Remember that feeling of hearing your favorite song on the radio for the first time? That one song that everyone knows? Pop music has been around for quite some time, and it's been shapeshifting ever since its beginning.
Pop songs, in particular, often tend to get a pretty bad rap. To some, pop songs are mind–numbing creations only meant for mass consumption. Pop songs are perceived to have little creativity or depth, and pop songwriting is frequently bashed for being uninspired. However, making pop songs is harder than one might think. Not only does an artist have to create something that will stick in the public consciousness—they’ll also have to dodge the limitations that often appear in the form of copyright infringement lawsuits.
But is pop itself so easy to classify?
“Pop music is less of a genre designation than it is a kind of description of how a particular song circulates in a music marketplace,” says Erik Broess, a fifth–year musicology Ph.D. candidate at Penn. Broess, who previously taught the course MUSC 030: "1000 Years of Musical Listening" at Penn, comments, “You could reasonably make an argument that popular music is Dua Lipa or Outkast, but it is also Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, and Duke Ellington.”
Simply put, pop music is whatever dominates popular culture at a specific time. Despite modern perceptions of pop, it encompasses a larger variety of genres. For example, it might feel blasphemous to call rock “pop music,” but it was the dominant genre of the late 20th century, qualifying it under the pop music umbrella.
Through his research, Broess has identified three main factors that can make a pop song successful: familiarity, attention, and authenticity.
Familiarity: “The most successful pop songs should sound like we've heard them before when we're listening to them for the first time, so someone who's really good at writing a pop music song will borrow from enough formulas, whether it's chord progressions, lyrical tropes, or rhythms. When the listener hears them, they can kind of fill in the blanks before they've happened,” says Broess. Pop songs must be new enough that they don’t feel like rehashed versions of past songs, but familiar enough that they latch onto our brains, which are prewired to our prior tastes.
Attention: “A good pop song will generally hook you in within milliseconds.” Whether it’s changing the radio station in the car or scrolling through an app like TikTok, the hook is what captures a listener’s ear. In fact, TikTok has been responsible for the rise of stars like Doja Cat and Olivia Rodrigo, captivating the audience in a medium meant for rapid consumption. Broess comments that “a good songwriter will take note of how listeners are finding [and] discovering new music.”
Authenticity: “There [must be] something in these songs that feels true to the lived experience of the songwriter...and somehow the listener feels that they can connect with that truth.” Even if the songwriter hasn’t experienced the sentiment they’re singing about, they must present the song in a way where the audience can believe or relate to the artist. As Jack Antonoff put it, “What you’re trying to create with a perfect pop song is a song that doesn’t sacrifice emotion and energy and smarts and still reaches people.”
That said, there are certain qualities and characteristics that make pop music the way it is today. “There's a set of formulas that are certainly used [to create a pop song], certain chord progressions, certain melodic rhythmic, even certain tempi,” says Broess. The average beats per minute (BPM) of pop songs is around 120 BPM, meant to have an upbeat feel compared to an average resting heart rate of 60–100 BPM. Major pop songs are more often likely to be in a major key than a minor key—a notable exception is Lady Gaga, whose first few hits, like “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance,” were all in minor keys. The C major chord, a basic chord with no flats or sharps, is one of the most common chords found in pop songs.
Broess also notes that specific sounds are traced to a specific time the song was made, and he mentions the movie Yesterday as an example. Although the premise of the movie is that songs by The Beatles would be popular if they were released today, that might not necessarily be the case due to subtle changes in the pop music landscape over the years.
“The pop music landscape moves quickly in very subtle ways, but within [very little] space, using the same chord progressions, the same kind of melodic figures, the same kind of rhythms, and the same lyrical tropes,” says Broess.
And indeed, the music industry always attempts to play the guessing game about the boundaries that pop artists can explore. One can make the perfect pop song but never get the exposure it needs, and record labels can play a big part in determining whether or not a song can make it big. Artists like Rodrigo and Billie Eilish, who have been influencing the pop genre with their youthful entrances, are sometimes accused of being “industry plants,” where labels attempt to push a false narrative of authenticity onto an artist.
But Western music presents one problem: The chromatic scale only has 12 notes, with all chords and keys being a derivation and combination of these notes. This limitation means that people are bound to accidentally repeat other people’s craft at some point, which has led to a string of copyright infringement lawsuits for copying another song, the latest victim being Dua Lipa’s “Levitating.”
“Levitating” has seen two lawsuits, one regarding the chorus and one regarding the verse melodies. A song like “Levitating” contains all of the most common pop song tropes: a danceable BPM of 103 and the lyrics of a run–of–the–mill love song, although it’s written in B minor. It uses the Charleston Rhythm in the chorus and a descending scale of notes in the verse, common musical elements in music found in songs like “Cake By The Ocean” by DNCE and “The Phantom of the Opera,” respectively.
It’s likely that Lipa was inspired by past art and going for familiarity, even if this motivation is subconscious. The chorus of “Levitating” is analogous to Outkast’s “Rosa Parks,” and Lipa herself did say at one point that Outkast inspired part of the Future Nostalgia album. An episode of Song Exploder chronicled the genesis of “Levitating,” and from the voice memos documenting the creation process, any claim of copying is unintentional. Lipa, of course, isn't the only major artist accused of copying another person’s work—Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” were both hit with high–profile lawsuits that took years to resolve.
Making music copyrightable has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it protects an artist’s property and creative vision. But the limits of Western music mean that with the formulaic constraints of pop songwriting, we’re bound to get amalgamations of prior music. Does this mean musicians maliciously steal other people’s work? Not necessarily, and copyright law can get blurry in determining whether or not an artist is allowed to own a commonly used musical element.
Pop music is meant to be enjoyed by the masses and more people than ever are making music thanks to the internet. As the search for the perfect pop song continues, we are reminded that music is a shared experience and a connecting thread for many people.