Defining Pop and the Origins of Top 40

Pop music sounds like a simple concept, but when you try to define it, the term becomes a bit more complicated. In a sense, pop refers to popular music of any kind, no matter the genre, but it also represents a distinct style of music in its own right.

As a genre, pop music might boil down to one word: fun. A good pop song is fun to listen to, gets stuck in your head, and inspires you to dance…or at least bob your head. When you hear the opening notes on the radio, you turn the dial up little louder. Most pop songs aren’t written to make a radical political statement, push the boundaries of music, or express deep-seated rage (though some definitely are). This doesn’t mean that pop music isn’t art; it’s just a different kind of art. Pop music connects individuals from different walks of life, cultures, and locations – it’s designed to be accessible, to express universal emotions, and to appeal to a broad range of people, rather than a select group of those in the know. And even though many pop songs aren’t radical in terms of instrumentation or lyrics, many of the most successful draw from a variety of sounds, incorporating the best elements from genres as disparate as R&B, country, rap, reggae, soul, rock, punk, and whatever else in between. Rihanna, one of the most successful pop singers ever, dabbles in R&B, dancehall, and reggae sounds. Beyoncé similarly pulls from R&B, soul, and funk; Lady Gaga, from electronica, disco, rock, and even heavy metal.

Technology has also had a huge influence on the development of pop music, by allowing for the recording of music, which in turn created a mass audience listening to the same tunes. In the early days of the 20th century, the invention of the 78-rpm record and the Victrola phonograph meant people could play recorded music in their own homes. Later, the birth of commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s created an audience of millions of listeners spread across the country.

The term “Top 40,” which many people use as shorthand for pop music, also is a byproduct of radio. The concept of Top 40 in the literal sense—a list of the most popular or widely played songs of the day—began to take form in the early 1950s. While at a local diner, two employees of an Omaha, Nebraska, radio station noted that the diner’s customers played a handful of the same songs on the jukebox, and that the diner’s staff would also replay the same few songs after customers went home. The two men asked the diner’s staff for the most popular tunes on the jukebox and promptly began playing them on air at the radio station, repeating each several times a day. Though it’s difficult to believe now, this format was unheard of back then, because most radio stations thought listeners wouldn’t want to hear the same song twice in one day. However, the new scheme was a success, as the Omaha station’s audience increased dramatically, and others across the country followed suit and began playing countdowns of the most popular songs.

Six decades later, even though we’re listening to music with devices and technologies that people didn’t dream of in the 1950s, pop music continues to allure us with catchy melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and songs you just can’t get out of your head. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess.