What is popular music

07Feb 2022 by



Listen closely to popular music
Learn about popular music history and the people and institutions that produced it
Cover a wider range of music from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century

What is popular music?

Sometimes defined by differences to “art music,” “classical music,” and “folk music”
Defined in text as

Disseminated via the mass media
Listened to by a large number of Americans
Typically drawing upon a variety of preexisting musical traditions

Popular music must be seen in relation to a broader musical landscape

Theme 1: Listening critically

Consciously seeking out meaning in music
Drawing on some knowledge of how music is put together
Understanding music’s cultural significance and historical development
Formal analysis

Listening for musical structure
Common forms include the twelve-bar blues and AABA

Analysis of musical process
Studying interpretations by particular performers
Riff: repeated pattern designed to generate rhythmic momentum
Hook: memorable musical phrase or riff
Groove: term that evokes the channeled flow of “swinging” or “funky” or “phat” rhythms
Timbre: quality of sound, sometimes called “tone color”

Plays a role in establishing the “soundprint” of a performer


Musical genres are strongly associated with particular dialects
“Crossover” ability often predicated upon the adoption of a dialect widely used in the mass media

Theme 2: Music and identity

Pop music provides images of gender identity, ethnicity, and race
Popular music in America is closely tied up with stereotypes

Ex. women as sexual objects, African American men as playboys and gangsters, southern white musicians as “rednecks”

Music plays an important role in bringing personal narratives to life

Some popular performers undermine the “commonsense” association of certain styles with certain types of people

Ex. black country singer Charley Pride and the white blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughan

Theme 3: Music and technology

Technology has shaped popular music and has helped disseminate it
Technology is usually associated with novelty and change
Oder technologies often take on important value as tokens of an earlier—and, it is often claimed, better—time
Rejection of electronic technology functions as an emblem of “authenticity” (ex. MTV’s Unplugged series)
Technology can encourage more involvement (ex. DJs’ use of multiple turntables and karaoke machines)
Games like Guitar Hero help promote musicians


Theme 4: The music business

Popular music typically involves the work of many individuals performing different roles
From the nineteenth century until the 1920s, sheet music was the principal means of disseminating popular songs

Composer and lyricist wrote the song
Publishing company bought the rights to the song
Song pluggers promoted the song and convinced big stars to perform it
Performing stars who worked in shows
Circuit of theaters controlled by other organizations
Consumers bought sheet music and performed it at home

The rise of radio, recording, and movies added complexity to the business
Composer and lyricist write music to compliment a performer’s strengths
Arranger decided which instruments to use and other details
A&R (artists and repertoire) personnel seek out talent
Producer arranges financing, shapes new talent, and often intervenes in the recording process
Engineers work in the studio
Publicity department plans advertising and public relations
Digital distribution challenges music industry’s fundamental modes of operation
The music business has always been unpredictable
Today concerts bring in the majority of profits, and the sale of recorded music is an important, but secondary source

Theme 5: Centers and peripheries

“Center” is where power, capital, and control over mass media are concentrated (including New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville)


“Periphery” is inhabited by smaller institutions and by people who have historically been excluded from the political and economic mainstream
The stylistic mainstream of American popular music was oriented toward the tastes of white, middle- or upper-class, Protestant, urban people until the mid-1950s
“Peripheral” musical impulses come from African Americans, poor southern whites, working-class people, Jewish and Latin American immigrants, adolescents, gays, and others

Sometimes those most responsible for creating quintessentially American music do not reap an equitable share of the profits

European American stream

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, American popular music was almost entirely European in character
In the late eighteenth century, strophic ballads based upon traditional melodies were circulated on large sheets of paper called broadsides


Balladmongers sold and sang broadsides
Pleasure gardens became one of the main venues for the dissemination of printed songs by professional composers
English ballad operas were extremely popular in America during the early nineteenth century


Storytelling and “high lonesome sound” come from Anglo-American traditions and are common in country music
Thomas Moore’s collection of Irish Melodies was popular in the United States


Italian bel canto singing effected American popular singing styles
European dances like the contra dance, quadrille, reel, and square dance influenced American country and western line dances and contra dances
European couples dances like the waltz, polka, and fast step influenced American dances
European folk styles including Jewish klezmer music, Cajun fiddling, and the Polish polka contributed to mainstream popular music


European religious traditions lead to musical expressions like call-and-response singing and gospel music
Jewish klezmer music and chanting influenced Jewish Tin Pan Alley composers
“Old-time music” (including string band music, ballad songs, sacred songs, and church hymns) was influenced by music from the British Isles
British ballad tradition

One of the main roots of American music, including urban folk music, country music, and rock ’n’ roll
One of the most widely performed songs is “Barbara Allen,” first definitively documented in London in 1666
Ballads tell a story in a series of verses sung to set melody

String band tradition

British tunes with black fiddle styles

Often used the banjo, a plucked stringed instrument of African American invention based upon African prototypes
By the early twentieth century instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, autoharp, and double bass were used
“Soldier’s Joy” (also known as “The King’s Head”) is one of the most venerable old-time fiddle tunes
The Skillet Lickers were one of the very first southern string bands to appear on commercial recordings

Lead by James Gideon (Gid) Tanner (1885–1960)


Known for technical skill, dance-oriented sound, and comedy skits based upon country stereotypes

Tommy Jarrell (1901–1985) was an influential old-time fiddler and banjo player from the mountains of North Carolina


The African American stream

By 1860 there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States
Local geographic and social conditions helped to shape the development of African American music
Music, dance, and linguistic creativity were critical elements in the slaves’ struggle for cultural survival
In the nineteenth century, African American music included work songs, lullabies, game songs, story songs, and instrumental music


The most impressive repertory created by the slaves was the Black Spirituals


Black preachers developed a style of semi-improvised, musically intoned sermonizing that shaped the performance styles of popular musicians such as James Brown and Ray Charles
Call-and-response forms are a hallmark of African and African American musical traditions
Interlocking, repeating patterns (polyrhythms) are an aesthetic focus


Rhythm (the musical organization of time) is an important focus for performers and listeners
Syncopation is a unifying feature for many African musical genres
African and African American instrumentalists make use of buzzing sounds and singers frequently use growling and humming effects


African and African American music emphasizes improvisation
The African American instrument the diddley bow is an adaptation of the African one-stringed zither
The African akonting is related to the American banjo

Dink Roberts (1894–1989), African American banjo player and songster


African American work songs coordinated the work of individuals, increased efficiency, and helped avoid physical danger (ex. “Long John”)
African American ballads of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries celebrated the exploits of black heroes and “bad men” (ex. Stagolee)
Mississippi John Hurt (1892–1966), African American guitarist and representative of the songster tradition
The origins of a distinctively American style of popular entertainment lie in the minstrel show of the mid-nineteenth century
In the early twentieth century African American ragtime and blues profoundly shaped the mainstream of American popular song


The “jazz age” of the 1920s and the “swing era” of the 1930s and 1940s involved the reworking of African American dance music
Some of country music’s biggest stars have been black
1950s rock ’n’ roll was, in large part, rhythm & blues (R&B) music
The influence of 1960s soul music, rooted in gospel music and R&B, is heard in the vocal style of practically every pop singer
The tone and texture of hard rock and heavy metal are influenced by the electric urban blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf
Rap music, based on African-derived musical and verbal traditions, continues to provide many white Americans with a vicarious experience of “listening in” on black urban culture
Latin American stream

The first Latin American style to exert a major international impact was the Cuban contradanza

Contradanza was later called the habanera

Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes’s “Tú” (1892) uses the habanera rhythm and is widely considered the first Cuban hit song


Habanera influenced late nineteenth-century ragtime music and popular blues compositions

b.  Tango had a big influence in the early twentieth century

Associated with sexuality, recklessness, and danger and with the romantic image of the gaucho
Popularized in the United States by dancers Irene and Vernon Castle as well as movie star Rudolph Valentino
Often expresses mufarse—the ability to reflect upon one’s destiny with bittersweet satisfaction
Carlos Gardel (1890–1935)


Legendary French-born superstar of tango
International film and recording star
Inspired operatic bel canto singing and the criollo songs of the Argentine gauchos

José (“El Negro”) Ricardo (1888–1937)


Guitarist who worked with Carlos Gardel
Demonstrated the importance of Afro-Argentine musicians in the tango tradition
Used the guitar to accompany tango

Francisco Canaro (1888–1964)


Uruguay-born violinist and bandleader
Led the group Quinteto Pirincho
Promoted tango in Paris
Ballroom rumba

Reached a height of popularity in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s
Succeeded by Cuban-based dance fads the mambo and the cha-cha-chá

Afro-Cuban rumba

Part of an Afro-Atlantic tradition that manages tension within an aesthetic framework
Originally suppressed by Cuban authorities
First recorded in the 1940s
Emerged in the town of Matanzas, a center for African culture in Cuba
Focuses on three single-headed drums

Other important instruments include the palitos, claves, and shekere


Often involved three sections

La Diana, an opening, improvised melodic passage
El Canto, “the song,” in which the lead singer sings verses
El Montuno, a final climactic section


Vocal parts alternate between solo singing and call-and-response patterns
Accompanies dances featuring sexual role-playing
Brazilian music

Samba is a Brazilian dance style with African roots
Carioca (a samba style) emerged in Rio de Janeiro and was popularized by Carmen Miranda in the United States during the 1940s
Bossa nova begame popular in the United States in the 1960s (ex. “The Girl from Ipanema”)

“Enigue Nigue”

Performed by Grupo AfroCuba, one of the leading contemporary proponents of traditional rumba
The Diana section is brief
In the Canto the lead singer is joined in harmony
Quinto drum provides crisply articulated rhythmic interjections
The Montuno section is initiated with a vocal “call” by the lead singer that is answered by the chorus

Mexican music

Country and western music has been influenced by Mexican styles since the 1930s
Mexican immigrants in California played an important role in the development of rock music

Exemplified by Ritchie Valens’s 1959 hit “La Bamba”
Carlos Santana’s mixture of salsa and guitar-based rock in the 1960s

Linda Ronstadt’s recordings of traditional Mexican songs
Hard-rocking style of the Los Angeles–based band Los Lobos
In Southwestern cities conjunto acordeon and mariachi musicians play at social events, festivals, parties, and marriages
“La Negra”

Performed by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the best-known mariachi group in Mexico
By 1957 the group expanded to include a trumpet, four violins, two guitars, a viheula, a guitarrón, and a harp
The song’s text is in a poetic form brought to the Americas from Spain called the copla
Makes use of polyrhythms derived from Spanish music
The guitar and viheula players use a technique called rasqueado, strumming their instruments vigorously to create a scraping sound

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