We all have our favourite musical genres. From rock to pop, jazz to hip hop, classical to electronic, there are so many genres to choose from! But what makes them different from one another? What are the fundamental characteristics of a genre that make it unique from other forms of music?
Well, over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore that very questions! Let’s kick things off this week with pop music!
What is Pop Music?
Before we dive too far into this topic, it’s probably a good idea to begin with a brief exploration of what we mean when we say “pop” music.
“Pop” is, of course, sort for “popular,” which by itself can have an incredibly broad definition. If we look at music that was popular a century ago it would be vastly different from what is popular and influential today in the 21st century. Still, parallels could be found.
Basically, any musical form that is thought of as popular by today’s standards falls under the category of “pop” music.
That said, there are certain ways we can measure that popularity. For example, although sales of Classic music have been on the rise in places like the UK, the number of rap and hip-hop albums sold around the world far outnumbers Classical sales many times over.
Characteristics of Pop
The musical characteristics of pop music tend to be determined by the genre of music that is currently selling the most. Today, in the 21st Century, the most popular styles of music can all be classified as “songs,” meaning there is a vocalist and lyrics. Instrumental tracks rarely rise to popular music, unless they come from a film soundtrack, but even this is very rare. That said, there are certain elements of contemporary modern songs that are representative of a large majority of the modern genre as a whole.
The structure of most modern popular songs involves verse and chorus, with the chorus serving as the part of the song that is specifically designed to stick in the ear and head through musical and lyrical repetition. It’s the part of the song that’s usually written to be the most “singable,” and therefore the more memorable.
The chorus is usually what the music is building to, and is often proceeded by a “drop,” where the bass and drum parts literally “drop out.” This creates anticipation for the chorus, and creates an even greater impact when it arrives, bringing the drums and bass back with it.
Although this verse-chorus structure is common in today’s popular music, there are always variations. These might include things like bridge passages that “fill the gap” between verses and the chorus, instrumental sections, or solos, and “middle eights.” This final structural device is sometimes used to break up an overly repetitive verse followed by the chorus. The middle eight is an eight-bar section that brings new material in the form of lyrics, melody, chords, and rhythm that brings the listener back to the final chorus.
Another common motif to contemporary popular music is the “hook” or “riff.” These are short, repetitive collections of notes that are designed to draw the listener into the music and keep them there. The best hooks stick in your mind hours after the music has stopped.
Riffs are more commonly associated with big rock numbers, and bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones cornered the riff market in their heydays.
Harmony & Melody
From the harmony perspective, many contemporary popular songs follow a simple and common formulaic selection of chords that have proven to be useful and pleasing to listeners. These chords can be traced back centuries, to pieces like Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D.
The real reason these patterns of chords work so well for audiences is that they contain the perfect blend of both major and minor chords that appeals to the ear, while also offering a nearly endless supply of melodic possibilities. In fact, you’re most likely to notice these chords during the chorus section of your favourite songs, as that’s where their use and repetition have the biggest impact.
The chorus, of course, gets the most attention in most songs, but the verses often tell the story of a song and are just as important. The chordal patterns that make up the melody are usually simpler than those of the chorus, sometimes using as few as two chords. The mix of the verses also tends to be somewhat less complex and is often thinned out to allow for even greater impact when the chorus arrives.
One characteristic of pop music that varies quite a lot is speed or tempo. Some tracks with more lyrics are written at a slower speed. Others grid with a heart-pumping tempo of 160 beats per minute. This is the area where pop music starts to divide itself: into music for listening to, and music for dancing. Between these two categories exists an entire spectrum of popular music.
Another critical element of today’s popular music is the voice. Whether male or female, it is the voice, and its unique sound and timbre, that is featured in all of today’s popular music. And that doesn’t just mean lead singers – backup vocalists are also an important component. In some bands, like the world-famous Queen, the individual sound of the layered background vocals can become a major characteristic of that group’s sound.
Today, pop music is largely created to generate revenue for record companies and the most popular artists of the day. Many might argue that a lot of what is produced today lacks individuality and craftsmanship, pointing to where technology has replaced skill.
While there are many modern popular songs with similar sounds, for the more discerning listener, there are also many emerging artists offering something a little more innovative. This is how popular music has always changed and will continue to change.
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