Popular music is music belonging to any of a number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and mostly distributed commercially. It stands in contrast to classical music, which historically was the music of elites or the upper strata of society, and traditional folk music which was shared non-commercially. It is sometimes abbreviated to pop music, although pop music is more often used for a narrower branch of popular music.
The term "popular music" is used in broader and narrower senses. At its broadest it refers to all music other than classical music, also known as art music. In the early 19th century, the traditional songs of the common people were referred to as "popular song". By the late 19th century these songs were referred to as "folk song" and a distinction was made between folk music and the more recently developed urban popular music. Now popular music is distributed via mass media such as recordings and radio (as classical music is now also). Popular music forms part of popular culture. For varieties of popular music, see the list of genres below.
See the separate article on pop music for the narrower genre of very commercial, light, catchy, melodic music.
Theories of popular music
Among scholars in the humanities, a broader range of definitions have been proposed.
Frans Birrer (1985, p. 104) gives four conceptions or definitions of "popular" music:
- Normative definitions. Popular music is an inferior type.
- Negative definitions. Popular music is music that is not something else (usually 'folk' or 'art' music).
- Sociological definitions. Popular music is associated with (produced for or by) a particular social group.
- 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)
Popular music as a business enterprise
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 the profits of 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 certainly 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 has been a source of tension in the popular music industry.
Performance of popular music by amateurs
Many people play popular music together with their friends, often in garages and basements, on a casual amateur basis. This activity is one of the most widespread forms of participatory music-making in modern societies. As participatory music, "garage bands" are in a sense a resurrection of the old tradition of folk music, which in premodern times was composed and performed by ordinary people and transmitted exclusively by word of mouth. The difference between the old folk music and modern amateur performance of popular music is that the participants in the latter genre are well acquainted with the expert performances that they hear on recordings, and often try to emulate them.
The older folk music of a society often lives on in a popularized version, which is likewise performed by experts and commercially disseminated. Such updated versions of folk music often have heavy amateur participation.
- Main article: Song structure (popular music).
Form in popular music is most often sectional .
A list of performers of popular music can be found at:
Popular music dates at least as far back as the mid 19th century. Below is a list of 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 a few of the genres listed below (for instance, Ragtime), the original target generation may have died out almost entirely.
Genres that are not popular music
Musical genres usually not considered popular music include:
As noted earlier, these have a distinct character from popular music: either they are transmitted by word of mouth rather than in organized fashion (children's songs, authentic folk music) or else they are produced to fill the needs of a particular social institution (church, aristocracy, the military, or the state).
- Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
- 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.