Popular music

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For the musical genre, see Pop music.
"Popular song" redirects here. For other uses, see Popular Song (disambiguation).

The term popular music belongs to any of a number of musical genres "having wide appeal"[1][2][3] and typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training.[1] It stands in contrast to both Art music[4][5][6] and Traditional music. Art music was historically disseminated through the performances of written music, although since the beginning of the recording industry, it is also disseminated through recordings. Traditional music forms such as early blues songs were passed orally, or to smaller, local audiences.[4][5][6] The original application of the term is to music of the 1880s Tin Pan Alley period in the United States.[1] Although popular music sometimes is known as "pop music", the two terms are not interchangeable.[7] Popular music is a generic term for music of all ages that appeals to popular tastes,[8] whereas pop music usually refers to a specific musical genre within popular music.[9] In contrast to Western popular music, a genre of music that is popular outside of a Western nation, is categorized into World music. This label turns otherwise popular styles of music into an exotic and unknown category. Society is attracted to this label because it turns many different genres into one accessible genre.[10] With the implementation the internet to access music, some popular music forms have become global, while others are popular within the culture of origin.[11] Through hybridity, different popular music genres are able to be manufactured to reflect the ideals of a global culture.[12]


Scholars have classified music as popular based on its mode of transmission in non-written form, its appeal to diverse listeners, its treatment as a commodity in a capitalist context, and other factors.[6] Sales of 'recordings' or sheet music are one measure. Middleton and Manuel note that this definition has problems because multiple listens or plays are not counted.[2] Evaluating appeal based on size of audience (mass appeal) or whether audience is of a certain social class is another way to define popular music, but this, too, has problems in that social categories of people cannot be applied accurately to musical styles. Moreover, "understandings of popular music have changed with time".[2]

Anahid Kassabian separated popular music into four categories; "popular as populist," or having overtones of liberation and expression; "popular as folk," or stating that the music is written by the people, for themselves; "popular as counterculture," or empowering citizens to act against the oppression they face; and "popular as mass," or the music becomes the tool for oppression.[10] A society's popular music reflects the ideals that they want to be dispersed at the time it is performed or published.[13]

Form of Western popular music[edit]

Form in popular music is most often sectional, the most common sections being verse, chorus or refrain, and bridge. Other common forms include thirty-two-bar form, -chorus form *(Middleton pg 30), and the twelve-bar blues. Popular music songs are rarely composed using different music for each stanza of the lyrics (songs composed in this fashion are said to be "through-composed").[14]

The verse and chorus are considered the primary elements. Each verse usually has the same melody (possibly with some slight modifications), but the lyrics change for most verses. The chorus (or "refrain") usually has a melodic phrase and a key lyrical line which is repeated. Pop songs may have an introduction and coda ("tag"), but these elements are not essential to the identity of most songs. Pop songs that use verses and choruses often have a bridge, which, as its name suggests, is a section which connects the verse and chorus at one or more points in the song.[14]

The verse and chorus are usually repeated throughout a song, while the bridge, intro, and coda (also called an "outro") tend to be used only once. Some pop songs may have a solo section, particularly in rock or blues-influenced pop. During the solo section one or more instruments play a melodic line which may be the melody used by the singer, or, in blues- or jazz-influenced pop, the solo may be improvised based on the chord progression. A solo usually features a single instrumental performer (e.g., a guitarist or a harmonica player) or less commonly, more than one instrumentalist (e.g., a trumpeter and a sax player).[14]

Thirty-two-bar form uses four sections, most often eight measures long each (4×8=32), two verses or A sections, a contrasting B section (the bridge or "middle-eight") and a return of the verse in one last A section (AABA).[15] Verse-chorus form or ABA form may be combined with AABA form, in compound AABA forms. Variations such as a1 and a2 can also be used. The repetition of one chord progression may mark off the only section in a simple verse form such as the twelve bar blues.[14]

Development in North American and Europe[edit]

The 19th century singer Jenny Lind depicted performing La sonnambula

"The most significant feature of the emergent popular music industry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the extent of its focus on the commodity form of sheet music".[16] The availability of inexpensive, widely available sheet music versions of popular songs and instrumental music pieces made it possible for music to be disseminated to a wide audience of amateur music-makers, who could play and sing popular music at home. In addition to the influence of sheet music, another factor was the increasing availability during the late 18th and early 19th century of public popular music performances in "pleasure gardens and dance halls, popular theatres and concert rooms".[16] The early popular music performers worked hand-in-hand with the sheet music industry to promote popular sheet music. One of the early popular music performers to attain widespread popularity was a Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who toured the US in the mid-19th century. During the 19th century, more people began getting involved in music by participating in amateur choirs or joining brass bands.

The centre of the music publishing industry in the US during the late 19th century was in New York's 'Tin Pan Alley' district. The Tin Pan Alley music publishers developed a new method for promoting sheet music: incessant promotion of new songs. One of the technological innovations that helped to spread popular music around the turn of the century was player pianos; these allowed people to hear the new popular piano tunes.[16] By the early 1900s, the big trends in popular music were the increasing popularity of vaudeville theaters and dance halls and the new invention—the gramophone player. The record industry grew very rapidly; "By 1920 there were almost 80 record companies in Britain, and almost 200 in the USA".[16] Radio broadcasting of music, which began in the early 1920s, helped to spread popular songs to a huge audience. Another factor which helped to disseminate popular music was the introduction of "talking pictures"—sound films—in the late 1920s. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, there was a move towards consolidation in the recording industry which led several major companies to dominate the record industry.[16]

In the 1950s and 1960s, television began to play an increasingly important role in disseminating new popular music. Variety shows regularly showcased popular singers and bands. In the 1960s, the development of new technologies in recording such as multitrack recorders gave sound engineers an increasingly important role in popular music. By using recording techniques, sound engineers could create new sounds and sound effects that were not possible using traditional "live" recording techniques.[16]

In the 1970s, the trend towards consolidation in the recording industry continued to the point that the "... dominance was in the hands of five huge transnational organizations, three American-owned (WEA, RCA, CBS) and two European-owned [companies] (EMI, Polygram)". In the 1990s, the consolidation trend took a new turn: inter-media consolidation. This trend saw music recording companies being consolidated with film, television, magazines, and other media companies, an approach which facilitated cross-marketing promotion between subsidiaries. For example, a record company's singing star could be cross-promoted by the firm's television and magazine arms.[16]

The "introduction of digital equipment (mixing desks, synthesizers, samplers, sequencers)" in the 1990s resulted in what Grove Dictionary of Music dubbed the creation of "new sound worlds", as well as facilitating DIY music production by amateur musicians and "tiny independent record labels".[16]

Global perspective[edit]

African continent[edit]

The genre of music, Maskanda, is a genre of music popular in South Africa. Although maskanda is technically a traditional music genre, the people who listen to it influence the ideals that are brought forth in the music.[17] A popular maskandi artist, Phuzekhemisi, had to lessen the political influence within his music to be ready for the public sphere. His music producer, West Nikosi, was looking for the commercial success in the music rather than starting a political controversy.[17] In the South African anti-apartheid movement, activists used protest and freedom songs to get individuals to take action, become educated with the struggle, and empower others to be politically conscious.[18] One of the genres people of Africa used for political expression is hip hop.[19] Although hip hop in Africa is based on the North American template, it has been remade to produce new meanings within African young people. This allows the genre to be both locally and globally influential.[19] African youth are shaped by the fast-growing genre's[19] ability to communicate, educate, empower, and entertain.[19] Artists who would have started in traditional music genres, like maskanda, have become hip hop artists to provide a stronger career path for young lives. These rappers compare themselves to the traditional artists like the griot and oral storyteller which has a role in reflecting on the internal dynamics of the larger society.[19] African hip hop creates youth culture, community intelligence, and global solidarity.[19]


The genre of music, Dangdut, is a genre of popular music specifically found in Indonesia. Through the country's history, there have been impacts on the popular music genres. Dangdut formed two other styles of popular music, Pop Indonesia and Underground,[20] together to create a new hybrid or fusion genre. The genre takes the noisy instrumentation from underground, but still makes it easy to listen to like Pop Indonesia. Dangdut attempts to form many popular music genres like rock, pop, and traditional music to create this new sound that lines up with the consumers' tastes.[21] This genre has formed into a larger social movement that includes clothing, youth culture, the resurgence of Islam, and the capitalist entertainment industry.[22] Another music scene that is popular in Indonesia is Punk rock. This genre was shaped in Indonesia by the local interpretations of the media from the larger global punk movement.[20] Jeremy Wallach argues that while Green Day was seen as the "death of punk," in Indonesia they were the catalyst for a larger punk movement.[20] Punk in Indonesia calls on the English-speaking world to embrace the global sects of the punk culture and become open-minded to the transnational genre.[20]


In a study involving young students in Shanghai, youth find that they enjoy to listen to both Chinese, other Asian nationalities, and Anglo-American popular music. There are three ways that young people of China were able to access global music.[13] The first reason was a policy change since the late 1970s where the country was opened up to the rest of the world instead of being self-contained. This created more opportunities for Chinese people to interact with people outside of their country of origin to create a more globalized culture. The second reason is that the Chinese television and music industry since the 1980s has broadcast television shows from their neighboring Asian societies and the West. The third reason is the impact of the internet and smart phones on the accessibility of streaming music.[13] Students in China make up 30.2% of China's internet population and the third and fifth most popular uses of the internet are respectively, internet music and internet video use. The youth described as being able to connect to the emotions and language of the Chinese music, but also enjoyed the melodies found within Anglo-American music. The students also believed that listening to the English music would improve their English language skills.[13]

Middle East[edit]

Through the 1980s and 1990s, popular music has been seen as a problem for the Iranian government because of the non-religious meanings within the music and the bodily movements of dancing or headbanging.[23] During this time period, metal became a popular underground subculture through the Middle East. Just like their Western counterparts, Middle Eastern metal followers expressed their feelings of alienation. But their thoughts came from war and social restrictions on youth.[24] In interviews of Iranian teenagers between 1990 and 2004, the youth overall preferred Western popular music, even though it was banned by the government.[23] Iranian underground rock bands are composed of members who are young, urban-minded, educated, relatively well-off, and global beings. Iranian rock is described by the traits that these band members possess.[23] The youth who take part in underground music in the Middle East are aware of the social constraints of their countries, but they are not optimistic about social change.[24] Iranian rock bands have taken up an internationalist position to express their rebellion from the discourses in their national governments.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Popular Music. (2015). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia
  2. ^ a b c Middleton, Peter; Manuel (2001). "Popular Music". Grove Music Online. Oxford Index. ISBN 9781561592630. 
  3. ^ "Definition of "popular music" | Collins English Dictionary". www.collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  4. ^ a b Arnold, Denis (1983). The New Oxford Companion Music, Volume 1: A-J. Oxford University Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-19-311316-3. 
  5. ^ a b Arnold, Denis (1983). The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 2: K-Z. Oxford University Press. p. 1467. ISBN 0-19-311316-3. 
  6. ^ a b c Tagg, Philip (1982). "Analysing popular music: theory, method and practice". Popular Music. doi:10.1017/S0261143000001227. 
  7. ^ Lamb, Bill. "Pop Music Defined". About Entertainment. About.com. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  8. ^ Allen, Robert. "Popular music". Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage. 2004.
  9. ^ Laurie, Timothy (2014). "Music Genre As Method". Cultural Studies Review. 20 (2), pp. 283-292.
  10. ^ a b Eisentraut, Jochen (2012). The Accessibility of Music: Participation, Reception and Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 41–42, 197–198. ISBN 9781139616294. 
  11. ^ Lashua, Brett (2014). Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 19. ISBN 9781137283115. 
  12. ^ Furlong, Andy (2013). Youth Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge. p. 237. ISBN 9780203862094. 
  13. ^ a b c d Law, Wing-Wah; Ho, Wai-Chung (2015-08-01). "Popular music and school music education: Chinese students’ preferences and dilemmas in Shanghai, China". International Journal of Music Education 33 (3): 304–324. doi:10.1177/0255761415569115. ISSN 0255-7614. 
  14. ^ a b c d Sadie, Stanley, ed. (2001). "Popular Music: Form". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 20. New York: Grove. pp. 142–144. ISBN 0333608003. 
  15. ^ Middleton, Richard (1990). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. p. 46. ISBN 0335152759. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Middleton, Richard and Peter Manuel. "Popular music" in Grove Music Online.
  17. ^ a b Olsen, Kathryn (2014). Music and Social Change in South Africa: Maskanda Past and Present. Phildephia: Temple University Press. pp. 61–62, 64. ISBN 9781439911389. 
  18. ^ Rojas, Eunice (2013). Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 266–267. ISBN 9780313398063. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f Saucier, Paul Khalil (2014). "Continental Drift: The Politics and Poetics of African Hip Hop". In Lashua, Brett. Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 196–197, 199, 201, 203–204, 206. ISBN 9781137283108. 
  20. ^ a b c d Wallach, Jeremy (2014). "Indieglobalization and the Triumph of Punk in Indonesia". In Lashua, Brett. Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 149, 151–152, 157. ISBN 9781137283108. 
  21. ^ Wallach, Jeremy; Clinton, Esther (2013-01-01). "History, Modernity, and Music Genre in Indonesia: Popular Music Genres in the Dutch East Indies and Following Independence". Asian Music 44 (2): 3–23. doi:10.1353/amu.2013.0020. ISSN 1553-5630. 
  22. ^ Manuel, Peter (1988). Popular Musics of the Non-Western World. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 212. ISBN 0195053427. 
  23. ^ a b c d Nooshin, Laudan (2005-09-01). "Underground, overground: Rock music and youth discourses in Iran". Iranian Studies 38 (3): 463–494. doi:10.1080/00210860500300820. ISSN 0021-0862. 
  24. ^ a b Wagg, Stephen (2014). "'How Many Divisions Does Ozzy Osbourne Have?' Some Thoughts on Politics, Heavy Metal Music, and the 'Clash of Civilizations'". In Lashua, Brett. Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 136, 141. ISBN 9781137283108. 

Further reading[edit]

Popular music
Year music.svg
Timeline of musical events
List of popular music genres
  • T.W. Adorno with G. Simpson: ‘On Popular Music’, Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, ix (1941), 17–48
  • R. Iwaschkin: Popular Music: a Reference Guide (New York, 1986)
  • P. Hardy and D. Laing: The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music (London, 1990/R)
  • Larry Freeman: The Melody Lingers on: 50 Years of Popular Song (Watkins Glen, N.Y.: Century House, 1951). 212 p. N.B.: Includes a chronology, "50 Years of Song Hits", on p. 193-215.
  • Haddix, Chuck. Rags to Be-bop: the Sounds of Kansas City Music, 1890-1945. [Text by] Chuck Haddix (Kansas City, Mo.: University of Missouri at Kansas City, University Libraries, Marr Sound Archives, 1991). Without ISBN
  • J. Kotarba, B. Merrill, J. P. Williams, & P. Vannini Understanding Society through Popular Music. NY:Routledge, 2013 (second ed.) ISBN 9780415 641951
  • R. Middleton: Studying Popular Music (Milton Keynes, 1990)
  • P. Gammond: The Oxford Companion to Popular Music (Oxford, 1991)
  • D. Brackett: Interpreting Popular Music (Cambridge, 1995)

External links[edit]