Terms and Concepts
Here I will define some of the terms and concepts that I plan on using during this series of articles.
Hooks -- . Hooks are what make songs interesting. Usually, it's a riff of some kind played on a musical instrument, but can also be a particular catch phrase, or some kind of other noise, and it's usually very early in the song, so that it catches your interest quickly.
Phrasing -- Phrasing defines how long things happen in music.
Beat -- Beat defines a couple of things. First, it helps to define the "groove" of a song, that is, the direction or mood of the song, and where it's going. Secondly, the beat determines the speed or "tempo" of the song.
Arpeggio - when a music chord is played one note at a time, while previous notes continue to ring.
Time Signature - The number of beats per measure of music.
Riff - a series of notes, usually catchy.
Chord Progression - a series of chords.
To begin, what exactly is pop music? As a genre, it isn't all that well defined. Essentially, pop music is any music that can be designated as well known by the populace, or simply, popular. This means that pop music could include many different styles of music, and could have a widely diverse set of artists and talent. For simplicity's sake, we'll take a look at music that has been defined in the past as pop, and some of the current trends in popular music as well.
Let's look at some of the things that almost all modern pop songs have in common, hooks, phrasing, beat, and lyrical subject matter For example, let's take a song that most people probably hate, "Who let the dogs out?" by the Baja Men. This song has a very obvious hook which you are introduced to early in the song, the phrase "Who let the dogs out", followed by barking noises. This hook worked particularly well because no one had ever heard this particular phrase before in a song. This type of hook is designed to catch interest quickly, but has the problem of becoming very irritating, partially due to the particular phrase used, and partially due to its overuse in the song. Now that you understand what a hook is, let's look at a better example of a hook. Take the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2. This song has an excellent hook that comes into the song only a few seconds in, and is one of the main driving forces of the song. I am of course talking about the arpeggio guitar riff played by The Edge. This riff works very well in this song for several reasons. First of all, it isn't present during the entire song. The riff is only used during verses, and thus doesn't suffer the overuse problem. Secondly, when it's being played, that is, during the verses, you have lyrics being sung that take some of the focus away from it, thus prolonging the lifetime of the riff. Lastly, it's simple. Simplicity is one of the biggest driving forces in popular music, due to the fact that most people who listen to music don't have much musical talent. A simple musical hook is easy for non-musical people to understand and enjoy, since it doesn't require any musical knowledge to understand.
Now let's look at phrasing. Pop music phrasing usually is done in 4, 8, 12, and 16 measures. Even numbered phrasing is simple to follow, and thus, makes the music easy to understand for the non-musical. Usually a particular phrase will be repeated an even number of times, which again adds to the simplicity of the song. For example, take a chord progression of G-D-E-C, a fairly common progression in many types of music. If the time signature was 4/4, the progression would probably be phrased such that each chord would be played for one bar of 4 beats. This would make for a phrase of 4 bars. This phrase would probably by played 4 times, and that would make up a verse or a chorus. Simple? Yes, and that's the point. The simple phrasing makes the song easy to remember, which means that more people will remember the song. That's all there is to phrasing in pop music.
Lastly, we'll have a look at beat. Have you ever noticed how often people will say "This song has a great beat"? Beats for pop music are usually simple, just like everything else about pop music. A simple beat is easy to follow, and equally easy to dance to. Usually the beat will be created by drums, either real or synthesized. A good simple beat (in 4/4 time of course) usually has a kick drum hitting on the first beat, a snare hit on beat three, and usually a hi-hat cymbal or something similar (like a tambourine) hitting on every beat.
The final topic thing that almost all pop music songs have in common is lyrical content. Music that becomes classified as pop music tends to have light, fun, and happy lyrical content, or content about love, or the opposite sex. You'll notice that if you scan the top 40 songs on your local pop music radio station or MTV, most of the songs sung by men are about women, and most of the songs sung by women are about men. The reason for this is to make the music easy to identify with. Love and relationships are things that most people have some ability to relate to. If your audience can relate to a song, it makes it easier to remember, and it gives the audience something to identify with. People with similar interests and problems tend to cluster together. When you use subject matter that people can identify with, they're going to want to listen to it, plain and simple.
If you have these main things in your music, chances are, it'll be classified as popular, but that can't be all there is to it, can there? Nope, there are a few other things that contribute to pop music: Clean, well played instrumentation, Simple Harmonies and Melodies, Cliché Chord Progressions, and Repetition. Most of all, there must be an overall lack of innovation. This may sound like a derogatory comment, but in actuality, it's quite true. Given all of the previously stated elements of popular music, it becomes obvious that the aim is to produce something that is guaranteed to sell. This means that when you find something that people like, you do it over and over again until people don't like it anymore. Hence, when boy bands became popular, there were scads of them being formed and releasing albums. Right now, young female performers are popular, thus we have Britney, Christina, Shakira, and a host of others. Truly, copying everyone else is the true heart and soul of popular music today.
The next article will feature a look at the Alternative Rock genre of music, what makes it tick, and what makes it an alternative.