Pop music

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This article is about a specific music genre. For popular music in general, see Popular music. For other uses, see Pop music (disambiguation).
"Pop song" redirects here. For other uses, see Pop Song.
"Popstar" redirects here. For Popstar (disambiguation), see Popstar (disambiguation).

Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern form in the Western world during the 1950s and 1960s[not verified in body] as a softer alternative to rock and roll. The terms "popular music" and "pop music" are often used interchangeably, although the former describes all music that is popular (and can include any style).

Although pop music is seen as just the singles charts, it is not the sum of all chart music. Pop music is eclectic, and often borrows elements from other styles such as urban, dance, rock, Latin, and country; nonetheless, there are core elements that define pop music. Identifying factors include generally short to medium-length songs written in a basic format (often the verse-chorus structure) as well as the common employment of repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and hooks.


David Hatch and Stephen Millward define pop music as "a body of music which is distinguishable from popular, jazz, and folk musics".[4] According to Pete Seeger, pop music is "professional music which draws upon both folk music and fine arts music".[3] Although pop music is seen as just the singles charts, it is not the sum of all chart music. The music charts contain songs from a variety of sources, including classical, jazz, rock, and novelty songs. Pop music, as a genre, is seen as existing and developing separately.[5] Thus "pop music" may be used to describe a distinct genre, aimed at a youth market, often characterized as a softer alternative to rock and roll.[6] Musicologist Allan Moore surmises that the term "pop music" itself may have originated from Pop art.[7] Additionally, it's important to note that pop music is always evolving, which means that the definition of pop music can change, too.[8] It's also important to be cognizant of the distinction between pop music and popular music. According to The New Grove Dictionary Of Music and Musicians, popular music is defined as "the music since industrialization in the 1800's that is most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class."[8] so basically pop music is popular music.


The Oxford Dictionary of Music states that the term "pop" refers to music performed by such artists as the Rolling Stones (pictured here in a 2006 performance)

The term "pop song" was first recorded as being used in 1926, in the sense of a piece of music "having popular appeal".[9] However,[editorializing] the term was in mainstream use[not in citation given] at least ten years earlier.[10] Hatch and Millward indicate that many events in the history of recording in the 1920s can be seen as the birth of the modern pop music industry, including in country, blues and hillbilly music.[11]

According to the website of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, called Grove Music Online, the term "pop music" "originated in Britain in the mid-1950s as a description for rock and roll and the new youth music styles that it influenced".[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Music states that while pop's "earlier meaning meant concerts appealing to a wide audience ... since the late 1950s, however, pop has had the special meaning of non-classical mus[ic], usually in the form of songs, performed by such artists as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, ABBA, etc".[12] Grove Music Online also states that "... in the early 1960s [the term] 'pop music' competed terminologically with beat music [in England], while in the USA its coverage overlapped (as it still does) with that of 'rock and roll'".[2]

From about 1967, the term was increasingly used in opposition to the term rock music, a division that gave generic significance to both terms.[13] Whereas rock aspired to authenticity and an expansion of the possibilities of popular music,[13] pop was more commercial, ephemeral and accessible.[14] According to British musicologist Simon Frith, pop music is produced "as a matter of enterprise not art", is "designed to appeal to everyone" and "doesn't come from any particular place or mark off any particular taste". It is "not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward ... and, in musical terms, it is essentially conservative". It is, "provided from on high (by record companies, radio programmers and concert promoters) rather than being made from below ... Pop is not a do-it-yourself music but is professionally produced and packaged".[6]


According to Frith, characteristics of pop music include an aim of appealing to a general audience, rather than to a particular sub-culture or ideology, and an emphasis on craftsmanship rather than formal "artistic" qualities.[6] Music scholar Timothy Warner said it typically has an emphasis on recording, production, and technology, rather than live performance; a tendency to reflect existing trends rather than progressive developments; and aims to encourage dancing or uses dance-oriented rhythms.[14]

The main medium of pop music is the song, often between two and a half and three and a half minutes in length, generally marked by a consistent and noticeable rhythmic element, a mainstream style and a simple traditional structure.[17] Common variants include the verse-chorus form and the thirty-two-bar form, with a focus on melodies and catchy hooks, and a chorus that contrasts melodically, rhythmically and harmonically with the verse.[18] The beat and the melodies tend to be simple, with limited harmonic accompaniment.[19] The lyrics of modern pop songs typically focus on simple themes – often love and romantic relationships – although there are notable exceptions.[6]

Harmony and chord progressions in pop music are often "that of classical European tonality, only more simple-minded."[20] Clichés include the barbershop quartet-style harmony (i.e. ii – V – I) and blues scale-influenced harmony.[21] There was a lessening of the influence of traditional views of the circle of fifths between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, including less predominance for the dominant function.[22]

Development and influence[edit]

Stylistic evolution[edit]

Throughout its development, pop music has absorbed influences from most other genres of popular music. Early pop music drew on the sentimental ballad for its form, gained its use of vocal harmonies from gospel and soul music, instrumentation from jazz, country, and rock music, orchestration from classical music, tempo from dance music, backing from electronic music, rhythmic elements from hip-hop music, and has recently[when?] appropriated spoken passages from rap.[6] According to Robert Christgau in 2014, pop music worldwide is permeated by electronic dance music.[23]

A Scientific Reports study that examined over 464,000 recordings of popular music recorded between 1955 and 2010 found less variety in pitch progressions, growing average loudness levels,[24] less diverse instrumentation and recording techniques, and less timbral variety, which declined after reaching a peak in the 1960s.[25] Scientific American's John Matson reported that this "seems to support the popular anecdotal observation that pop music of yore was better, or at least more varied, than today’s top-40 stuff."[25]

Technology and media[edit]

Left, Michael Jackson in 1984; right, Madonna in 2008

In the 1940s improved microphone design allowed a more intimate singing style[26] and ten or twenty years later inexpensive and more durable 45 r.p.m. records for singles "revolutionized the manner in which pop has been disseminated" and helped to move pop music to 'a record/radio/film star system'.[26] Another technological change was the widespread availability of television in the 1950s; with televised performances, "pop stars had to have a visual presence".[26] In the 1960s, the introduction of inexpensive, portable transistor radios meant that teenagers could listen to music outside of the home.[26] Multi-track recording (from the 1960s); and digital sampling (from the 1980s) have also been utilized as methods for the creation and elaboration of pop music.[6] By the early 1980s, the promotion of pop music had been greatly affected by the rise of music television channels like MTV, which "favoured those artists such as Michael Jackson and Madonna who had a strong visual appeal".[26]

Legitimacy in music criticism[edit]

See also: Poptimism

The latter half of the 20th-century included a large scale trend in American culture in which the boundaries between art and pop music were increasingly blurred.[27] Between 1950 and 1970, there was a debate of pop versus art.[28] Since then, certain music publications have embraced its legitimacy. According to Popmatters' Robert Loss: "There’s a strong argument for the 'rockist' mode in music criticism—that it exists, and that it’s harmful—and poptimism has positioned itself as a corrective, an antidote. ... In general the Old Guard of rock critics and journalists is depicted as a bunch of bricklayers for the foundations of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. True in part, which is to say, false. Like film studies, rock criticism of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s was an attempt to make popular music worthy of study; it was poptimism before its day."[28]

International spread[edit]

The story of pop music is largely the story of the intertwining pop culture of the United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar era.

 — Bob Stanley[23]

Pop music has been dominated by the American and (from the mid-1960s) British music industries, whose influence has made pop music something of an international monoculture, but most regions and countries have their own form of pop music, sometimes producing local versions of wider trends, and lending them local characteristics.[29] Some of these trends (for example Europop) have had a significant impact of the development of the genre.[30]

According to Grove Music Online, "Western-derived pop styles, whether coexisting with or marginalizing distinctively local genres, have spread throughout the world and have come to constitute stylistic common denominators in global commercial music cultures".[31] Some non-Western countries, such as Japan, have developed a thriving pop music industry, most of which is devoted to Western-style pop, has for several years produced a greater quantity of music of everywhere except the USA.[31] The spread of Western-style pop music has been interpreted variously as representing processes of Americanization, homogenization, modernization, creative appropriation, cultural imperialism, and/or a more general process of globalization.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Traditional Pop, Allmusic.com. Retrieved 25 August 2016
  2. ^ a b c R. Middleton, et al., "Pop", Grove music online, retrieved 14 March 2010. (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 1 - Play A Simple Melody: Pete Seeger on the origins of pop music" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu. 
  4. ^ D. Hatch and S. Millward, From Blues to Rock: an Analytical History of Pop Music (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), ISBN 0-7190-1489-1, p. 1.
  5. ^ R. Serge Denisoff and William L. Schurk, Tarnished Gold: the Record Industry Revisited (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 3rd edn., 1986), ISBN 0-88738-618-0, pp. 2–3.
  6. ^ a b c d e f S. Frith, W. Straw, and J. Street, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), ISBN 0-521-55660-0, pp. 95–96.
  7. ^ Moore, Allan F. (2016). Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-05265-4. 
  8. ^ a b "What Is Pop Music?". Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  9. ^ J. Simpson and E. Weiner, Oxford English Dictionary(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). ISBN 0-19-861186-2, cf pop.
  10. ^ Harry Gale Nye, "Running Things Into the Ground", Hardware World, April, 1916, p. 124.
  11. ^ D. Hatch and S. Millward, From Blues to Rock: an Analytical History of Pop Music, ISBN 0-7190-1489-1, p. 49.
  12. ^ "Pop", The Oxford Dictionary of Music, retrieved 9 March 2010.(subscription required)
  13. ^ a b Kenneth Gloag in The Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), ISBN 0-19-866212-2, p. 983.
  14. ^ a b T. Warner, Pop Music: Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the Digital Revolution (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), ISBN 0-7546-3132-X, pp. 3–4.
  15. ^ "Van's Brown Eyed Girl hits the 10 million mark in US". BBC. 5 October 2011. 
  16. ^ Steve Sullivan (October 4, 2013). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 2. Scarecrow Press. pp. 101–103. ISBN 978-0810882959. 
  17. ^ W. Everett, Expression in Pop-rock Music: A Collection of Critical and Analytical Essays (London: Taylor & Francis, 2000), p. 272.
  18. ^ J. Shepherd, Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Performance and production (Continuum, 2003), p. 508.
  19. ^ V. Kramarz, The Pop Formulas: Harmonic Tools of the Hit Makers (Mel Bay Publications, 2007), p. 61.
  20. ^ Winkler, Peter (1978). "Toward a theory of pop harmony", In Theory Only, 4, pp. 3–26.
  21. ^ Sargeant, p. 198. cited in Winkler (1978), p. 4.
  22. ^ Winkler (1978), p. 22.
  23. ^ a b Christgau, Robert (2014). "Anti-Rockism's Hall of Fame". The Barnes & Noble Review. Retrieved August 18, 2015. 
  24. ^ Joan Serrà, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro & Josep Ll. Arcos, "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music", Nature.com, 26 July 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2016
  25. ^ a b John Matson, "Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?", Scientific American, 26 July 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2016
  26. ^ a b c d e D. Buckley, "Pop" "II. Implications of technology", Grove Music Online, retrieved 15 March 2010.
  27. ^ Edmondson, Jacqueline, ed. (2013). Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped our Culture. ABC-CLIO. pp. 317, 1233. ISBN 978-0-313-39348-8. 
  28. ^ a b Loss, Robert (August 10, 2015). "No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm". PopMatters. 
  29. ^ J. Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), ISBN 0-520-24424-9, p. 201.
  30. ^ "Star profiles" in S. Frith, W. Stray and J. Street, The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge University Press, 2001), ISBN 0-521-55660-0, pp. 199–200.
  31. ^ a b c P. Manuel, "Pop. Non-Western cultures 1. Global dissemination", Grove Music Online, retrieved 14 March 2010.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adorno, Theodor W., (1942) "On Popular Music", Institute of Social Research.
  • Bell, John L., (2000) The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song, GIA Publications, ISBN 1-57999-100-9
  • Bindas, Kenneth J., (1992) America's Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth-Century Society, Praeger.
  • Clarke, Donald, (1995) The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, St Martin's Press. http://www.musicweb.uk.net/RiseandFall/index.htm
  • Dolfsma, Wilfred, (1999) Valuing Pop Music: Institutions, Values and Economics, Eburon.
  • Dolfsma, Wilfred, (2004) Institutional Economics and the Formation of Preferences: The Advent of Pop Music, Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Frith, Simon, Straw, Will, Street, John, eds, (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-55660-0.
  • Frith, Simon (2004) Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, Routledge.
  • Gillett, Charlie, (1970) The Sound of the City. The Rise of Rock and Roll, Outerbridge & Dienstfrey.
  • Hatch, David and Stephen Millward, (1987), From Blues to Rock: an Analytical History of Pop Music, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0-7190-1489-1
  • Johnson, Julian, (2002) Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-514681-6.
  • Kent, Jeff, (1983) The Rise and Fall of Rock, Witan Books, ISBN 0-9508981-0-4.
  • Lonergan, David F., (2004) Hit Records, 1950–1975, Scarecrow Press, ISBN 0-8108-5129-6.
  • Maultsby, Portia K., (7907) Intra- and International Identities in American Popular Music, Trading Culture.
  • Middleton, Richard, (1990) Studying Popular Music, Open University Press.
  • Negus, Bob, (1999) Music Genres and Corporate Cultures, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-17399-X.
  • Pleasants, Henry (1969) Serious Music and All That Jazz, Simon & Schuster.
  • Roxon, Lillian, (1969) Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset & Dunlap.
  • Shuker, Roy, (2002) Popular Music: The Key Concepts, Routledge, (2nd edn.) ISBN 0-415-28425-2.
  • Starr, Larry & Waterman, Christopher, (2002) American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MTV, Oxford University Press.
  • Watkins, S. Craig, (2005) Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement, Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-0982-2.

External links[edit]