradually faded, but has never left the public consciousness in America or the UK; in the 80s, it sparked a mini-revival among MTV bands who'd grown up on the genre.​

Examples of Motown Songs and Music

"Stop! In the Name Of Love," The Supremes

There's probably no better example of the classic Supremes song than this monster hit, which took the girl-group genre and brought it out of the realm of bubblegum.

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," The Four Tops

The Motown sound most folks think of when you say the name, a straight four-on-the-floor backed by piano, call-and-response vocals, and elaborate production.

"The Tears of a Clown," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

A great example of the way Motown worked horns into their mix, emphatic and rhythmic and propulsive. Bonus: Smokey's trademark elegant sadness.

"I Was Made to Love Her," Stevie Wonder

Motown, like the blues, could somehow get either joy or heartbreak out of its sound without changing anything but the lyrics. Here, the joy is so fresh it practically bursts through like a ray of sunshine.

"Ain't Too Proud to Beg," The Temptations

The label also knew how to tailor one basic sound to fit the individual personalities of its artists — here, David Ruffin hits the word "friends" like a blues belter and "please" like a gospel prayer.

"Nowhere to Run," Martha and the Vandellas

Contrary to popular opinion, the Motown sound had a grittier side, one brought out simply by accenting the horn and rhythm sections.

"Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," Marvin Gaye

The bass guitar may have been the most basic element of the Motown sound, even burbling under a song as sweetly strung and sung as this one.

"My Guy," Mary Wells

Motown in girl-group mode, with jazzy organ and a rhythm so tight it sounds like it's snapping its own fingers along with the beat.

"Don't Mess With Bill," The Marvelettes

The label could also go dark when the mood called for it -- what sounds like a pledge of fidelity keeps turning into a kind of obsession here.

"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," Jimmy Ruffin

Perhaps the greatest quality of the Motown Sound was its ability to get out of the way when a singer had something deeply personal on his mind.