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I used to think that it's the four chord structure. But in reality many genres have four chord songs (e.g. Rock and Country) and pop isn't always limited to four chords (e.g. 2U). I used to think it's the trite romantic lyrics or the cliched sexual innuendo but I find that in many other genres as well (e.g.r&b and more recently, country). I used to think it's the huge choruses with heavily layered vocals, but many of the most popular pop songs have subdued choruses (e.g. Ariana Grande problem) and oftentime pop songs skip on the whole vocal layering thing (e.g. Julia Michael's issues). I then thought it had to do with the theory behind the songwriting, but I find that most songs that hit the radio contain simple repetitive motifs and hooks, not just pop (e.g country, rock, folk, pretty much every mass consumed genre and then some).

Which leads to me to ask; what exactly defines pop and what are the methods used to achieve it?

  • My current theory is that it's a combination of instrumentation, rhythmic patterns, tempo ranges, constant use of verse-chorus form, and conservative harmonic language. I don't have them down precisely enough to turn this into an answer, though. – Dekkadeci Sep 13 '17 at 13:56
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What defines pop music is that it is music that is marketed for mass audiences and therefore will have an industrial influence. That means input from theatre professionals where large performances can be assembled and performed. Therefore, the history with musical theatre will have a large impact on pop of all kinds, including independent pop.

With that in mind, we need to characterise pop music by the various niches it fills. Not all pop songs will be about love. If you go through the pop charts, you will see that other topics are discussed. However, love songs are particularly popular and they will very often climb to the top spots. The influence of musical theatre comes here. Pop artists cover a variety of songs that together can build a narrative. Here are some song types that can be employed in a performance set:

torch song: a sad song of love unrequited

sentimental ballad: a sweet song of love requited

broadside: topical song of event that has happened

jeremiad: topical song addressed to the audience, of anger usually

philippic: topical song addressed to a person in power, of anger usually

anthem: topical song drawing the audience to observe

novelty song: humorous, light song

chorus: song calling to dance

dance number: a more instrumental number with identifiable and performable dances associated with it.

fantasia: a narrative song telling of the surreal

As you might note, this does require interpretation of poetry and therefore some literary analysis is involved. Music theory here will be necessary to not create a mis-match between the lyrics and the music.

Two common terms that get bandied about in pop music that are frequently cited to be important is the hook and the groove. These words are not theoretically well defined, and perhaps why to this day do not have any non-English word for them that we can use to obscure the phenomenon.

My best attempt at defining hook is the key memorable phrase of a song that the audience can recall and anticipate and when repeated by the performer, satisfies the audience's expectations. It is the performer telling the audience that they know what the audience is hearing.

The groove is similar. But instead of concerning the performer-audience relationship, it concerns the relationship between the band-members. If the band-members can anticipate the changes that come next, to the point that they can let the lead (often times the lead-singer) take control of the performer-audience relationship.

These to me seem to be the central feature of pop music.

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The "pop" in Pop Music is short for "popular". It can be said that this means that the songs are written to appeal to the largest audience, and this is partly true, but one cannot forget the element of pop music that composes new songs in the style of whatever was last popular. Pop Music is evolutionary in this way.

This is why you may fail to find any strong links that connect all of pop music throughout all time. But you can certainly find connections between the most popular "pop" songs of the season and their counterparts in the previous season. For instance, hip hop was once considered to be "outsider" music. But as hip hop became more popular as a niche genre, it began to bleed into Pop music. So much so, that in the early late 90s and early 2000s, it was common for nearly every pop song to feature a rap interlude. Now, in the 2010s, Electronic Dance Music has become the popular niche that has bled into Pop. The rap interludes are often left out in favor of "Pop Drops" wherein what would usually be a chorus is now just an EDM style musical drop.

In both these instances, Pop borrowed from whatever niche trend was popular at the time. This is why pop from 2017 will not sound much like pop from 1991, even though one might be able to find some trace similarities.

So in short, "Pop" is not its own genre like Country. "Pop" is continually changing as it is influenced by whatever niche musical trends happen to be popular at the moment.

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