Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern forms in the US and the UK during the mid-1950s. The terms “popular music” and “pop music” are often used interchangeably, although both describe all music that is popular and that include many diverse styles. “Pop” and “rock” were roughly synonymous terms until the late 1960s, when they became quite separated from each other.
Although much of the music that appears on record charts is seen as pop music, the genre is distinguished from chart music. Pop music often borrows elements from other styles such as urban, dance, rock, Latin, and country; nevertheless, there are many key elements that define pop music. Identifying factors usually include short to medium-length songs written in a basic format (often the verse-chorus structure), as well as common use of repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and hooks.
Definitions and etymology
David Hatch and Stephen Millward define pop music as “a body of music which is distinguishable from popular, jazz, and folk musics”. According to Pete Seeger, pop music is “professional music which draws upon both folk music and fine arts music”. 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. As a genre, pop music is seen to exist and develop separately. Therefore, the term “pop music” may be used to describe a distinct genre, designed to appeal to all, often characterized as “instant singles-based music aimed at teenagers” in contrast to rock music as “album-based music for adults”.
Pop music continuously evolves along with the term’s definition. According to music writer Bill Lamb, popular music is defined as “the music since industrialization in the 1800s that is most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class. The term “pop song” was first used in 1926, in the sense of a piece of music “having popular appeal”. 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.
According to the website of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 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”. 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. Grove Music Online also states that “[…] in the early 1960s, [the term] ‘pop music’ competed terminologically with beat music [in England], while in the US its coverage overlapped (as it still does) with that of ‘rock and roll'”.
From about 1967, the term “pop music” was increasingly used in opposition to the term rock music, a division that gave generic significance to both terms. While rock aspired to authenticity and an expansion of the possibilities of popular music, pop was more commercial, ephemeral, and accessible. According to British musicologist Simon Frith, pop music is produced “as a matter of enterprise not art”, and is “designed to appeal to everyone” but “doesn’t come from any particular place or mark off any particular taste”. Frith adds that 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”.
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. 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.
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. 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. The beat and the melodies tend to be simple, with limited harmonic accompaniment. The lyrics of modern pop songs typically focus on simple themes – often love and romantic relationships – although there are notable exceptions.
Harmony and chord progressions in pop music are often “that of classical European tonality, only more simple-minded.” Clichés include the barbershop quartet-style harmony (i.e. ii – V – I) and blues scale-influenced harmony. 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. See for more.