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Today, not all popular music is labeled as pop. To me it seems that pop has become a genre that can be defined by its musical patterns, techniques, and styles. Similar to rock, jazz, and classical music.

Which are the patterns, techniques, and styles that define pop music as a genre? What makes a pop song what it is? Which are the characteristics of the genre?

Seems that popularity is no longer a factor, or at least not the most important one, defining Pop music. Which are those musical characteristics that separate Pop from other genres?

For clarity, let's make a distinction between popular music and Pop music, using this source.

It is tempting to confuse pop music with popular music. The New Grove Dictionary Of Music and Musicians, the musicologist's ultimate reference resource, identifies popular music as the music since industrialization in the 1800's that is most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class. This would include an extremely wide range of music from vaudeville and minstrel shows to heavy metal. Pop music, on the other hand, has primarily come into usage to describe music that evolved out of the rock 'n roll revolution of the mid-1950's and continues in a definable path to today.

This question is about Pop music, not popular music.

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Pop is an abbreviation of popular, no? –  Lee Kowalkowski May 14 at 8:13
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@LeeKowalkowski Popular music refers to whatever is popular, and can include any style. Pop music is a style, a genre. You might say that Pop music is a genre of popular music. Pop music, as a genre, has sub-genres, like power pop, dance pop, and synth pop. To me it seems that is has become much more than just "Pop music is defined by its popularity". –  JCPedroza May 14 at 8:21
    
It might seem that way, like how indie music emerged to became a branded as 'Britpop' in the 1990s, but indie was just an abbreviation of independent, and the 'indie scene' at the time was filled with very few independent artists, there was nothing new about the type of music, it was just a trend, unlike the earlier drum'n'bass/jungle, hardcore/rave or acid/house movements. Britpop was more of a movement than a genre, let's face it, it was just new rock music, but musical trends are often confused with genres. Not all music charts are for narrow musical genres. –  Lee Kowalkowski May 14 at 8:36
    
@LeeKowalkowski So, is it impossible to define Pop musically? And more importantly, how would you define Pop? –  JCPedroza May 14 at 8:38
    
Music that has charted, I think. You get pop music of all genres, looking at billboard.com/charts/year-end/2013/hot-pop-songs, there's all sorts in there, rock, dance, rap, dubstep... –  Lee Kowalkowski May 14 at 8:53
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5 Answers 5

The style of pop music changes over time, for example, Pop music of the 50s would be called rock'n'roll now.

Wikipedia has this to say on what usually constitutes a pop song at the current time:

Such 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 catchy hooks.

(bold is mine)

So the definition isn't necessarily about the music itself, but seems to be more about how the elements of the song are arranged.

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But you just defined current pop AND 50s music from which it derived! There is an obvious pattern, a constant! Musically, they share things. It is not only "pop song of current time", it is a well-defined pattern. It's obvious that pop got its own merits, independent of the popularity. It has constants. It has patterns. It has styles. Also, not all popular music is labeled as pop, and that's because it doesn't adhere to the stablished characteristics of pop as a genre. Pop started as a definition of what is popular, but it is not the case anymore. –  JCPedroza May 14 at 7:53
    
I haven't defined it - which is why I have added bold. There is general guidance, but it is really whatever the charts/top-40/Billboard have as the top selling/most listened to music is. –  Dr Mayhem May 14 at 7:56
    
Are you saying that everything in the top charts of every region automatically belongs to the pop genre? –  JCPedroza May 14 at 8:01
    
For the record, Billboard separates their charts by genre: Country, Rock, R&B/Hip-Hop, Dance/Electronic, Latin, Christian/Gospel, and Pop. Many of the songs that don't belong to the Pop list are more popular than the ones in the Pop list. It is obvious that, at least for Billboard, Pop is a style, a genre. There is an array of characteristics that songs need to belong to the Pop genre. The question is regarding those musical characteristics that separate Pop from other genres. –  JCPedroza May 14 at 8:07
    
Another example of Pop being treated as a genre, instead of "Pop music is defined by its popularity", is the list of well-defined Pop sub-genres like synth pop, power pop, and dance pop. The sub-genres share common patterns. Can't that dynamic be analyzed musically? –  JCPedroza May 14 at 8:24
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Pop = "popular". The kind of music that is popular varies over time with trends and fashion, and is an earlier version of what we now term "viral" : things gaining ground because they have gained ground.

It's a bit like the stock market : why does a share price go up? Because maybe some event triggered a blip. Perhaps a minor one. Then people realise it's "on the up" so they buy into it which raises the price. Soon the price is appreciably higher, and for no real reason other than it was percieved as being 'on the up'.

It's a similar thing with popular music- that which can be marketed to people who want it, is, because it makes money. People buy it (or just hear it passively), it becomes more commonplace and familiar, and at some point that momentum builds into something that's noticable nationally.

One difference is that the pop music industry is manipulated: promoters arrange to have their act appear in predigeous places such as Radio 1 or some top TV program, which gives that "viral" thing a kick-start.

It's the same thing from rock 'n roll in the 50's through punk right up to now.

Saying that, you could argue that a phenomenon occurrs such as Little Richard , Elvis or John Lydon, Kurt Cobain, starting a new style, and other people 'jump on the bandwagon' and ride it with their own version of a similar thing - but the original notion of what was happening is something born out of culture and genuine talent, and a willingness to try something new. So happily it's not all about money.

I'd say pop music isn't so much a style/genre of music as an indication of what's currently popuplar through a combination of the 'viral' effect and targeted marketing/promotion, whcih has varied massively since the 50's : Pop music of 1995 was pretty different to that in 1955, and to today's pop music.

If you're looking for a common factor, I guess it would be :

  • A paletable length (3-4 minutes usually) such that it cam come and go over radio or among other songs without taking up too much time.

  • Catchy / intriguing / irritating to listen to so that you remeber it. Sometimes irritating songs become an aquired taste, and gain immense popularity ("there's no limits")

  • Normally assiciated with something visual or a trend - more so recently ("image is everything" - S Cowell) but also true from the 50's through punk, new wave, grungs etc

  • Pop is ofted driven by the teenage population so someting which appeals to them and can be considered "cool" among peers is likely to work.

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I don't think Pop dynamism can be used to refute its status as genre. Other genres and styles have experienced evolution, mutation, and change too. That's not exclusive to Pop. What I'm looking for is the last part of your answer, that thing that Pop songs tend to share, but maybe a more musical analysis. –  JCPedroza May 14 at 9:21
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@JCPedroza: The problem is such musical analysis for categorisation sake will either be far too abstract or become invalid over time. It's not as clear-cut as what defines classical, opera, reggae or rap for example. –  Lee Kowalkowski May 14 at 9:52
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@JCPedroza - I see your point but that means finding common ground between "Rock Around the Clock", "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed, and "I Feel Love" by Donna summer. I would think they're different genres, although they're all pop music in that they hit the charts bigtime. I think I can see what you're asking here but I'm not sure it translates to pop being a genre (in my mind) - pop with a date might be though like 80's pop but 70's pop covers Punk, Disco, Glam, etc .. it gets difficult .. –  user2808054 May 14 at 10:01
    
Or did you mean pop as a genre defined by itself - so popular music whcih isn't already part of / in style of something else.. I'm thinking maybe Abba or JLS ? –  user2808054 May 14 at 10:02
    
I mean pop as a genre defined by whatever, other than popularity. Musical patterns, tendencies, styles, characteristics, techniques, etc. Musical concepts that Pop songs tend to share. Similar to how Rock songs tend to share some things, Rap songs tend to share some things, Mariachi songs tend to share some things, etc. There is a tendency to share specific patterns. –  JCPedroza May 14 at 10:10
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The best answers to questions like these are economic in nature, and not confined to any particular musical definitions, because "pop" is always evolving and changing.

At any given point in time, in any given location or culture, "pop" music is the newest emerging style of music that is being commercialized, marketed and sold on a large scale. What you define as "pop" in the USA in 2014 is going to be very different from what is defined as "pop" in the USA in ten or twenty years.

Another word for "pop music" is commercial music. It is entirely a creation of the 20th century, and it did not exist before the rise of radio.

"Pop" has meant very different things in every nation in the world where there was commercial broadcast radio. Pop music in Kenya in 1975 was very different than that in Mexico in 1935 or in Italy in 1995. But all forms of pop music have this in common: they are created to earn money in a larger music industry.

Pop music is a music industry phenomenon that began in the early 1900s when commercial radio stations began broadcasting pre-recorded music.

Then professional music publishing companies began commissioning the composing of specific kinds of music which would be produced and recorded by professional music labels in certain styles. These pieces of music would be specifically tailored to be the kinds of music that particular radio stations would be eager to broadcast to appeal to a certain audience of listeners. This was in turn driven by the kinds of advertisements (commercials) that various manufacturing companies would create and pay the radio stations to broadcast between the playing of pieces of pre-recorded music.

This happened in parallel in different nations and cultures all around the world. In every nation where there was broadcast radio and an economy that would support selling mass-produced recordings, completely different kinds of "pop" would arise and develop.

Originally, each radio station would play all kinds of music, but as time went on, certain radio stations would specialize in just one genre of music, in order to appeal to a certain narrowly-defined demographic of the listening public, again to attract paid advertisement from certain companies wishing to sell certain specific categories of goods to the public, in order to create a tightly-managed profitable business for the radio station.

In some nations, radio stations paid royalties to the publishing companies and the record labels whenever a particular piece of pre-recorded music was broadcast. At any rate, the record companies would mass-produce recorded discs (singles and albums) and later cassettes, CDs or other kinds of media, and make them available for sale in local music stores in the areas where a particular radio station broadcast to the public. This was carefully synchronized to marketing campaigns to get those certain pieces of music played on certain radio stations within a certain time frame, to enhance the potential for sales. It was all carefully organized with investments and business and marketing plans.

To the degree that radio stations would specialize in playing a certain style of music that appealed to a certain narrow demographic of listeners, the record labels and publishing companies would oblige by deliberately seeking out and financing musicians who could create music tailored to the desires of those specific radio stations. Thus the various sub-genres of pop music, everywhere in the world, were created in a kind of feedback loop between broadcast radio and the record labels. Styles and genres of pop music always changed and evolved, but always in response to the market pressures of selling recordings and making money.

This still goes on today, even though there are many more outlets for marketing and selling music than traditional broadcast radio stations and traditional music stores that sold discs and tapes.

There are only two other economic categories of music besides pop music: folk music, which is music that amateurs make for their own enjoyment and which they don't expect to make much money from, and classical music, which is intellectually sophisticated music that is expensive to create and perform but is paid for by patronage, which is to say the direct infusion of money from wealthy noblemen, governments, churches, corporations and the like. Classical music does not earn a profit overall.

So where did the styles of pop music originate? The earliest pop music in each culture usually was adapted from existing folk music and in some sense, classical music.

It has also always been the case that folk musicians and classical musicians have gotten themselves involved in the commercial music industry, record labels, and broadcast radio, television, and motion pictures. To the extent that they do so, they tend to transform their music from folk or classical into pop, according to the pressures put upon them by the publishing companies and record companies and the music industry, in the hope of profits. It's all about the money.

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I taught a popular musicology class for the last couple of quarters at UCSB last year. It's definitely a gray area, defined more by social convention than by anything musical. We had what I thought was a solid working definition though.

Popular music is:

  1. Mass produced and disseminated - records get pressed, mp3s get posted on bandcamp, the public gets invited to concerts.
  2. Impersonal - the listeners usually don't know the musicians
  3. Between classical and folk - meaning it's not government subsidized and doesn't necessarily require a degree, but you also don't just play it with your friends and family at home.

I found that definition rather elegant, although you can certainly poke holes in it (like anything else). As a composer, I see no difference between popular and classical/concert/whatever-we-call-it music that isn't social or socioeconomic. It's mainly performance and concert hall practice, which is entirely social (not musical).

Regarding the answer citing the Billboard study - that's a great and interesting study, but using it as a way to define popular music rules out rather a lot that fits this definition. For instance, noise rock and minimal electronica.

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After some research, I found studies that uncover some interesting patterns that can be found in pop. Also found a study that shows key signature trends in classical music (I wanted another genre and/or style for reference).

Source 1 (pop)

Source 2 (classical)

Here are some of the findings.


Most popular keys

There is preference towards key signatures with less sharps or flats. The most common key signature, by far, is C/Am. From 1300 top 100 Billboard songs analyzed, 26% were written in the key of C or Am. The second place goes to G/Em, at 12%. From there the differences are not as big: G/Em 12%, Eb/Cm 10%, F/Dm 9%, D/Bm 8% (etc).

We find a similar pattern in classical music, but the curve is not as steep. C/Am is still the winner, but not by much. Keys with 0, 1, or 2 accidentals are very close to each other in distribution.

I couldn't find data for Jazz, I might do a quick research using popular fake books. Will update here in the near future.

Seems that what is particular to pop music here is the very big preference of C/Am over other key signatures.

IV - I as common as V - I

35% of the songs used IV right before I, and 32% used V right before I. I think this has the potential to be a very distinctive pattern of pop music. In my experience, in both jazz and classical, V is the most common chord to play before I, and by far. I don't have the data to back that up, but I think most of you will agree with me on that one.

Any of you know of a source for a similar study on other genres? Might find something in the fake books analysis, will post the results here.

Most common chord progression is I V vi IV

We see that IV - I and, again, I'm willing to bet that this can be a pop particularity, but have no data of other genres to back that up. Jazz would probably have ii, V, I as the most common. I'm also thinking that classical wouldn't have a progression that involves IV - I as its most common.


I think these 3 patterns can be useful to define pop in a more objective way. I wonder if there are other data and studies out there regarding other things like instruments, lyrics, rhythms, etc.

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