Telling music apart

I have gone on a kick where I’m listening to wild rock & roll from the early 1960s that is almost never heard on the radio now. It led me to a startling realization:

If you play me an oldie from that time, I can usually tell you, just from listening to it for a few seconds, whether it came from Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago or California. Until recently, I had no idea why I was able to do this, but as I pound my brain with this music now, I’m starting to notice the elements of the music that make it possible to hear the difference.

At the time this music was made, it was possible to become a famous singer from almost anywhere in the United States. Now the music industry is much more consolidated in Los Angeles, US radio stations have playlists that are generally determined for the whole country at corporate headquarters, and the Canadian government has shrunk down to nearly zero the influence of Canadian radio stations on the US music scene. For this reason, everything is more homogenized now, and you don’t get these interesting regional differences.

What do you think, Amy? Can you tell old Philly music apart from other music?

Hi Jamie

Hmmmm… You’ve got me scratching my head on that one. I’d never really thought about it before … but, yes, I guess I’d recognize a “typical” Motown sound. And, yes, I guess I’d also be able to recognize an old California sound. I’m not as sure about Chicago or Philly, though. I think I need to do some more head scratching on that score (so to speak :lol:)


Most of the fast songs from Philadelphia that were recorded in the early 1960s hit the drums on every quarter note, and in the second and fourth beats of the measure, they usually hit the snare drum twice. It made a sort of washing machine rhythm. They used a lot of loud, very quacky saxophones, and deliberately tarty-sounding backup singers. Philadelphia also had a style of torch song that didn’t sound the same anywhere else.

I have a 1966 vinyl LP from India called Dance to Your Film Favourites where the musicians are trying to play twist music. My friends and I always enjoyed the “exotic” rhythm in these songs, and now I realize that the Indian drummers were trying to imitate that Philadelphia beat without being able to syncopate properly. It’s like when a local marching band in Eastern Europe tries to play American swing from the 1940s but can’t syncopate, or when Americans try to play polkas and can’t STOP syncopating.

In Detroit, a lot of musicians from the symphony played in Motown recording sessions. A Hungarian cellist from the symphony told my younger sister (a professional bassist) that her colleagues were always complaining about how impossible it was to play the Motown rhythms and arrangements, but that since she was used to Hungarian folk music, there were so surprises for her.

Detroit music from that era that was not produced at Motown had a very raw, loud, primitive beat to it, as if a bunch of manic whites were trying to play Motown but couldn’t slow down.