How to Be Knowledgeable About Pop Music

You love music and want to know what you're talking about so that you can be the one whom all your friends and family will rely on when they want to know more about pop music. Pop is the short term for "Popular" and it encompasses a lot of music. Since what's popular changes with time, lots of different types of music will count as pop. You can build your musical knowledge and familiarity with the world of pop music with a little help from wikiHow. See more on how after the jump.


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    Listen to music on the radio. When you're in the car, choose several stations and program them into your quick-tune buttons. Listen every time you get into the car, to whichever station cranks your fancy that day. You don't need to listen to the same music all the time - you need to listen to a lot of different music so that it becomes familiar to you, and you become used to hearing music in different varieties.
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    Read up about music in music magazines to catch up with the times. Reading articles in nationally famous newspapers like the NY Times or the LA Times by well known and respected music critics, and checking out opinion pieces by other music journalists in publications like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly can give you insights into current and up-and-coming bands and recording artists.
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    Don't limit yourself to one genre - embrace all types of pop music. As mentioned earlier, Pop music is just another way of saying it's popular. It's not just about your own musical taste - of course you will like some types of music more than other types. But to be truly knowledgeable, you need to open yourself to all sorts of music.
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    Think about the music. Listen actively. When you listen to pop music, think about what genre it fits into. Is this a folk song, a rock song, a pure pop tune? Is it a light jazz tune? Is it a country tune? Is it melancholy? Is it up-tempo? Where might this music be most popular?
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    Choose a decade and learn it well, then choose another. Even though pop music really has its origins in early America, starting way back with the influence of slave spirituals and folk songs, it's hard to study those in much detail because of scarcity of material. Instead, it's recommended that you start with the 1930s, when pop music really began to come into its own as a genre (due in large part to the invention of the affordable record player). Going back to the 1920s, there will be some examples of songs that could fit into more modern pop categories, but they will be sparse. Listen to the big band sounds of the 1930s, hear the different vocal styles, and contrast how different singing styles are from the early part of the decade into the later part. When you feel like you're getting pretty familiar with the 1930s, spend another week, then move on to the 1940s, and so on.
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    Get involved in your local music scene. Go out and see local bands. Figuring out which types of bands you enjoy most can give you some great experiences and turn you and your friends on to some cool music and musicians that just aren't big enough (yet) to have burst into the national awareness. You get to see a potentially great, world class band in a small, intimate setting, before they hit the big time. For example: Back in the 70's and 80's, crowds of Los Angelenos flocked to clubs like the Troubadour, Madame Wong's and Club 88 to see the local bands who were creating a buzz around town with their great music and performances. Some of those bands turned out to be The Police, Elton John, The Go-Gos, and The Blasters. In New York, CBGBs and other local haunts were the regular places to see bands like Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, and The Ramones. These clubs were small, holding audiences of only a few hundred people. You can get up close and personal, take pictures a lot of times, if you want, and be totally cutting edge in your local music scene.
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    Learn to play an instrument, and play along. If you really want an immersible experience, learn to play a pop instrument. Obviously, you will not enjoy pop music sing-alongs as much with a violin or clarinet as with a piano or guitar, but hey, whatever floats your boat. Guitar and piano (or keyboard) are fun, because they leave you free to sing along. Learning pop tunes and playing along help you recognize different forms and musical structures, and identify similarities in the varying types of pop music.
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    Enjoy the music and help others get excited about it, too. Sharing your musical knowledge with others can turn them on to the same enjoyment you feel when you listen to pop music. Plus, it's a great ice-breaker at parties to know something about music.


  • Don't be prejudiced against any form of pop music, even if it isn't your favorite. Some people love country music, some hate it. But a lot of southern rock and roll has its root in country music - to be well-versed in music and its origins and evolution, you have to make yourself open to hearing all sorts of music.
  • Explore everything, but try to be organized about it.
  • Suggestions for research:

    • Early Dixieland Jazz and Creole music (also see Bebop): Jellyroll Morton and Clarence Williams were seminal writers.
    • Popular singers of the 1920s: Sophie Tucker, Bessie Smith and others.
    • Big Band and Popular Vocal: Swing ruled the late 30's and the War Years of the 40's with both instrumental dance tunes and with energetic, as well as melancholy vocal tunes: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James Band, Artie Shaw; Helen O'Connell, Doris Day, Nelson Eddy. Many of the songs became known as "standards" which were performed by singers or bands for decades - the songs were so well known (standard to almost every singer's repertoire) that a singer's interpretation of one of them set the standard by which other singers were judged. Check out Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney. Move up and find more modern counterparts in Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble and Jason Mraz. One fun one to look up is Ward Kimball, who was one of Walt Disney's Nine Old Men, but who was also a jazz trombonist. He led a group called the Firehouse Five Plus Two (which he started in the 40's) at Disneyland for years during the latter part of the 50's through the 70's.

    • Country and Western: Basically a blend of African spirituals and Appalachian folk songs, country and western music also incorporates a lot of influences from Hawaii - listen to some Hawaiian music and hear how ukulele, banjo and guitar licks got transferred into cowboy songs. Country music also incorporates clever lyrical puns and humor. Listen to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, k.d. Lang, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban.
    • Jazz: A free form blending of R&B, blues, and exploratory music, jazz pioneers were Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (who also did a lot of standards), and Paul Whiteman. Jazz has changed over the years - what was called jazz in the 1920s and 30's is now considered pop. More modern jazz artists include Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall.
    • Rhythm and blues (R&B): The fusion of hymns and spirituals with Anglo Celtic music forms in a more uptempo blending. Check out Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Billie Holliday as well as Janis Joplin, who fused R&B with Rock and Roll.
    • Rock and Roll: More fusion of form - Rock fuses blues, country and R&B - then throws in Cuban and other Latin beats, Caribbean riffs, you name it - into a variety of sub genres: Southern Rock, Acid Rock, Pop Rock, Rockabilly, Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Heavy Metal, etc. Check out the earliest - Elvis Presley, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and morphing the form into surf music with the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and softer pop with Ricky Nelson, or the country-tinged Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison. Move on to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Doors. Continue on with Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues (more progressive). Just as you think rock will only get "harder," along comes "bubblegum" pop - The Partridge Family, Osmonds and the popularization of "Soft Rock" with the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel. Queen, David Bowie and other second wave British acts show how flexible and fluid the rock genre is. Move into Journey, Aerosmith and other "arena" rock groups, then into punk with The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. The New Wave was led by Blondie, the Cars, Heart, The Police, the Pretenders, Elvis Costello. Rock came back into the mainstream with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and then folded metal in to itself with Van Halen and Def Leppard. Guns N Roses gave way to alt rock such as Sonic Youth and Husker Du; explore Pearl Jam and Nirvana for grunge. There are notable others, such as Green Day, Alanis Morissette, REM, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Chemical Romance, Coldplay - there's a whole world of Rock and Roll to get into.
    • Folk: This is really the local music of any given area. In the bayou areas, zydeco is a common form of folk tune, incorporating squeezebox and fiddles with polka and square dance rhythms - it sounds bizarre, but it's fun, uptempo stuff. In rural areas, simple tunes about local happenings are common. Folk music is usually a guy or a girl with a guitar coming around and singing; often harmonies are encouraged. Early folkies were Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Simon & Garfunkel, Donovan and Joni Mitchell could also be considered in this vein, as could Cat Stevens in some early albums. More modern ones include Irish bands like the Chieftains. Folk lends itself to parody quite well, the movie "A Mighty Wind" was such a parody.

  • The important thing is to listen to all sorts of different music, and not limit yourself to any one vein - even though you may prefer a genre, closing yourself off to other music than your own favorite will leave you less knowledgeable and well-rounded in the end.


  • Share, don't inflict. Your musical knowledge is cool and can be a great source of fun and enlightenment for you and your friends. But don't go off on long lectures and force people to listen to your picks all the time. Share your insights and opinions in an incisive, friendly way, and then let them discuss or ask questions. When they stop asking, stop offering - don't monopolize everyone's attention as you give a class on music appreciation or attempt to dazzle them all with your expertise.
  • Keep the volume reasonable. Listening to your iPod as you study pop music should be done at a level that won't rattle every tiny hair out of your ears - you need them to hear with. Blown out eardrums make for a crummy listening experience. Take care of your hearing so it will last a lifetime.

Things You'll Need

  • Open mind
  • Open ears
  • iPod or other music delivery device
  • Music - ask everyone to loan you their records. Ask your mom. Ask your grandma. Seriously.

Article Info

Categories: Songs and Song Writing