Ultimate Guide to All Things Disco

Disco is among the many genres of dance music. It is also a subculture that was introduced in the 1970s from the urban nightlife scene in the United States. Even though it is one of the most short-lived crazes of the music industry, it had a huge influence on contemporary electronic dance music. In addition, disco also made a powerful and lasting impact when it comes to producing music.

The sound of disco music is characterized by four-on-the-floor beats, string sections, synthesizers, syncopated basslines, electric rhythm guitar, horns, and electric piano. There are also lots of well-known disco artists, including ABBA and the Bee Gees. Some films also contributed to disco’s popularity, such as Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and Thank God It’s Friday in 1978. If you are interested to learn more, read on as we’re giving you the ultimate guide to all things disco. 

Disco Etymology

The word “disco” is shorthand for the word “discotheque,” which is a French word that pertains to the library of phonograph records, derived from “Bibliotheque.” The word “discotheque” also has the same meaning in English back in the 1950s. 

The word “discotheque” was used in French for a type of nightclub found in Paris, France. This had resorted to playing records during the Nazi occupation at the start of the 1940s. There were also some clubs that used it as their proper name. Back in 1960, the word was also used to describe a Parisian nightclub in an English magazine. 

There was a short sleeveless dress in 1964 that was called a discotheque dress, which was popular in the United States for a short period. The earliest recorded use for the abbreviated form “disco” was found in The Salt Lake Tribune on July 12, 1964, which described the dress. But in September of the same year, Playboy magazine used the term to describe the nightclubs in Los Angeles. 

The very first person to describe disco as a sound or music genre was Vince Aletti. In September 1973, he wrote the feature article “Discotheque Rock Paaaaarty,” which appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. 

Brief History of Disco

Disco began in the late 1960s in underground clubs before it eventually became the hottest music in the world in the following decade. It was introduced to the nightlife scene as a way to escape the rising social and economic issues of the era, including political scandal, war, unemployment, gang violence, and increasing crime rates. In the 1960s, the growing race riots and homophobia led to unsafe places for people of color and members of the gay community. 

Discos like Paradise Garage and Studio 54 in New York City enabled people from all walks of life, especially those in the marginalized communities, to come together and dance safely. The popularity of disco increased due to the funky sounds, reflective disco balls, trippy lights, and the positive atmosphere it offers to people. However, its mainstream music success happened when the film Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, which starred John Travolta. It was a successful film, including its soundtrack that featured disco tracks from popular artists like Kool & the Gang, Yvonne Elliman, and Bee Gees. After that, more mainstream popular artists started incorporating disco elements into some of their songs, including Queen and Rod Steward. This helped further prove the influence of the genre. 

Unfortunately, the systematic racism and homophobia that led to the introduction of disco also contributed to its downfall. This was due to the many people that started to rebel against disco culture and what it represented. When 1979 came, anti-disco sentiments reached a high rate when Chicago deejay Steve Dahl held “Disco Demolition Night” during a White Sox game. He was fired after the radio station he worked with shifted from a rock to a disco format. He encouraged people to bring their old disco records to the game, where he blew them up in the field. 

After that incident, the feelings about disco seemed to have shifted with “disco sucks” becoming the new national tone and radio stations slowly dropping their disco playlists from their lineup. But even though this happened, disco music still continues to influence popular music acts today due to its catchy and danceable beats. The syncopated rhythms and repetitive vocals were able to inspire popular artists today, such as Dua Lipa, Daft Punk, and Kylie Minogue. 

The Different Characteristics of Disco Music

people dancing in a disco club

There are signature sounds that make disco music familiar. Here are some of them:


These are rhythms that pertain to the accentuation of the beat-in between-beats or the emphasis of “off-beats.” Most of the time, guitar basslines and drum hi-hat sounds are syncopated with the rest of the best or melody. 

Four-on-the-floor beats

This is a rhythm pattern that is kept in “4/4” time. This means that the bass drum hits every quarter note uniformly. It is also called the heartbeat rhythm that gives a steady beat, encouraging listeners to dance. 

Different instruments

Disco music back then used instruments like horns, flutes, strings, and other classical instruments to make a funky sound. When the 1970s came, creators began to turn to electronic instruments and synthesizers to remake the sound of the acoustic instruments that were used before. 

Repetitive Vocals

Most of the time, the vocals of disco music reverberated throughout the song. Their lyrics were also repetitive and straightforward to prevent distracting people with deeper meanings. Most of the time, disco songs were meant for pure escapism. This is why the lyrics are mostly focused on encouragement, love, or gave instruction to dance.

Most Popular Disco Musicians

people inside a disco club

Even though disco has been a short-lived era, there were still a lot of artists that were able to make lifelong legacies through their disco hots. Here are some of the most popular disco musicians:

The Bee Gees

Some of the most popular disco songs by the Bee Gees are Jive Talkin in 1975 and Stayin’ Alive in 1977. After they became successful with their disco music, they were commissioned to make songs for the Saturday Night Fever movie. That became one of the highest-selling soundtrack albums of all time, which gave the group five Grammy awards in just two years. 

Donna Summer

Donna Summer’s popular disco hits included Love to Love You Baby in 1975, and I Feel Love in 1997. Both of these songs were produced by Giorgio Moroder, an Italian music producer, and songwriter. In fact, I Feel Love was the very first disco song that was made with purely synth sounds instead of being backed by an orchestra. In 1977, the song placed number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 

Diana Ross

Diana Ross’ first attempt at disco music was Love Hangover, which was released in 1976. It instantly became successful, and the number one Billboard hit. The song begins as a slow ballad, then switches into an upbeat dance track after around a minute. 


Le Freak by Chic was another disco hit that was able to top the charts in 1978. In its lyrics, there’s a line that says, “just come down to the 54, find your spot out on the floor,” which refers to Studio 54, which was the most popular discotheque in the world during that time.

Gloria Gaynor

One of Gloria Gaynor’s most recognizable disco music hots is I Will Survive which was released in 1978. Even until now, it is a very popular song that is being sung and danced by a lot of people. This song was originally set as the B-side to a different song. However, it immediately became an instant hit after DJ Richie Kaczor played it at Studio 54.


Disco is indeed among the most popular music genre, not just in the past but even today. Many of the songs that we hear at the present time from new artists and musicians are inspired by disco music. Also, aside from music, disco has also inspired other aspects of people’s lives, including fashion. We hope this article helped you learn more about disco.