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Music Genres Explained: Pop

Music Genres Explained: Pop

Written by

James Picken


October 13, 2023



Let's take a deep dive into the most popular music genre in the world - pop.

There’s a whole world of music out there (the medal for the most obvious statement goes to us). It’s estimated that there are anywhere between 97 and 230 million songs in the world, although we’re sure you understand, this is an impossible stat to measure. 

Us humans like order. We like to put things into boxes so they make sense to us. And we like to use these boxes to help us form an identity ourselves. That’s why music genres are so important. 

We recently did a crash-course on what genre is, but now it’s time to start deep diving into some specifics. And what better place to start than the most popular genre, pop?

What is pop music?

Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern form during the mid-1950s in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

What ‘pop music’ is has changed throughout time, and the genre isn’t specific to one sound. However, it is often distinguished from other subgenres by stylistic traits such as danceable rhythm or beat, simple melodies and a repeating structure, with lyrics that are often related to love or dancing. 

Some people consider pop music to be a style rather than a genre, as the types of music that are a part of it are so varied. The genre has included elements of rock, hip hop, reggae, dance, R&B, jazz, electronic and folk music throughout time. If we look at the 1920s-1950s, pop music leaned heavily on jazz music. Then we began to see R&B influences, and hip hop since the 1980s. What seems to separate the genre from others is its mass popularity.

The sound

As we said, pop music has drawn from a plethora of genres in its time. Put simply, it’s an amalgamation of the genres that are popular at the time. 

Generally, the genre uses a simple, memorable melody, with emphasis on the rhythm, and a basic riff or loop which repeats throughout much of the song. Structurally, pop songs usually have a verse and a chorus, each with different musical material, as well as a bridge connecting them.

Pop music is often ‘commercial’ sounding - although this has often been a criticism, and isn’t always the case, it helps us to identify the genre on platforms like radio or TV. 

The history 

The phrase ‘popular music’ is said to have appeared first at the beginning of the 19th century, to distinguish the popular songs at the time from the production of ‘cultured’ music, and was used to indicate musical forms with mostly simple structure. 

“One of the main strengths of pop music is the relationship between the standardised framework of what makes pop pop (structure, rhythm, instrumentation) and the richness of its history as a genre.”

- Magnus, Startle's Music Consultant

In the 1950s, with industrialisation beginning to advance, pop music started to advance. TV and radio began to advertise the songs and gain more traction. Of course, in the 1960s, we saw bands like The Beatles start to appear. Since the 1960s, the genre adapted and each decade saw new pop artists making their mark - the 1970s saw ABBA and Elton John, the 1980s had Michael Jackson and Madonna, and the 1990s had Destiny’s Child and TLC. Of course, entering the 2000s, we saw artists like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears take to the main stage, and the 2010s gave rise to singers like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Some say that the pop genre we know came in 3 phases: 

  1. The explosion of British groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, who embedded rock influence into the genre
  2. The use of new technology and instruments in the 1980s like synthesisers, electronic drums and samples
  3. The 1990s influence of hip hop and rap having a huge impact on the genre

We’re excited to see how the genre continues to develop and evolve in the future. 

Identifiable pop artists 

Although we’ve talked about some of the iconic pop musicians throughout history, here are a few more examples. 

According to YouGov, the top 5 most famous pop artists of all time are:

  1. Britney Spears
  1. Ed Sheeran 
  1. Elvis Presley
  1. Michael Jackson
  1. Adele

Real life application

We asked our Music Consultant, Magnus, to about the real life applications of pop music for brands, with behavioural science in mind.

Today, we hear influences of varying strands of pop music from the past (for example the return to disco and other pioneering dance movements). This inclusion of musical elements made popular over the last 60 years, but done so in a way that feels fresh and modern, creates a sound that is familiar and relevant. With that in mind, current pop music works well when a business’ objective is to set an approachable and straight-speaking tone.

As we hear pop music so much in everyday life, e.g on the radio, in adverts etc., it exists more at the surface when compared with some other styles of music. As a result, the standardised sound world of pop music is also one of its weaknesses as it can result in a compromise of the musical nuances that really draw listeners into the environment around them - it’s too generic. So, pop music may not be the best option for brands that pride themselves on immersive, unique experiences.

What you want, baby we got it... our music library contains every style and genre that you could imagine. 100-odd mood, genre and behaviour-based playlists ready to use in your business. Get in touch here.

Music Genres Explained: Pop

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

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