I feel it may be important to begin this article with a brief exploration of what is understood by the idea of ‘pop’ music. It is, of course, an abbreviation of popular but this in itself does not take the meaning of the word a great deal further. If we were to look at music that was popular a hundred years ago we would be listening to and thinking about a very different range of music than if we consider popular music in the 21st Century; although parallels do exist. Essentially, any type of music that in today’s terms can be thought of as popular falls under the focus of this article.
That said, further criteria perhaps should also include how we measure that popularity. Even though the sales of Classical music have steadily been on the rise in the UK, the numbers of records sold from the world of Rap, for example, outstrip Classical sales by leagues. Last year, according to the Telegraph, over ‘2.2 million classical albums were either purchased, streamed or downloaded in 2018’. By contrast, Drake’s Album titled ‘Scorpion’ has according to some sources sold over 3.6 million copies alone. Today it is claimed that Rap and Hip-Hop music accounts for up to 21.7% of music ‘consumption’ in the United States.
Characteristics of Pop Music
The characteristics of pop music tend to orientate around the genre of music that sells the most. In the 21st Century, this has largely become the province of what can broadly be classed as a song. Rarely are instrumental tracks dominant in popular music unless they originate from a film soundtrack, but this is not so common. There are certain elements of popular songs that describe a large majority of work from that genre of music.
The structure of many popular songs is that of a verse and a chorus, the chorus serving as the portion of the track that is designed to stick in the ear through simple repetition both musically and lyrically. It is the part of a song that frequently is written in a way to be singable by most people and therefore more memorable. The chorus is often where the music builds towards and is often preceded by ‘the drop’ where the bass and drum parts ‘drop-out’. This generates anticipation for the chorus that has an even greater impact when it then arrives will bass and drums back in the mix.
Even though the verse-chorus formula is prominent in popular music, there are always variations on this basic structure. These can include introductions, bridge passages that ‘fill the gap’ between verses and choruses, instrumental sections and ‘middle eights’. This last structural device is often used to break up what can be an overly repetitive form of verse followed by the chorus. The middle eight refers to an eight-bar section that introduces new material in the form of lyrics, melody, chords, and rhythm that then leads back to the final chorus or choruses.
Many popular songs include ‘hooks’ or ‘riffs’. These are musical devices that are a short repetitive collection of notes that are composed to draw you into the music and keep you listening. This is especially true for hooks that are designed to stick in your ears hours after you have stopped listening to the song. Riffs are often more closely associated with big, rock numbers and guitars and it is certainly true that bands like ACDC and Led Zeppelin somewhat cornered the market when it came to writing memorable riffs for their songs.
Whilst the choruses have the limelight in songs, the verses of popular songs commonly take the narrative of a song and are really of equal importance. Chordal patterns that support the melody are often simpler than the chorus, sometimes containing as few as two chords with the rhythmic emphasis less dominant. The mix of the verses is also less complex, thinned out deliberately to allow the impact of the chorus to be greater when it arrives.
One aspect of popular music that varies considerably is that of speed or tempo. Some more lyrical tracks are written at a slow speed whereas some techno tracks have a heart-pounding tempo of up to 160 beats per minute. This is where the popular music genre begins to subdivide in a way and differentiates itself between music that is for listening or dancing. There is a whole range of popular music in between these two polar opposites that can account for a vast array of tracks within the genre.
It may seem like stating the obvious, but a vital and enduring element of popular music is the voice. Whether male or female, it is the voice and the unique sound or timbre of that voice that features in all pop songs. This not only includes lead vocals but in many tracks backing vocals too. In the case of some pop bands like Queen, the individual sound that the layered backing vocals created became a major characteristic of the group’s sound. This together with the unparalleled talents of the lead singer Freddie Mercury made them amongst the most successful bands ever.
Popular music is for the most part created to generate revenue for the record companies and the leading artists of the day. Some would argue that much of the music that is produced today is lacking in individuality and craftsmanship, where technology has replaced skill. There are many popular tracks that do appear to be carbon copies of many existing tracks out on the market but for the more discerning listener there are also many emerging artists that can offer a little respite from the predictable, money-spinning tracks, and I would like to think that it is in these artists that the characteristics of popular music will be developed and renewed.