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Ken Mowery

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Popular music

Music DefinitionsMusic Theories | Music Business | Music Performance | Music Genres | Sources 

Popular music is music belonging to any of a number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and mostly distributed commercially. It stands in contrast to classical music, which historically was the music of elites or the upper strata of society, and traditional folk music which was shared non-commercially. It is sometimes abbreviated to pop music, although pop music is more often used for a narrower branch of popular music.


The term "popular music" is used in broader and narrower senses. At its broadest it refers to all music other than classical music, also known as art music. In the early 19th century, the traditional songs of the common people were referred to as "popular song". By the late 19th century these songs were referred to as "folk song" and a distinction was made between folk music and the more recently developed urban popular music. Now popular music is distributed via mass media such as recordings and radio (as classical music is now also). Popular music forms part of popular culture. For varieties of popular music, see the list of genres below.

See the separate article on pop music for the narrower genre of very commercial, light, catchy, melodic music.

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Theories of popular music

Among scholars in the humanities, a broader range of definitions have been proposed.

Frans Birrer (1985, p. 104) gives four conceptions or definitions of "popular" music:

  1. Normative definitions. Popular music is an inferior type.
  2. Negative definitions. Popular music is music that is not something else (usually 'folk' or 'art' music).
  3. Sociological definitions. Popular music is associated with (produced for or by) a particular social group.
  4. Technologico-economic definitions. Popular music is disseminated by mass media and/or in a mass market.

All of these, according to Middleton (1990, p.4) "are interest-bound; none is satisfactory." According to Hall (1978, p.6-7), "The assumption...that you might know before you looked at cultural traditions in general what, at any particular time, was a part of the elite culture or of popular culture is untenable." Thus popular music must be comprehended in relation to the broader musical field (Middleton 1990, p.11).

Bennett (1980, p.153-218) distinguishes between 'primary' and 'secondary' popular culture, the first being mass product and the second being local re-production, discussed further below.

"While repetition is a feature of all music, of any sort, a high level of repetition may be a specific mark of 'the popular', enabling an inclusive rather than exclusive audience." (Middleton 1990, p.139)

Popular music as a business enterprise

Much popular music is the product of the modern business enterprise, disseminated for the purpose of earning a profit. Executives and employees of popular music businesses try to select and cultivate the music that will have the greatest success with the public, and thus maximize the profits of their firm. In this respect, popular music differs from traditional folk music, which was created by ordinary people for their own enjoyment, and from classical music, which was originally created to serve the purposes of the Church or for the entertainment of the nobility. (Today classical music is often subsidized by governments and universities.)

Although the controlling forces of popular music are business enterprises, young people who aspire to become popular musicians are certainly not always driven by the profit motive. Rather, they often want to find an outlet for their sense of expression and creativity, or simply to have fun. Historically, the conflicting motives of business people and musicians has been a source of tension in the popular music industry.

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Performance of popular music by amateurs

Many people play popular music together with their friends, often in garages and basements, on a casual amateur basis. This activity is one of the most widespread forms of participatory music-making in modern societies. As participatory music, "garage bands" are in a sense a resurrection of the old tradition of folk music, which in premodern times was composed and performed by ordinary people and transmitted exclusively by word of mouth. The difference between the old folk music and modern amateur performance of popular music is that the participants in the latter genre are well acquainted with the expert performances that they hear on recordings, and often try to emulate them.

The older folk music of a society often lives on in a popularized version, which is likewise performed by experts and commercially disseminated. Such updated versions of folk music often have heavy amateur participation


Popular music dates at least as far back as the mid 19th century. Below is a list of genres.

Different genres often appeal to different age groups. These often, but not always, are the people who were young when the music was new. Thus, for instance, Big band music continues to have a following, but it is probably a rather older group, on average, than the audience for rap. For a few of the genres listed below (for instance, Ragtime), the original target generation may have died out almost entirely.


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Reading The Waters by Kenneth P Mowery

Origin And History Of Top Ten Charts

Top 40

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Top 40 is both a record chart and a radio format based on frequent repetition of songs from a constantly-updated list of the forty best-selling singles. The term is also used to refer to the actual list of hit songs, and, by extension, to refer to pop music in general. The term has also been modified to describe Top 30; Top 20; Top 10; Hot 100 and Hot Hits radio formats, but carrying more or less the same meaning and having the same creative point of origin with Todd Storz as further refined by Gordon McLendon.

Although predated by the music marketing concept of the hit parade, the Top 40 radio format was created in response to the drift of USA mass media audiences from radio to television. With the loss of audience came the loss of sponsors and big budget radio productions. Recorded music provided low-cost and fully produced entertainment requiring only segues between presentations. It was the arrangement of the most popular recorded presentations which have variously been known as Top 10; Top 20; Top 10 and which became known as Top 40 radio.

Top 40 was a response to the rise of television. Scheduled block programming could not compete with the new visual medium, so putting something on radio that wasn't available on TV became vital. Although hit music shows such as American Bandstand occasionally appeared, television wouldn't attempt to directly compete with Top 40 radio until many years later with the rise of MTV, the early incarnation of which was a cable television version of Top 40.

The Top 40 format placed less value on genres and artists and concentrated entirely on repetitive play of hits based on research which reported that listeners wanted to "hear all the hits and nothin' but the hits!". Although rock and roll and Top 40 radio grew up together, out-of-genre Top-40 hits include gospel songs ("Oh, Happy Day!" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers), patriotic songs ("Ballad of the Green Berets" by S/Sgt. Barry Sadler), novelties ("The Thing" by Phil Harris), and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Top 40 also spawned the first generation of star disk jockeys, whose between-song patter and connection with the listeners became as important as the songs themselves.

According to Eberley (1982, p.219) "The driving rhythms of rock fit snugly into the unity and consistency of Top 40. For if it was one thing that Top 40 compounded, it was unity - all components (commercials, public service announcements, the excitement) were compatible with the music. The Gestalt was greater than the sum of the parts."

As a format, Top 40 radio waned in the mid-1970s with the expansion of FM radio with its superior sound and more varied programming. Much of the popular audience moved to more sophisticated and targeted formats such as Album Oriented Rock. Radio stations began to specialize in particular types of music rather than playing current hits regardless of genre. The all-hits format has never completely died, however, and has experienced sporadic resurgences on the FM band, though seldom under the Top 40 name. However, the concept of a closely controlled overall sound for a station that originated with Top 40 radio is now dominant in all genres, basically unchallenged except by a few on-air broadcasters like WFMU, WNUR, and a number of World Wide Web Internet radio broadcasters.

Key contributors

Todd Storz

Credit for the format is widely credited to Todd Storz, who was the director of radio station KOWH-AM in Omaha, Nebraska in the early 1950s. At that time typical AM radio programming consisted largely of blocks of pre-scheduled, sponsored programs of a wide variety, including radio dramas and variety shows. Local popular music hits, if they made it on the air at all, had to be worked in between these segments. Storz noted the great response certain songs got from the record-buying public and compared it to the way certain selections on jukeboxes were played over and over. He expanded his stable of radio stations, purchasing WTIK-AM in New Orleans, Louisiana, gradually converted his stations to an all-hits format, and pioneered the practice of surveying record stores to determine which singles were popular each week. In 1954, Storz purchased WHB-AM, a high-powered station in Kansas City, Missouri which could be heard throughout the midwest and great plains, converted it to an all-hits format, and dubbed the result "Top 40". Shortly thereafter WHB debuted the first top 40 countdown, a reverse-order playing of the station's ranking of hit singles for that week. Within a few years, Top 40 stations appeared all over the country to great success, spurred by the burgeoning popularity of rock and roll music, especially that of Elvis Presley.

Gordon McLendon

Although Todd Storz is regarded as the father of the Top 40 format, Gordon McLendon of Dallas, Texas is regarded as the person who took an idea and turned it into a mass media marketing success in combination with the development in that same city of PAMS jingles. It was the combination of Top 40 and PAMS jingles which became the key to the success of the radio format itself. Not only were the same records played on different stations across America, but so were the same jingle music beds whose lyrics were resung repetitively for each station to create individual station identity. To this basic mix were added contests, games and disc jockey patter. Various groups (including Bartell Broadcasters), emphasized local variations on their Top 40 stations.

Rick Sklar

In the early 1960s Rick Sklar also developed the Top 40 format for radio station WABC in New York City which was then copied by stations in the eastern and mid-western United States such as WKBW and WLS.

Bill Drake

Bill Drake built upon the foundation established by Storz and McLendon to create a variation called Boss Radio. This format which began at KHJ Los Angeles on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s, was further adapted to stations across the western USA and then by American disc jockeys as a hybrid format on Swinging Radio England which broadcast from on board ship anchored off the coast of southern England in international waters.

Don Peirson

Don Pierson took the formats of Gordon McLendon, Boss Radio and PAMS jingles to the United Kingdom and Europe and subsequently revolutionized the popular music format of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC Radio).

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