What are the Elements of Popular Music?

Fans at a music concert

Want to create music that is popular with fans and streaming sites? Many beginner audio producers, and even some of the more seasoned ones, are still eluded by the formula behind the music you hear on the radio. The problem with that mindset is the idea that there’s one single foolproof formula to making a hit song. As with any art form, what’s popular and gains traction with a wide audience comes down to such a chaotic blend of factors that it’s impossible to bottle up at will.

With that as a caveat, there are many general trends and through lines you can draw when analyzing the most popular songs and genres over the decades, and this is valuable information for anyone hoping to produce a hit pop record of their own.

What makes music fall into the “pop” category? What is it that makes certain songs so catchy? And most importantly, how does one make their own pop song? Is there a specific formula to it, or do artists and producers have to rely on their own artistic instincts? All this and more will be explored, providing you with more than enough to get started on your next big pop project.

Elements that Make Music Popular

The most obvious answer to what gives certain types of music popularity is people listening to it and enjoying it. This enjoyment is a key element because a huge part of popularity, in anything, not just music, comes from people circulating the media around by discussing and sharing it with others.

The mediums by which ideas or a work of art like music are shared have obviously changed a lot over the decades. Now, anyone can let all their friends know about their new favorite track or album with one click. Throughout history, before advancements in telecommunication, cultural trends rose and fell in popularity much more slowly because everything was spread by word of mouth or delivered in written form.

In today’s modern music business, distribution is a key element to popularity. Without the ability to reach a mass audience, it’s hard to gain much more than local or regional recognition. The difference in this modern era when compared to the 1970s or earlier is the sheer number of artists. Availability of recording technology means just about anyone can throw together their own album and call themselves a band; even more people can simply produce entire albums themselves without ever picking up a physical instrument, sounding extremely close if not identical to what you hear on the radio.

The difference between these would-be pop stars and the ones who make it to the top? Talent and originality certainly have something to do with it, but if no one hears your amazing track, it won’t even have the chance to become popular.

For some artists, the key to their success all comes down to live shows. There’s no better way to reach out to a wider audience than actually showing up in person and putting on a great show, particularly at events like music festivals. These venues give fans maximum opportunity to hear your music and enjoy, because nothing can beat the musical experience that’s delivered at a live show.

Popular Music Through History

Some people hear the phrase “pop music” and think of one genre specifically: whatever they hear on their local Top 40s radio station. But popular music has meant completely different things over the decades. It’s a completely subjective term merely referring to the genre or even specific artists that are receiving the most public attention at the time.

In its earliest historical form, the “pop music” of medieval times was performed by traveling minstrels and troubadours for royal parties or the general public. Their nomadic nature allowed songs to be circulated, spreading throughout different communities and gradually going “viral.” The high society of the Middle Ages originally had a more elite and sophisticated selection of popular standards, but their popularity grew to the point that wider audiences caught on to their tunes and started to play them for themselves.

In this era, anything that wasn’t folk music was fair game to be labeled as popular music. However, the Industrial Revolution did away with the purest forms of folk music once and for all, leading to a proliferation of vaudeville, music hall, and minstrel shows. This spanned from the Victorian era up into the 20th century, when the high society was mostly listening to operettas and waltzes.

The emergence of Tin Pan Alley in the 1890s gave the world its first-ever song-publishing industry for popular music. It wasn’t long before this company was putting lyrics to European operettas and using them in a new type of play nobody had ever seen before called “musicals.” The songs from these musicals soared in popularity and completely dominated the pop culture scene for decades to come.

Jazz was the next big hit. Just before the turn of the 20th century, African Americans were bringing their polyrhythmic, complex, movement-inducing drumming techniques from African traditions and blending them with the advanced and highly emotive harmonic structures from European traditions. What resulted wasn’t quite jazz yet, rather the ragtime that many recognize in Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” As more voices contributed to this style and bent it further to its maximum rhythmic and harmonic potential, the creation of the various subgenres of jazz would completely shift the musical culture.

The massive expansion of music listeners that occurred in the 20th century was largely due to the improvement and wider availability of the technology required to support it. It’s hard to imagine in today’s technologically connected world, but before phonographs were available to the general public in the 1930s, sheet music was the main way that families could enjoy music from the comfort of their homes. It was a huge shift when a person could simply put on a record instead of having to learn, practice, perfect, and then play it, every time they wanted to hear a given song. This also meant having access to their favorite songs without having to own an instrument.

The technology behind microphones continued to excel throughout the early to mid-1900s, meaning vocalists could get their licks captured without having to belt every last one of them; now, singers could be more intimate with their style and thus opened up a whole new realm of musical possibilities.

Radio broadcasts began filling the airwaves with new sounds that those in rural areas never had access to. This was how country music saw its rise in fame and popularity.

In the post-World War II world, American pop music left its mark in other parts of the world. Still to this day, but particularly in the ’40s and ’50s, it would be hard to find a place in the world where American pop doesn’t have a presence.

The racially fraught history of the United States shaped and influenced the way popular music changed over the second half of the 20th century. As African Americans were finally able to live in the Northern cities, they brought their musical styles with them. These decades saw the hybridization of fast jazz rhythms with the soulful tones of the blues, thus birthing the still-popular rhythm and blues.

Virtually everyone still knows the name “Elvis Presley,” even if they might not be familiar with his wider body of work, the vast majority of which being covers of R&B standards from African American artists. Elvis was one of the central figures in the rock and roll movement, which took the hybrid R&B a step further by mixing in country and occasionally other styles like soul. A large number of British rock bands emerged in the ’60s, not just the Beatles, but a multitude of others like the Kinks and Cream that also went on to achieve international popularity.

When the record company Motown pioneered a particular genre of soul that combined sophisticated musical ideas with catchy repeating riffs, the young people of the Western world latched onto it and called it their own. The company was so successful in its creation that the genre itself became synonymous with the record company and to this day is simply known as Motown.

For the 21st century, the elements of pop have become more blended than ever thanks to the wide variety of subgenres now freely able to intermingle. The result is a diverse range of pop that, albeit mainly rock-influenced, also borrows the styles of hip-hop, funk, metal, disco, and countless others.

Elements of Popular Music

Indeed, a simple formula alone doesn’t automatically make a song popular, no matter how formulaic the elements of most or all of the tracks on the Top 40s truly are at their core. It takes a level of creativity and innovation to create something that gets noticed on a grand scale. But setting aside the originality and inspiration that’s required, there are a few basic elements to start with that can be especially helpful if you’re stuck in a musical rut.

With pop music, a repeating hook is one of the most critical elements. This is a catchy riff either in the vocals or a prominent instrument voice that sticks out to the listener and gets stuck in their head. Pop songs also need to have lyrics that are relatable to a wide array of people or at least strongly apply to a specific demographic. Ideally, one that’s likely to spend money on your record.

Creating popular music is also about subverting the listener’s expectations enough to create something interesting and unique while staying within a familiar musical space to avoid losing the listener entirely. Audio producers who find that happy medium are the ones who maintain a strong fanbase and stay high on the pop charts.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get into audio production and start creating popular music? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.