Last week we covered a brief history of classical music, looking at how it developed over the centuries. This week we will take a similar journey but focusing on popular song (which includes ‘pop’ music, as well as traditional folk music). This is a big topic that will take more than one lesson. Today we will look at traditional popular song, up until rock’n’roll. We will cover modern pop music next week.
You only need to listen to a few minutes of each video to the idea. There will be questions at the end of this lesson, where you will be asked to say which genre (style) a song is. You should also write down interesting facts or new words as you go.
Popular Music vs Art Music
To help us understand what is meant by popular music, let’s compare it to classical music. We will look at the differences between them, as well as how they are related and influential on each other.
Western classical music is a kind of art music that developed in the churches and palaces of Europe from around the 1400s. Classical music was mostly learned from notation (sheet music), which required musical training to understand. The music could be complex, long, and difficult to perform. It was often written for large orchestras, which meant that hearing a large-scale work like a piano concerto or a symphony would be a rare experience for most people.
Popular music of the same era was very different in these respects. There are exceptions to many of the following rules, but together they give an idea of what makes music popular.
- It was usually taught orally (by showing and copying rather than through reading sheet music).
- It tended to be built around the human voice and/or simple, affordable instruments, rather than large orchestras or expensive and complicated instruments like grand pianos.
- Songs are normally short, lasting just a few minutes each, with a repetitive structure.
- Musically easy to understand (though not necessarily easy to perform).
- Pleasant on the ear, often with a catchy melody or ‘hook’. Not experimental or challenging.
Together, these traditions that define popular music make it accessible – more people will be able to listen to, perform, and enjoy popular song.
Irish trad (short for traditional) is a form of popular song. You may also know it as folk music. Folk music has a strong connection to its native land, using sounds and instruments common to that area. Here’s an example.
And some Scottish traditional music, featuring an instrument that is strongly associated with that Scotland – bagpipes.
Nursery rhymes and lullabies are also forms of popular song, written especially for children. The famous ‘Pat-a-Cake’ is at least 320 years old, possibly older.
Although we talk about popular music being accessible and art music being more complex, there are lots of exceptions. Some classical music is very straight forward and easy to perform (sometimes called pop-classical), and some pop music is incredibly complicated and experimental (sometimes called art-pop or art-rock).
Yiruma is an example of pop-classical. He writes very uncomplicated music that gets called classical because it’s written for solo piano. However, in most ways his music closer to Celine Dione than Beethoven.
There is also a lot of crossover between art and popular music – classical composers taking inspiration from pop and folk music, and vice versa. When a classical composer writes music inspired by the popular music of their native land, it is called nationalist music – folk music, re-written in a classical style. Some famous nationalist composers include Ralph Vaughn-Williams (English), Béla Bartók (Hungarian and Romanian), and Frédéric Chopin (Polish). Let’s compare some of this traditional music to the ‘classical’ versions.
Romanian Christmas Carols
Sometimes the opposite happens, and pop or rock bands take inspiration from classical music. One famous example is the band Queen, who blend operatic singing and writing with rock instruments.
For the rest of the lesson, we’re going to look at the development of modern, western, pop music, and how traditional popular music led to the sound we recognise today. It all started with the blues.
In the 1800s, a style of music emerged out of the African-American communities in the US. This genre, called the blues, went on to have a strong influence on the popular music that followed, and eventually led to the sounds we now recognise as pop. The blues originated from a style of music called spirituals – music sung while working or in church. Slaves were often banned from using instruments, so spirituals would have been sung acapella (just voices, without instruments). Here is an example of a spiritual.
As the slave trade came to an end, instruments were more regularly incorporated into these songs, and the blues emerged.
Another style, called ragtime, also had a huge impact on popular music. Here’s a song by the famous ragtime composer, Scott Joplin.
And another by Lyons & Josco.
The upbeat rhythms of ragtime, along with the harmony and structure of blues, led to jazz and rock’n’roll, which in turn led to the pop music we know today. Here is some very early jazz from 1925. Can you hear the mixture of bluesy melodies and ragtime rhythms?
The history of pop is complicated, with lots of different styles branching out of jazz and the blues at the same time. On one hand you have music such as Motown and soul, which – via disco – led to the dance music we have today: house, techno, EDM, etc. On the other, you have rock’n’roll and its various offshoots: punk, metal, grunge, etc.
The development of rock and dance music are are big topics that will require a lesson each to cover. Let’s complete today’s journey from spirituals to rock with some early rock’n’roll from the ‘king of rock’, Elvis Presley.
You can clearly hear the blues and early jazz influences in this early rock’n’roll.
Now you’ve heard some examples of traditional popular music, let’s see if you can recognise the genre of these songs just by listening.
Is this song ragtime, spiritual, or rock’n’roll?
Is this song pop-classical, blues, or folk music?
Is this song blues, spiritual, or Irish-trad?
Is this collection of pieces an example of nationalist music or pop-classical?
And finally, is this song a spiritual, ragtime, or rock’n’roll?
- This famous piano piece is called The Entertainer, and is by the famous ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
- The band in the Irish pub are folk musicians. You may have thought it was classical because of the violin, but the violin (or fiddle, as it’s called by folk musicians) is common in lots of traditional music.
- This old song was an example of the blues. The guitar playing indicates that it’s probably not a spiritual.
- The Romanian Folk Dances by Bartók are famous examples of nationalist music.
- And finally, the last song by the Rolling Stones is rock’n’roll.