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Popular music

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Popular music is music belonging to any of a number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and mostly distributed commercially. It stands in contrast to classical music, which historically was the music of elites or the upper strata of society, and traditional folk music which was shared non-commercially. It is sometimes abbreviated to pop music, although pop music is more often used for a narrower branch of popular music.




The term "popular music" is used in broad and narrow senses. At its broadest, it refers to all music other than classical music, also known as art music. In the early 19th century, the traditional songs of the common people were referred to as "popular songs." By the late 19th century these songs were referred to as "folk songs." At that time, a distinction was made between folk music and more recently developed urban popular music. Today, popular music is distributed via mass media such as recordings and radio (as classical music is now also). Popular music forms part of popular culture. For specific varieties of popular music, see the list of genres below.

See the separate article on pop music for the narrower genre of very commercial, light, catchy, melodic music.

Theories of popular music

Among scholars in the humanities, a broader range of definitions have been proposed.

Frans Birrer (1985, p. 104) gives four conceptions or definitions of "popular" music:

  1. Normative definitions. Popular music is an inferior type.
  2. Negative definitions. Popular music is music that is not something else (usually 'folk' or 'art' music).
  3. Sociological definitions. Popular music is associated with (produced for or by) a particular social group.
  4. Technologico-economic definitions. Popular music is disseminated by mass media and/or in a mass market.

All of these, according to Middleton (1990,p.4) "are interest-bound; none is satisfactory." According to Hall (1978, p.6-7), "The assumption...that you might know before you looked at cultural traditions in general what, at any particular time, was a part of the elite culture or of popular culture is untenable." Thus popular music must be comprehended in relation to the broader musical field (Middleton 1990, p.11).

Bennett (1980, p.153-218) distinguishes between 'primary' and 'secondary' popular culture, the first being mass product and the second being local re-production, discussed further below.

"While repetition is a feature of all music, of any sort, a high level of repetition may be a specific mark of 'the popular', enabling an inclusive rather than exclusive audience." (Middleton 1990, p.139)

The nature of popular music

Fred Lerdahl ( Lerdahl's theories explicitly exclude "associational" details which are used to help articulate form in popular music, while Allen Forte's book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era 1924-1950 analyses popular music with traditional Schenkerian techniques. (Middleton 1999, p.144)

Popular music as a business enterprise

Much popular music is the product of the modern business enterprise, disseminated for the purpose of earning a profit. Executives and employees of popular music businesses try to select and cultivate the music that will have the greatest success with the public, and thus maximize the profits of their firm. In this respect, popular music differs from traditional folk music, which was created by ordinary people for their own enjoyment, and from classical music, which was originally created to serve the purposes of the Church or for the entertainment of the nobility. (Today classical music is often subsidized by governments and universities.)

Although the controlling forces of popular music are business enterprises, young people who aspire to become popular musicians are not always driven by the profit motive. Rather, they often want to find an outlet for their sense of expression and creativity, or simply to have fun. Historically, the conflicting motives of business people and musicians has been a source of tension in the popular music industry.

Debate continues about the status of popular music. Some emphasize the commercial motive and suggest the big companies manipulate the audiences and sell them products with no intrinsic value. This is the debate about "authenticity" which rages whenever popular music is discussed. Commercial interests can cause the dilution of music as corporations take over their distribution, and may cause music to move away from the grassroots level of Folk or Blues. Several movements such as punk in the 80s, and Indie in the 90s, have attempted to try to take back control.

The electric guitar and amplification has had a big impact on modern music. In the 30s and 40s amplified instruments became necessary to compete with the loud volumes in the Big Swing bands of the era. Gibson introduced the first Gibson Les Paul solid body guitar in 1952. In the 1960s, the tonal palette of the electric guitar was further modified by introducing an effects box in its signal path, the wah-wah pedal.

Classical music in the 20th Century

Classical music compositions in the 20th century attempted to strip away the erroneous, the extra details, and as with modern art, remove everything apart from the essence of the image. It was often atonal, dissonant and discordant, and used the unexpected. It is often characterised by a lack of harmony and by a harsh or confused mingling of sounds. As composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall points out, (20th Century Greats: BBC Channel 4) Classical music soon 'began a perilous journey into an arid form of modernism that the mainstream audience couldn't, or didn't want to, follow.' Classical music lost the mainstream in the 1920s, with popular music gaining in influence.

Which 20th century composers will still be around and enthralling audiences in 300 years time? Though the earlier composers, like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, were pushing the boundaries, their compositions were still related to the work of previous composers.

By the 1920s, popular music entered the process with songs that were catchy and entertaining, though often banal in their simplicity, but began to rival classical compositions in their complexity and sophistication. This transformation was led by Cole Porter, a musician who was part of a generation of gifted composers that developed the musical on Broadway in New York, and included George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Porter was classically trained and used classical techniques in his music. He also drew on the new rhythms and beats in jazz; the rhythms of Porter’s music fused European with African American traditions. The best interpretations of Porter's songs were by the some of the greatest African American jazz, blues and swing singers, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Porter introduced songs for all to enjoy and re-established the connection between the kind of music everyone liked and that enjoyed by the educated classes.

In the 1920s Jazz was the rhythm of the moment, and the lifeblood of popular music. The biggest change in music was in the rhythm, as the two worlds of Folk music and the Caribbean traditions collided. Traditional Folk music was in Triple time, but the sounds of the Caribbean were in 2 and 4 time. Jazz also has brilliant harmonies and melodies. Porter used both the folk and the jazz rhythms in his songs, creating a dynamic interplay. He also used minor keys, which require greater musical complexity, but make songs that are more mysterious and exotic. The Blues had also arrived, and the new dances of the Foxtrot and the Charlston.

Performance of popular music by amateurs

Many people play popular music together with their friends, often in garages and basements, on a casual amateur basis. This activity is one of the most widespread forms of participatory music-making in modern societies. As participatory music, "garage bands" are in a sense a resurrection of the old tradition of folk music, which in premodern times was composed and performed by ordinary people and transmitted exclusively by word of mouth. The difference between the old folk music and modern amateur performance of popular music is that the participants in the latter genre are well acquainted with the expert performances that they hear on recordings, and often try to emulate them.

The older folk music of a society often lives on in a popularized version, which is likewise performed by experts and commercially disseminated. Such updated versions of folk music often have heavy amateur participation.


Form in popular music is most often sectional.


A list of performers of popular music can be found at:


Popular music dates at least as far back as the mid 19th century. Below is a list of genres.

Different genres often appeal to different age groups. These often, but not always, are the people who were young when the music was new. Thus, for instance, Big band music continues to have a following, but it is probably a rather older group, on average, than the audience for rap. For a few of the genres listed below (for instance, Ragtime), the original target generation may have died out almost entirely.

This "generation gap" in the consumption of popular music is particularly marked since the second world war and the increased economic and social independence of younger people. Music hall and other forms before the 1940s are not so clearly marked by generation.

Show Tunes are generally considered to be in between popular and art music. Examples being that " Memory" (Cats) is a very acceptable song, while only select groups of people enjoy listening to "One" (A Chorus Line) , "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" (Cats), "The Dream" (Fiddler on the Roof), "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover" (Annie), "Over the Moon" (RENT), etc.

Genres that are not popular music

Musical genres usually considered not to be popular music include:

As noted earlier, these have a distinct character from popular music: either they are transmitted by word of mouth rather than in organized fashion (children's songs, authentic folk music) or else they are produced to fill the needs of a particular social institution (church, aristocracy, the military, or the state). Note that music pieces of each of these genres can become part of the popular music either in their pure form (like various gregorian compilation CD's) or as remixes (like Moby's Play).

Classical music and popular music

The relationship (particularly, the relative value) of classical music and popular music is a controversial question. Some partisans of classical music may claim that classical music constitutes art and popular music only light entertainment. However, many popular works show a high level of artistry and musical innovation and many classical works are unabashedly crowd-pleasing.

The elevation of classical music to a position of special value is closely connected to the concept of a Western canon, and to theories of educational perennialism.

The very distinction between classical and popular music is blurred in the border regions, for instance minimalist music and light classics, and are disregarded as art music. In this respect music is like fiction, which likewise draws a distinction between classics and popular fiction that is not always easy to maintain.

"Neat divisions between 'folk' and 'popular', and 'popular' and 'art', are impossible to find... arbitrary criteria [is used] to define the complement of 'popular'. 'Art' music, for example, is generally regarded as by nature complex, difficult, demanding; 'popular' music then has to be defined as 'simple', 'accessible', 'facile'. But many pieces commonly thought of as 'art' (Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus', many Schubert songs, many Verdi arias) have qualities of simplicity; conversely, it is by no means obvious that the Sex Pistols' records were 'accessible', (trashy?) Frank Zappa's work 'simple', (Frank Zappa is considered by many a serious composer) or Billie Holiday's 'facile'." (light?) (Middleton, 1990)


It might be argued that, at least on the average, classical works have greater musical complexity than popular music. For instance, classical music is distinguished by its heavy use of development, and usually involves more modulation (changing of keys), less outright repetition, and a wider use of musical phrases that are not default length--that is, four or eight bars long (however, much minimalist music goes against these tendencies, thus are considered by many non-serious music).

This is not to say that popular music is definitively or always simpler than classical. The "default length" of phrases which classical music supposedly deviates from were set as the default by music of the common practice period. Jazz, rap and many forms of technical metal, for instance, make use of rhythms more complex than would appear in the average common practice work, and popular music sometimes uses certain complex chords that would be quite unusual in a common practice piece. Popular music also uses certain features of rhythm and pitch inflection not analyzable by the traditional methods applied to common practice music.

One may argue that it is normally only in classical music that very long works (30 minutes to three hours) are built up hierarchically from smaller units (phrases, periods, sections, and movements). Structural levels are distinguished by Schenkerian analysis. Fred Lerdahl (1992), for example, claims that popular music lacks the structural complexity for multiple structural layers, and thus much depth. However, Lerdahl's theories explicitly exclude "associational" details which are used to help articulate form in popular music, while Allen Forte's book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era 1924-1950 analyses popular music with traditional Schenkerian techniques. (Middleton 1999, p.144)

Bach had many contempories whose music was mediocre at best, and today their music is forgotten, surviving perhaps in libraries. The repertoire of classical music is skewed toward works recognized as excellent by listeners over long periods of time.

It follows that genres of popular music that have existed for a long time might also produce works that show staying power. For instance, the work of Scott Joplin, a popular musician of about a century ago, continues to be played--often, curiously enough, by classical musicians. The advent of high fidelity audio recordings in the 1950s meant that the actual performances of popular musicians could be preserved forever, and this has raised the possibility that certain works popular music will achieve permanent status in their original recorded form. This may be happening now in the case of the most outstanding artists.

Influences between classical and popular music

Works of classical music sometimes achieve a sudden, hard to explain popularity, and thus take on the temporary status of popular music; for details, see crossover. Moreover, many popular songs over the years have made use of themes and melodies from well-known classical pieces.

Songwriters such as Paul Simon have used classical techniques such as, during his early solo career in the 1970s, the twelve tone technique, though Simon actually only employs the full chromatic rather than strict tone rows (Everett 1997).

Versatile artist Michael Jackson used excerpts of classical music in his works, and composed for orchestra some postmodernistic/polystylism pieces, as well as ones influenced by symbolism and impressionism.

See also

External links


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
  • Bennett (1980).
  • Birrer, Frans A. J. (1985). "Definitions and research orientation: do we need a definition of popular music?" in D. Horn, ed., Popular Music Perspectives, 2 (Gothenburge, Exeter, Ottawa and Reggio Emilia), p.99-106.
  • Hall, S. (1978). "Popular culture, politics, and history", in Popular Culture Bulletin, 3, Open University duplicated paper.
  • Everett, Walter (1997). "Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon's Crisis of Chromaticism", Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195100042.

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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