What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about pop music? Dancing around or singing a catchy song? It is, after all, famous or pop music.
But have you ever thought about the instruments they use to make the music so catchy and memorable? Today we’ll investigate the instruments that are used in pop music.
Common Instruments in Pop Music
Through the years, pop music has evolved, tastes have changed, and instruments have fallen out of favor for others. Yet some instruments have stayed and become the mainstay of pop music.
Of course, there are many other instruments apart from the ones we’ve mentioned. Still, this article will give you a good idea of the common instruments used in pop music. So let’s dive deeper and see what we can discover.
Keyboard, Synthesizer, and Piano
The keyboard is a versatile instrument, and pop musicians use it to create various sounds. It also fills in the harmonies or chord progressions, plays lead melodies, and even supports the bass guitar to create the bassline.
Sometimes the keyboard is also used to add reverb and delay in the song. A great example is the opening of Van Halen’s Jump, where the keyboard/synthesizer drives the music and forms an important part throughout.
Synthesizers, or synths, have been used since the 1970s and have become an integral part of pop music and are used to create various sounds. They can also emulate the sound of real instruments through Virtual Studio Technology (VST).
Take On Me by A-Ha uses the synthesizer and keyboards in the opening and throughout the song with some interesting sound effects. The late Robert Miles’ One and One is an excellent example of a pop-dance piece using the synthesizer. Alison Moyet’s song, Only You, relies heavily on the synthesizer to provide the arpeggio accompaniment and fills (as strings).
The piano is an acoustic instrument, so it cannot produce the wide range of sounds a keyboard or synthesizer can make. The piano is mainly used to create harmonies, play melodies, or support the other instruments by filling in some chord progressions.
Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles features the piano as the main melodic instrument backing her vocals.
In Procol Harum’s song Whiter Shade of Pale, the electronic organ provides the main musical accompaniment. This slightly unconventional choice works perfectly in this context. The band uses a melody derived from JS Bach’s Air on the G String making their song neoclassical.
Drums and Percussion
What would a pop song be without a groovy beat? Rhythm is one of the essential features of a catchy pop song, and the drums provide this rhythmic support. Acoustic drums or electronic drums can be used.
Some groups use a drum machine like the Roland TR-808 to create beats. Apart from the synthesizer in Keane’s song, Everybody’s Changing; the drums shine through as the rhythmic instrument of choice.
The Bangles use the tambourine throughout Walk Like an Egyptian, showing how versatile and vital percussion instruments can be in a pop song.
The guitar is widely played across many music genres. Pop songs use it in many contexts, from soft pop ballads to energetic riffs and vamps. Acoustic and electric guitars are commonly used in pop music.
However, acoustic guitars are widely used for mellow songs, as in Sixpence None the Richer’s iconic songs There She Goes and Kiss Me.
An excellent example of the electric guitar is found in The Cranberries’ upbeat song Dreams and their more serious song, Zombie, dealing with The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Peter Sarsted accompanies himself on the acoustic guitar in his song Where Do you Go to my Lovely?
Queen is one of the most well-known pop bands of our time, and Brian May’s guitar solos in many of their songs are instantly recognizable, as you can hear in I Want to Break Free.
What would a pop song be without a good bassline provided by a bass guitar? The bass guitar provides the rhythm to drive the music forward. Often it is used to strengthen the harmonies or provide a countermelody against the song’s main melody.
For example, Florence + The Machine uses the bass guitar (and drums) to drive the melody and rhythm of King forward.
A pop song without catchy lyrics or vocals would just be boring, wouldn’t it? The human voice is one of the most versatile instruments known to humans. We can use our voices to express many emotions and convey the song’s message.
Backing vocals are used in pop music to create a variety of harmonies supporting the vocalist. In Life by Des’ree, the backing vocalists support her vocals and add depth to her lyrics.
Sometimes backing vocals are used to create a ‘wall of sound’, adding depth to the vocals. In Mika’s song Happy Ending, Mika is not only supported by the backing vocalists but there is also a call-and-response technique in the song.
Other Popular Instruments
Often orchestral strings are used to give the songs more depth and feeling. Synthesizers can also take over this task.
Pizzicato strings are important throughout T’Pau’s song China in Your Hand. In this version of Only You by Alison Moyet, the string-dominating orchestra provides the accompaniment.
Apart from its association with jazz and classical music, the saxophone is also used in pop songs. It can add a sensual feeling to a song or express deep-seated emotions.
For example, Careless Whisper by George Michael uses the saxophone to give the song an emotional, almost melancholy, depth. In Baker Street, by George Rafferty, the saxophone provides the song with an edge that’s difficult to describe in words, but we can feel it moving us.
We hope this will help you identify the instruments used in the pop songs you listen to and to appreciate them even more. Each instrument is equally important, whether a catchy beat or emotional vocals.
We should never underestimate the power of music. We hope this selection gives you a better idea of the instruments you’ll find in your favorite pop songs.