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Disco is a genre of dance music. Its popularity peaked during the middle to late 1970s. It had its roots in clubs that catered to African American, gay, psychedelic and other communities in New York City and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco was a reaction by New York City's gays as well as black, and Hispanic or Latino heterosexuals against both the domination of rock music and the demonisation of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Women embraced disco as well, and the music eventually expanded to several other popular groups of the time.

The "disco sound", while unique, almost defies a unified description, as it is an ultra-inclusive art form that draws on as many influences as it produces interpretations. Jazz, classical, calypso, rock, Latin, soul, funk, and new technologies — just to name a few of the obvious — were all mingled with aplomb. Vocals can be frivolous or serious love intrigues — all the way to extremely serious socially-conscious commentary.

The music tended to layer soaring, often-reverberated vocals, which are often doubled by horns, over a background "pad" of electric pianos and wah-pedaled "chicken-scratch" guitars. Other backing keyboard instruments include the piano, organ (during early years), string synth, and electroacoustic keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, and Hohner Clavinet. Synthesizers are also fairly common in disco, especially in the late 1970s. The rhythm is laid down by prominent, syncopated basslines (with heavy use of octaves) played on the bass guitar and by drummers using a drum kit, African/Latin percussion, and electronic drums such as Simmons and Roland drum modules). The sound is enriched with solo lines and harmony parts played by a variety of orchestral instruments, such as harp, violin, viola, cello, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, flugelhorn, French horn, tuba, English horn, oboe, flute (sometimes especially the alto flute and occasionally bass flute), piccolo, timpani and synth strings or a full-blown string orchestra.

Most disco songs have a steady four-on-the-floor beat, a quaver or semi-quaver hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a heavy, syncopated bass line. This basic beat would appear to be related to the Dominican merengue rhythm. Other Latin rhythms such as the rhumba, the samba and the cha-cha-cha are also found in disco recordings, and Latin polyrhythms, such as a rhumba beat layered over a merengue, are commonplace. The quaver pattern is often supported by other instruments such as the rhythm guitar and may be implied rather than explicitly present. It often involves syncopation, rarely occurring on the beat unless a synthesizer is used to replace the bass guitar. In general, the difference between a disco, or any dance song, and a rock or popular song is that in dance music the bass hits four to the floor, at least once a beat (which in 4/4 time is 4 beats per measure), whereas in rock the bass hits on one and three and lets the snare take the lead on two and four. Disco is further characterized by a sixteenth note division of the quarter notes established by the bass as shown in the second drum pattern below, after a typical rock drum pattern.

The orchestral sound usually known as "disco sound" relies heavily on strings and horns playing linear phrases, in unison with the soaring, often reverberated vocals or playing instrumental fills, while electric pianos and chicken-scratch guitars create the background "pad" sound defining the harmony progression. Typically, a rich "wall of sound" results. There are, however, more minimalistic flavors of disco with reduced, transparent instrumentation, pioneered by Chic.