The Pop Song’s Place in Popular Music History

The Pop Song’s Place in Popular Music History

By Morgan Howland

            Trying to define where exactly pop song’s place is throughout the course of American musical history is a challenging affair.  Pop is, after all, an abbreviation of popular and so pop songs are examples of popular music, but not all kinds of popular music produce pop songs.  Popular music has existed in America since the furthest reaches of recordable American history; after all, Native Americans, Pilgrims and early settlers each had their own popular musical traditions. With the rise of the music publishing industry in the nineteenth century, the trend in pop song as a musical format fundamentally changed popular music.  Thereafter, music in America, particularly individual songs, have become a consumer product to purchase and consume, a commodity whose value rises and falls with whatever wave of popular genre is in fashion at the time.  But in order to examine what pop songs are, we must first understand their place within popular music; that it is a format which must be actively popularized by whatever promotional methods necessary and the success of which is gauged by sales.  By this definition, pop is not so much a specific genre of music, but a broad variety of song including some of the most popular songs regardless of genre, whether jazz, swing, rock and roll or hip-hop and this definition helps to give context to the whole of American pop song history.

The term popular music itself is a challenging concept to understand within the context of American musical history. Popular music is not any one single genre, but a mosaic of various influences from all over the globe from people coming to the United States and, like the trends of any art form, trends in popular music constantly replace one another as time progresses.  After all, precluding Native American peoples, America’s population is mostly descended from immigrants from all over the world of all different faiths; all of whom have brought their own popular music style with them and adding to the kinds of popular music being produced in America.  Even hundreds of years before pop songs became entertainment, the myriad of First Nations that populated North America each had their own musical traditions and when Europeans arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, people from each country, France, Spain, England among other places each had their own popular musical styles.  The plantation culture of African-Americans of the South has had arguably the most profound effect on American popular music as well, helping to produce such influential and distinctly American forms of popular music as ragtime, jazz and blues.[1] In America in particular, trying to look at popular music before the advent of the pop songs as a historical genre is extremely difficult regarding the nature of the musical traditions of its population.

During the later half of the nineteenth century, however, music was transformed into a form of popular entertainment and eventually into big business, changing the climate of American music significantly.  During America’s Industrial Age, American society became a more urban one, with people leaving rural agricultural areas for work in the factories and shops of big cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  During this time, immigrants arriving in millions from all across Europe were also bringing relatively new musical tastes to the cities of the new world.  During the 1880s, for example over five million immigrants came to the United States.[2]  Although life in a city was often crowded, dirty and noisy,[3] the population was enjoying a popular culture and music in theatres, saloons and even in their own homes.  At a time when many areas of American society were becoming industrialized including electric lighting and mass transit systems, music publishers of New York’s Tin Pan Alley were turning popular music into a profitable trade through the sale of individual pop songs to an eager audience willing to pay for their sheet music to play on the piano at home, which by 1910 were selling at a rate of 350,000 pianos annually.[4]  It was in this environment that pop songs were really able to have mass success.

When the pop song had become a commodity for consumption of the public during the 1890s, it had inherently changed the nature of music in America and set the pattern of the music business that still exists in the twenty-first century.  In order to sell, pop songs must be made popular and get an audience’s attention and this popularization is done by a number of methods, both technological and commercial.[5]  The musical theater, phonograph, talking movies, television, the LP album, the Internet, or whatever technology is available for sound production, have each been used to push songs onto American consumers for decades.  Even modern television commercials using songs can seem like commercials for songs within a commercial for a product.[6]  Likewise, individual singers and pop stars are also marketed to sell songs throughout pop song history.  This is as true for modern acts like Lady Gaga, One Direction and Miley Cyrus in the twenty-first century as it was for Madonna, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Doris Day, Bing Crosby or Paul Whiteman in the twentieth.  For nearly all of pop song history, commercialism and Show Biz are key factors in determining pop song’s place in popular music.

But songs do not “pop” unless the results of this popularization and commercialism are successful.  This is another key component in understanding pop song’s place in popular music; pop songs sell well.  To contrast this commercialism before the pop song era, during the early nineteenth century, a flurry of new hymnals and liturgical songs following the Great Awakening,[7] in which American evangelism had reached a broader popular audience .  But it is difficult to imagine that such a popular music movement was fueled by commercialism and sales of hymnbooks.  However, later in the century, when the first song in American history sold over one million copies in 1892, Charles K Harris’s “After the Ball,” a song was considered successful, not whether if it was good in musical or lyrical composition, but whether it sold well.  Other songs followed this sales trend throughout the 1890s including “Daisy Bell,” “O Promise Me,” “The Sidewalks of New York,” and “Hello Ma Baby.”  This is another factor which determines what songs truly pop in popular music, the ones that sell the most and have reached the greatest audience are considered more successful.

Of course, this music business of promotion crosses all kinds of popular styles over the course of musical history, which can lead to clashes in traditional classification of genre.  But I contend that both popular music and pop songs elude any kind of classification whatsoever and that songs of other genres can be pop as well.  The former simply assesses what trends are generally popular without any kind of genre labels, while the latter only gives examples of individual songs which follow such popular trends.  Even though the term pop song today generally refers to a danceable club banger in today’s terminology, the definition and explanations given here allow us to look at the whole of modern, commercial music under the umbrella term pop song, not just as a contemporary musical sub-genre.  This can extend to ragtime two steps of the 1910s, jazz and swing tunes of the 1920s and 1930s, so-called “traditional pop” of the late 1940s and early 1950s, rock and roll, disco, dance music and even hip-hop.  Even country music has had a few full on pop song moments over the last century.  Each of these genres retains its own kind of popular genre, but their songs can be labeled, I argue, as pop songs due to their popularization and commercial appeal and success.

In conclusion, the definitions set out about the popularization of pop songs allow us to examine the whole of pop song history’s place within this framework and even give a definition for the time in which popular music was changing into a pop song industry.  Even though various genres have been considered popular music of their times and songs are mere examples of these trends, such songs are considered pop due to promotion, popularization and commercial success.  This blog will examine the trends in successful pop songs over the course of the pop song’s one hundred and thirty year history and look at the trends in popular music of which these songs are examples.


Chase, Gilbert.  America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present.  2nd edition.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.  1966.

Dolge, Alfred.  Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano.  New York:  Dover Publications.  1911.

Furis, Phillip.  The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Morgan, Thomas L and William Barlow.  From Cakewalk to Concert Hall:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing.  1992.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi.  America:  A Narrative History, volume 2.  8th edition.  New York:  W.W. Norton and Co.  2010.

[1] Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalk to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930 (Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1992), 22, 57.

[2] George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America:  A Narrative History, vol 2, 8th ed, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 832.

[3] ibid, 828-829.

[4] Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano (New York:  Dover Publications, 1911), 175.

[5] For an examination of song promotional techniques, see Phillip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  a History of America’s Great Lyricists (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 19-25.

[6] Take, for example, the use of Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” in a 2013 commercial for Kia Motors, or Will Hoge’s “Strong” in the 2013 commercials for the Chevrolet Silverado.

[7] Gilbert Chase, America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, 2nd ed. (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 217.


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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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