Magoosh English Class: Pop Music in America

A pop music singer with curly hair and a shiny dress holds up a microphone to her mouth and points to the camera

Welcome to the next lesson in our free English class series about Music in America! Today, we’re going to explore the origins of pop music in America.

Goals:

  • Explore some of the history, influences, and genres of pop music in America
  • Learn basic English terms used around musical topics
  • Learn some idioms for advanced learners

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Time: Approximately 15 minutes

Talking about Pop Music!

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

What is Pop Music? The term is short for popular music, and American popular music in particular has had a lasting effect on music styles from all over the world. The most simplistic definition of popular music is whatever style of music is most popular at the time.

However, this definition has developed over time. Since America is a melting pot, the genre is quite diverse and melds together a variety of styles, including some from specific regions of the country.

Since the late 19th century and the evolution of mass communication, many musical styles have emerged. However, the basis for most popular music in America came from a mixture of blues and other forms of folk music played regionally. The spread of many popular tunes resulted from traveling theater troupes of the time.

By the early 20th century, Broadway Musicals became wildly popular which forced songwriters to create tunes that appealed to wider audiences.

Through this, The Great American Songbook was created. Though not an actual book, it’s a specific list of tunes and musical standards used on Broadway and in early Hollywood films from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. With the help of broadcast radio, these standards grew in popularity, and many musical styles were created as a result.

During the mid-1950s, even more regional styles blended together. At the time, “pop” music and “rock” music were the same. But by the late 1960s, pop music distinguished itself as its own genre.

The separation came when musicians and music producers started using an incredibly wide range of styles like urban, dance, rock, Latino, country, blues, jazz, and more to create short to medium length tunes that were simple but catchy, often with repeated choruses. This created the transition from popular music to the essence of modern pop music.

Today, pop music dominates the world’s music charts. And though the U.S. and British music industries still command the genre, many other regions around the world (Korea, Japan, and Latin nations) have created their own chart-topping forms of pop music and are making waves in the international music scene.

Word Focus

  • Broadway Musical – (noun) – Musical theater performances conducted in theaters located in the Theater District along Broadway in New York City.
    • My mom and I went to New York last year and saw a Broadway Musical.
  • Musical standard – (noun) – A popular composition considered as standard in one or many genres. These songs are performed by many musical acts in a variety of arrangements and are copied and used as the basis for many compositions.
    • Pop musicians use many jazz music standards as the foundation for their songs.
  • Broadcast radio – (noun) – The transmission of radio waves to audio, which is sent out to a mass audience.
    • The broadcast radio industry is evolving to keep up with emerging mediums like podcasting.
  • Essence – (noun) – An indispensable quality or abstract nature of something that defines its character. The core qualities of something.
    • Honor and loyalty were the values that created the essence of his character.
  • Music Producer – (noun) – A career with many roles. The producer oversees the production of a song or album. They collaborate with an artist to choose lyrics, melodies, or to help them edit or alter arrangements.
    • Lady Gaga is an amazing musician, but her work is refined and perfected by the best music producers in the business.
  • Catchy – (adjective) – A musical tune or lyric or spoken phrase that is memorable and appealing.
    • I can’t get that song out of my head. It’s so catchy!
  • Music Chart – (noun) – The ranking of recorded music according to specific criteria. Music charts track statistics like sales, downloads, airplay on the radio, or streams.
    • Recently, ‘Old Town Road’ set a new record at 19 weeks at number one on Billboard Music Chart’s top 100.

Grammar Center

Let’s revisit the sentence with a vocabulary phrase from the passage:

…many other regions around the world (Korea, Japan, and Latin nations) have created their own chart-topping forms of pop music and are making waves in the international music scene.

Making waves is a classic example of an idiom. As an advanced speaker, you’ve probably come across (another idiom!) a few and have a basic understanding of most of the common ones.

To review: Idioms are phrases with meanings that differ from the literal translation of what is actually said. They’re similar to metaphors, except that idioms are common sayings whereas a metaphor may not be so common.

Idioms are an absolute necessity for fluency in English, and as you grow in your language learning, you must expand your knowledge of these common sayings if you want to understand many conversations. Some of them are quite humorous, but if you don’t want to be left in the dark be sure to check out our English idioms post.

Five Advanced Idioms (with examples):

Fight tooth and nail – To fight for anything with all of your efforts. The idea is that wild animals fight for food with ferocity with their teeth and nails. The idiom doesn’t have to mean something physical, it’s a reflection of the effort.

  • Example: Christina had a goal to be elected to parliament, and she fought tooth and nail to achieve that goal.

Head over heels – To fall completely in love with someone. Totally enamored with another person.

  • Example: I know they’re just now getting married after 3 years together, but Tim has been head over heels for her since the moment they met.

A dime a dozen – To be so abundant or common that it has no value.

  • Example: Savvy computer techs might be rare in your city, but they’re a dime a dozen here.

Pound the pavement – To walk in search of employment.

  • Example: I was fired last week, so I’ve got to go pound the pavement. Rent is due next Thursday.

Steal someone’s thunder – To take the attention or praise that someone else was to receive. Usually during an announcement or an accomplishment.

  • Example: We were about to tell my parents that we’re engaged, but my brother stole my thunder when he said that he and his wife are expecting a baby.

Quiz

  1. Which of the following captures the central idea of the passage?A. Pop music is the most popular music at a certain period in time.B. Music from the 1920s to the 1950s in America shaped popular music today.C. Pop music is a style of music that evolved from standards created in the early 20th century into a blended style of music known all over the world.D. Music producers blended a number of styles together to create pop music.
  2. Which statement best represents the construction of the passage above?A. It defines pop music.B. It compares and contrasts old pop music to today’s pop music.C. It presents a new idea of what pop music is.D. It refutes an old idea of pop music.
  3. Which of the following sentences best uses the word catchy.A. Everyone is changing their hair to her style; it’s so catchy.B. All of the kids in school keep repeating that catchy line from the movie.C. We were feeling catchy so we went outside to throw the ball around.D. He wears all the latest clothes; his style is very catchy.
  4. Based on your understanding of the word essence, which word would be the best synonym?A. EntityB. VeinC. BackboneD. Core
  5. An idiom is always a metaphor.A. TrueB. False
  6. Which of the following statements is not an idiom?A. Even blankets need to be washed sometimes.B. It’s not rocket science.C. That ship has sailed.D. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Show Correct Answers:
  1. C
  2. A
  3. B
  4. D
  5. B
  6. A
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