Music Theory/Pop

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  • note: the main focus is on American Pop Music

What is pop?

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Pop basically means popular music. Popular music has had many sources from which it is derived. Many of these having come from imported traditions; those being: European American music, African American music and Latin American music. They have influenced each other greatly and have very different styles amongst themselves. One of the biggest and most interesting themes that is encountered throughout the history of popular American Music is that it starts off within a marginalized community, typically an African America or Latin American community, and then moves into the mainstream of popular culture.

Eras of pop music

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The Nineteenth Century

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The Minstrel Show, or blackface minstrelsy, featured white performers who artificially blackened their face and skin to parody the lives of black music, dance, dress and dialect. This style of entertainment emerged from working class neighborhood's in New York City's Seventh Ward, where interracial interaction was normal. Some of the earliest hit songs from this era were Thomas Dartmouth Rice's "Jim Crow" performed in 1832 and "Zip Coon" published through sheet music in 1834. Both of these songs are more closely related to Irish and Scottish folk tunes than African American song. From the 1840s to 1880s blackface minstrelsy was the predominant genre of pop culture in the United States. The genre went through several changes and soon became the more organized and predictable "minstrel show." Although most of the biggest celebrities of the minstrel show were predominantly white, there were several African-American performers as well. The minstrel show is also the forerunner of the vaudeville, a kind of variety show that was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.

An early pop songwriter was Stephen Collins Foster. He composed around two hundred songs during the 1840s to the early 1860s. Songs such as "Oh! Susana," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home," and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" are still well-known today. He is considered the first person in the United States to make a living as a professional song-writer, surviving on his sheet music sales.

Dance music has always been important in the popular American music stream because of the various social functions it incorporates. "After the Ball," is a waltz published in 1892 an is considered the very first "mega-hit" pop song, selling over 5 million copies in sheet music. It was composed by Charles K. Harris. The song became much more popular after it was performed by John Philip Sousa's band at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The U.S Marine band, conducted by John Philip Sousa, was the first American pop "supergroup". They toured constantly throughout the United States and Europe and had many hit songs including "The Washington Post" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever." The band had more than fifty members.

The Late Nineteenth Century and Early Twentieth Century

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The 1890s saw the birth of a popular genre of music known as Tin Pan Alley, named after the stretch of 28th Street in New York City's lower Manhattan where the clanging sounds of many pianos could be heard playing songs in various keys and tempos at the same time. During the 1910s, annual music sheet sales in America had reached 30 million. TPA style stayed a popular genre of music for almost seventy years. One of the most popular composers of TPA was Paul Dresser who wrote "The Letter that Never Came," and Harry Von Tilzer, nicknamed the "Daddy of Popular Song."

From around 1896 to 1918 Ragtime was a popular form of music that derived from African American musical influences. The root word "to rag" means to enliven a piece of music or to "play against the beat", known as syncopation. The basic patterns of ragtime were transferred from the banjo. Latin American music, such as the Cuban habanera, also influenced its style. Until the end of WWI, ragtime was played by several different types of bands which include: dance bands, brass bands, country string bands, symphony, orchestras, and the classic ragtime style -solo pianists. Scott Joplin was one of the most well-known composers of ragtime music, composing one of the most well-known piano pieces of all time, "Maple Leaf Rag." Other ragtime influenced songs were George M. Cohan's "You're a Grand Old Flag," written in 1907 and Theadore Metz's "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," written in 1896. "Castle House Rag" was another important work of ragtime written by James Reese Europe in 1914 `and performed by Jame's Reese Europe's Society Orchestra.

The invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison helped to disseminate music even further by providing an actual recording of the songs instead of the "do-it-yourself" format of sheet music.

During the late 1910s Jazz began to appear in the popular mainstream.


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Radio networks allowed people to hear the latest songs and artists all over the United States, allowing people living thousands of miles away from each other to hear the same music simultaneously. Big musicals at New York's theatre district, Broadway, and the Hollywood film industry helped to propel music's popularity even further and make it become much more popular than it had previously been. Famous Tin Pan Alley composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers could be heard throughout radio and in the entertainment industry.

The 20s is commonly referred to as the Jazz Age in terms of music. The Jazz Craze, which came after ragtime, was a very artistic time in terms of popular music pioneered by black musicians, but carried on by both black and white musicians, and then eventually by every ethnic group. This music style emerged in New Orlean's, Louisiana around 1900, but came into the mainstream in the 1920s. Jazz's popularity was propelled by the a jazz group called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band lead by cornet player Nick LaRocca. Their biggest hit was "Tiger Rag." ODJB were white musicians who helped to popularize jazz and bring it into the mainstream. Another famous jazz band of the same period was King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band who recorded "Dippermouth Blues" in 1923. The most notable differences usually between black and white jazz bands is that black jazz bands usually had a more flowly and relaxed feeling and relied strongly on improvisations, while white jazz bands tended to have the recordings prearranged and memorized.

Other famous jazz musicians of this era were: Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The self-proclaimed "King of Jazz" was Paul Whiteman who lead his jazz band the Ambassador Orchestra. His commercial success was so huge as to make jazz music the standard form of music in the 1920s.

Another form of music that came out during this time was Blues. There were two forms of Blues, Classic Blues and Country Blues. Classic Blues emerged from St. Louis Missouri, while Country Blues emerged from the Mississippi Delta area. Famous Classic Blues musicians were Louis Armstrong, W.C Handy and Bessie Smith. Blues has many jazz influences, but may have originated before that. Country blues wasn't recorded on phonographs until the 1920s, but may have emerged from earlier on. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson were both famous Country Blues musicians. Blues has had a major impact on future popular music such as Rock n Roll and R&B, since these styles are usually based and derived from the "twelve-bar blues" format. In fact, Eric Clapton's band Cream did a cover of Robert Johnston's song "Crossroad Blues" renaming it "Crossroads," and the band Jefferson Airplane gets its name in part from country blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.


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During the 1930s, Jazz and Blues were still popular, but it was the golden age of Tin Pan Alley. With the invention of the microphone in 1925, the age of the "crooners" began. Crooning is a type of "intimate" or "personal" singing made possible because of the microphone. Most crooners sang in the Tin Pan Alley style which were songs about the good things in life such as romance and privacy; hardly any TPA song dealt with real-world issues mainly because people wanted to hear music to escape from the realities of the world, rather than be reminded of them. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter were famous arrangers of TPA music. One of the first crooners ever was Gene Austin, who sang a very famous and popular interpretation of the song "My Blue Heaven" which was one of the bestselling records of its time. Bing Crosby was another famous crooner who surpassed Gene Austin in popularity with the release of his album, "White Christmas," which was released in 1942, however, Crosby had started his career in the 30s and had already gained mass fame during that time with his song "How Deep is the Ocean?" written by Irving Berlin. Another very famous song that captures the feel of both Jazz and TPA is the popular song "I got Rhythm" written by George Gerswhin and sung by Ethel Merman.

Very few composers and singers of TPA style shared political statements, however composer Woody Guthrie, who wrote the famous song, "This Land is Your Land," did. He is considered the major influence on later urban folk musicians such as the Weavers and Bob Dylan.

The mid-30s also saw the rise of a very popular form of jazz-influenced music called "Swing," that derived from New York, Chicago and Kansas City. The word Swing derives from African American English and is a verb that means to have a "fluid, rocking rhytmitic feel." (Other words such as "jazz," "blues," and "rock n roll" also derived from African American English, however, when the music industry needs to market a certain new form of music, they turn it into a noun, such as the above examples). Swing was in heavy rotation on the radio, and swing bands often performed in ballrooms, hotels and dance halls. Famous Swing band leaders were Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman is nicknamed, "The King of Swing."


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From 1940 to roughly 1945, Swing was still the dominant form of popular music. The song, "In the Mood" performed by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra became a national sensation.

During the 1940s Country music had become more mainstream and popular, especially amongst rural people, however, the rural people moving into urban places had a big impact on disseminating it to other people who were unfamiliar with country (country had already been around for a long time). Roy Acuff who performed the song "Great Speckled Bird" (from which many country tunes developed) rose to great fame during this time. Other great Country perfomers were Bob Nolan and the Country Swing band, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who's song "New San Antonio Rose" reached Number Eleven on the pop charts in 1940.

The 1940s also gave rise to the "Big Singers" era. Frank Sinatra, nicknamed, the "Sultan of Swoon," was the most popular of the big singers. He was a crooner who had been inspired by Bing Crosby, but developed his own style. One of his most famous songs is, "Nancy with the Laughing Face." Another star of the "Big Singers" era was African American crooner Nat "King" Cole. Cole's record "Nature Boy" reached Number One on the pop music charts and held that position for eight weeks.

R&B was also starting to become more influential during the late 1940s. The song "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," performed by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five in 1946 topped the R&B charts for eighteen weeks and reached Number Seven on the Billboard Top 40.


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During this time, the demand for popular music was rooted towards the American South, that is the demand for Country and Western music and Rhthym and Blues was becoming more apparent. "Black Night" performed by Charles Brown and His Band and "Hoochie Coochie Man," performed by Muddy Waters, were two of the biggest R&B hits of the 1950s. There were also two very famous female R&B vocalists during the 1950s, Ruth Brown and Big Mama Thornton. Big Mama Thornton became famous for performing, "Hound Dog," written for her in 1953 by the famous songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and later covered, with much more toned-down lyrics, by Elvis Presley.

Another important form of music during this time was the emergence of Urban Folk which derived from Country music, but pioneered by urban rather than rural musicians. The biggest and most influental musicians of the Urban Folk movement were the Weavers led by Pete Seeger, who later inspired such musicians as Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Honky-Tonk was another popular form of Country that sprang out of the 50s with the biggest stars being Hank Thompson, Hank Williams and Kitty Wells.

The early 50s also saw the rise of the music industry targeting younger generations with young pop singers. The most famous of the young pop singers being Johnnie Ray, otherwise known as the "Prince of Wails," who became one of the biggest international pop stars. The companies gave him a public image and promoted his songs on TV and radio. Johnnie Ray paved the way for future rock n roll artists (he was apparently the link between the crooner era and the rock n roll era). His different modes of performance were wild and dynamic; during his performances, he would writhe, weep and fall to his knees.

With a combination of many R&B and Country songs came forth rock n roll. However, rock n roll has many common misconceptions. First of all, it was not a new style of music, it had already been around, but it was not called rock n roll because the music industry had not yet grasped it (remember, the music industry is what's responsible for taking words and turning them into nouns to be able to market it). Obviously, rock n roll is not the "beginning" of American pop music and the rock n roll era was not the first time that black and white styles were combined. During this era, however, many white performers were doing covers of black songs and toning them down to appeal to the predominant middle-class white audience. Songs such as "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Sh-Boom," and "Mystery Train" were all first performed by black performers and later covered by white performers, however most people are not familiar with the original versions. Famous and notable performers of the rock n roll era are Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and "Fats" Domino, who came out of the R&B side, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley who came out of the country side and Buddy Holly who was a combination of both R&B and Country.


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During the 1960s, teenagers were still a big target for the music industries. Phil Spector and Berry Gordy Jr. were two of the biggest and most well-known producers of the 60s. Phil Spector productions include the songs, "Be My Baby" performed by the Ronettes and "Uptown" performed by the Crystals. Phil Spector is more well-known than the artists themselves. Berry Gordy Jr. was the creator of Motown Records, a record company based in Detroit that helped to make R&B an extremely popular force in the music industry. In fact, most people today know the record label Motown more so than the actual artists themselves. Famous songs that came out of the Motown record label were "My Girl" performed by The Tempations, and "You Can't Hurry Love," performed by The Supremes.

The 60s was a time when the older people who had grown up listening to rock n roll wanted to re-name their style of music "rock" because it sounded more mature, and so it stuck. The Beach Boys were famous for their rock style known as the "California sound" or "surf music" which demonstrate the spirit and freedom of California. Some famous songs from the Beach Boys include "Good Vibrations" and "Surfing USA."

The British Invasion was another huge step in America's development of popular music. The Beatles, being the biggest and most influental British invasion band scored a number of hits in both the U.K. and the U.S especially after their appearence on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their diverse approach and ability to adopt current and trendy styles helped to propel their popularity even further. As the years went by, their music steadily progressed and became more mature. Their songs such as "Please Please Me," "A Hard Day's Night," "Yesterday," and "Eleanor Rigby" all sound very different from one another. There were other notable British Invasion bands during this time - those include: The Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and Eric Clapton's band Cream.

The 1960s saw the development of Soul Music, which derived from R&B and Gospel Music. The pioneer of soul music is Ray Charles, although James Brown did take it a step further, as he was known as the "Godfather of Soul." The biggest female soul artist was Aretha Franklin who performed the song "Respect," which was a cover of Otis Redding's version, but considered to be better. Soul music was the inspiration for later Funk and Disco music.

Urban Folk Music was a major impact in the 1960s. Songs originally performed by Bob Dylan were usually covered by other musicians, making Bob Dylan famous that way. One of his most famous songs, "Blowin' in the Wind" is more well-known through the Peter, Paul and Mary version, and another song, "Mr. Tambourine Man" is better known through the Byrd's version. A song that he was actually famous for was "Like a Rolling Stone," which is where the Rolling Stones and Rolling Stones Magazine took their name from. Other famous Urban Folk musicians were Simon and Garfunkel, who were an Urban Folk Rock duo.

Another huge thing in the 60s was the emergence of Psychedelic Rock and Acid Rock which were associated with the counterculture and hippies. Psychedelic Rock's and Acid Rock's major focuses were on political issues and freedom of expression, most notably the increased use of marijuana and LSD amongst the musicians and their audience. San Francisco was where most of the counterculture scene was taking place, in the Haight-Ashbury district. Famous musicians of this genre include, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. Even the Beatles contributed to the counterculture and made their own Psychedelic Rock albums, "Revolver", "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band", and "Magical Mystery Tour." Another important band not associated with Psychedelic rock, but more of a back to basics sort of band were Creedence Clearwater Revival. They emerged when Psychedelic Rock was big and surprisingly, scored many hits all throughout the 60s, topping the charts hit after hit.


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The Seventies gave way to a genre known as disco, which is still popular to an extent today. The 70s was a huge step forward as far as musical technology was concerned, with more complex recording techniques, drum machines & synthesizer keyboards being introduced. A steady drum beat with wah-wah guitars and vocal harmonies all contributed to making disco popular. Examples of disco music were The Bee Gees & The Village People

ABBA also contributed to what we know as pop today. After winning Eurovision with "Waterloo" in the 70s, the Swedish quartet went on to release a flurry of pop hits and are considered as one of the more influential of pop bands.

Rock bands like the Who, Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush pulled the limits of huge, stadium rock. There songs could last over 10 minutes and include complex guitar solos.

The late 70's saw a desire to go back to a less complex song writing style that was full of energy, and teenage angst. Heavily influenced by Iggy Pop and the Stoogies, bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, and The Clash helped make punk rock a world wide sensation, and greatly influenced what would be called alternative music in the 1980's.


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The 1980s gave birth to what many people would consider "bubblegum" pop with artists like Kylie Minogue. It was also the birth of electronica music (see Electronic music for more information.) The 80s also gave out a new style of music which was a marriage between electronic music & pop, called New Romantic. Bands like Duran Duran (the Duran Duran song "Outside" is responsible for the name "New Romantic"), Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet, & Japan wore androgynous clothing & make up and had a very slick & polished version of pop music to offer, often using keyboards & obscure sounding instruments.


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These are highly produced bands which are carefully designed to appeal to a specific audience (usually pre-teenagers). Sometimes they are actually put together to a formula by music producers via auditions. The music was inoffensive and would range from simple, electronic drum beats with most of the melody & harmony in the vocals, to huge, orchestral ballads with passionate performances. Popular boy & girl bands include Westlife, Take That , The Spice Girls


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Boy & girl bands are still popular to this day, with Pussycat Dolls & Sugababes still reaching dizzying heights in charts around the world. However, recently we've had the dawn of pop rock. Pop rock, a blend of Americanized punk rock & pop music was brought to the foray by British groups Busted & McFly. The music uses "power chords" (chords with the 3rd interval removed) commonly found in rock & metal music. Some of the pre-requistes to pop rock are Green Day & Blink 182.