What is Pop?
Pop is music specifically designed for mass appeal and commercial success. It can have almost any kind of instrumentation and musical characteristics. The main thing is that it be catchy, upbeat, and – well – popular.
Because it’s explicitly designed for commercial success rather than artistic inventiveness, pop music is controversial in the world of professional musicians. Some musicians look down at pop music, viewing it as trite and non-serious. Others have no problem with pop – for them, the whole point of music is entertainment, so what’s wrong with entertaining pop songs?
To be fair to pop music, many of its practitioners are extremely talented musicians who simply choose to play popular songs rather than impress their fellow musicians. And, in many cases, their musicianship comes to be recognized as their careers progress. Maybe the best example is the Beatles, a pop band that is now recognized as one of the most inventive musical acts of the mid-20th century.
Musical Features of Pop
There’s one rule for pop music: make it stick. Musically, that usually means a little syncopation in the rhythm, slick vocal harmonies, and not too much dissonance. In short, pop needs to be approachable and easy to listen to, and it ideally it should get stuck in people’s heads so that they have to go back and listen to your recording again and again.
One of the defining features of pop music is its structure. Nearly every pop song has a structure with verses, choruses, and possibly a bridge. The chorus is the most important part of the song: the catchy, melodic part that gets stuck in people’s heads. The chorus is usually repeated a few times over the course of the song, maybe with minor variations on a central theme. The verse is a little less catchy and usually more subdued in tone. There are usually 3 or 4 verses in a pop song, each with different lyrics sung over the same melody. Finally, the bridge is an optional song element that breaks the pattern, sometimes introducing a different set of musical ideas from either the verse or the chorus. In other cases, the bridge might be an instrumental chorus or guitar solo based on the structure of the chorus. And some pop songs have no bridge at all.
This structure has become so successful that many other genres have borrowed it – modern rock music typically also has a verse-chorus-bridge structure, and mainstream hip-hop uses it as well (they typically refer to the chorus as a “hook,” but it plays pretty much the same role.)
Subgenres and Examples
Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
Some of the most recognizable pop songs come from dance-pop. These are songs that are designed to work in two settings: in dance clubs and on the radio. They typically use heavy electronic instrumentation, both because it’s the expected sound of modern dance clubs and because it’s cheaper to produce. But unlike “pure” electronic genres like techno and house music, dance-pop also incorporates well-polished melodies and star vocalists.
The modern era of pop has been dominated by dance-pop ever since the 1980s, when singers like Michael Jackson, Cher, and Madonna started bringing pop and electronic dance music together. Today, some of the most recognizable names in music are dance-pop stars.
Dance-pop artists often get the worst brunt of anti-pop sentiment. Some people consider them too polished and contrived to be musically compelling. But even if you don’t enjoy listening to their music, some of these artists have played a major role in shaping the history of popular music. Some, like Lady Gaga, spent years working behind the scenes before they emerged as stars in their own right; others, like Justin Timberlake, began as talented performers and over time matured into inventive artists.
- Justin Timberlake
- Michael Jackson
- Lady Gaga
- Ariana Grande
Pop-Jazz and Smooth Jazz
Frank Sinatra – Fly Me to the Moon
In America, the earliest pop music was made by “crooners,” singers (mostly white and male) who sang slower, musically simplified versions of jazz standards. This music started to come out in the mid-20th century, when the middle class was growing and the technology to produce records was getting cheaper and cheaper. All of a sudden, millions of people could afford to buy record players and albums, and it became extremely lucrative to produce a #1 hit. Some of the greatest success stories from that era were those who made gentle, non-threatening jazz music with catchy melodies and simple lyrics that appealed to a mass audience.
Today, jazz isn’t so popular, so jazz and pop have drifted apart. But there is still the genre of smooth jazz, which takes musical ideas from pop and plays them using jazz instruments. Musically, smooth jazz doesn’t have much to do with jazz (it’s an outgrowth of the pop genre), but it uses instruments like saxophones and vibraphones that have become rare in pop music.
- Frank Sinatra
- Bobby Darin
- Perry Como
- Sammy Davis, Jr.
Fall Out Boy – Light ‘Em Up
At around the same time that crooners like Frank Sinatra were selling millions of records to the new middle class, the children of the middle class were buying a whole different kind of music. They, too, were charmed by the accessible sounds of pop music, but they wanted something with a little more energy. They found it in rock & roll. Tons of artists took musical ideas from rock, removed some of the edgy harshness, and made guitar-driven music with smooth vocals and catchy melodies.
Some pop-rock icons were destined to fade from memory as the public’s tastes changed; others, like Elvis Presley, would be recognized as talented entertainers but not especially creative musicians. A few, though, would go on to gain recognition as true musical innovators. The Beatles are a great example – they were wildly popular throughout the 1960s, and today have the respect of musicians all over the world.
Today, pop rock remains a highly successful genre, though it has moved off the radio and into more festivals and live venues. Pretty much any guitar-based pop music can be described as pop today – some are traditional pop-rock rooted squarely in the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s (The Killers, the Fray), while other pop-rock bands have taken their inspiration from counter-culture movements like punk and metal (Fall Out Boy, Five Finger Death Punch)
- The Beatles
- The Beach Boys
- Elvis Presley
- The Killers
- Fall Out Boy
Carrie Underwood – Before He Cheats
Known as the “Nashville Sound,” country pop is the glitzy side of rural American music. It has high production values, a clear verse-chorus structure, and a catchy melody. Musically, it’s a lot like any other genre of pop music, but it uses different instruments (acoustic guitars, violins, minimal electronic sounds) and the vocalists typically have an accent – or at least pretend to.
The line between country pop and “true country” can be a little fuzzy. Most modern country has borrowed at least some elements of pop music – and pop music itself borrowed from American folk music, so the two traditions are closely intertwined. And there are plenty of individual musicians who sit squarely on both sides of the line. Chris Stapleton, for example, makes country pop in solo tunes like “Tennessee Whiskey,” but makes much more traditional country music with his band the Steeldrivers.
- Shania Twain
- Carrie Underwood
- Toby Keith
- The Dixie Chicks
- Taylor Swift