popular music

popular music

Popular music is music belonging to any of a number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and are disseminated by one or more of the mass media. It stands in contrast to art music, which historically was the music of the elite and upper strata of society, and traditional music which was disseminated orally. It is sometimes abbreviated to pop music, although pop music is more often taken as meaning the style of pop, rather than popular music as a whole.

Definition of popular music

Among scholars in the humanities, a broader range of definitions have been proposed about popular music. 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)


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 profits for 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 have 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 and Heavy metal in the 80s, and Indie in the 90s, attempted to ensure this dilution did not occur.

The electric guitar and amplification have had a big impact on modern music. In the 1930s 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. Many people play popular music in amateur "garage bands". These amateur groups can be considered a modern equivalent of folk music, which was composed and performed by ordinary people and transmitted by word of mouth.


Form in popular music is most often sectional, the most common sections being verse, chorus or refrain, and bridge. See also the discussion of complexity below.


Popular music dates at least as far back as the mid 19th century, and is commonly subdivided into 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 some genres, such as Ragtime music, the original target generation may have died out almost entirely.

With the increasing social and economic independence of young people, this "generation gap" has grown wider and wider since the second World War. Music hall and other forms before the 1940s were not so clearly marked by generation. From the Depression through the end of the war, Bing Crosby was the highest-selling recording artist in the United States. His fan base had no age division. The average Kraft Music Hall listener was 21 years old. But after Crosby's semi-retirement in 1954, a large generation gap emerged. Elvis Presley became the most popular recording artist among teenagers, while Frank Sinatra was most popular among adults.

Classical music and popular music

The relationship between (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 has sometimes been blurred in the border regions , for instance minimalist music and light classics. 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 [are 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)

See also

External links


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
  • 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 0-19-510004-2.
  • Hamm, Charles (1979). Yesterdays: Popular Song in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-01257-3.
  • Manuel, Peter (1988). Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505342-7.


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