Monday, February 14, 2022

What is a ‘popular’ song?

When does a song have ‘popular’ appeal? When is it entertainment?

Does ‘popular’ simply mean ‘well known’?

what does ‘popular’ mean?

The word ‘populist’ has come to mean something rather negative. It’s like catering to the lowest common denominator. It’s the opposite of sophisticated, challenging, thoughtful. It’s entertainment for the masses.

In music, popular music is music with wide appeal, that can be played and listened to with little, if any, musical training. It’s often contrasted with folk music and art music. Because such music has mass appeal, some ‘serious’ musicians look down on it.

Of course, as singers and choir leaders we want our singing to be as popular as possible, i.e. to reach a wide audience. But does that mean we always have to sing popular songs, songs that our singers and audiences are familiar with?

the unfamiliarity of the new

From my own experience, it is possible to introduce new kinds of songs to both choir and audience which then end up being their favourites, or the most popular songs in the repertoire.

It’s all a matter of familiarity.

One of my choirs once performed in a Methodist church. There was a group of elderly church-going women sitting in the front row. When we sang a song from the Republic of Georgia, their faces screwed up in distaste as if they were sucking a lemon. They didn’t like (and couldn’t understand) the unusual harmonies because they were unfamiliar with that kind of song.

I used to recruit new members to my choirs by offering populist singing workshops to for the general public. We covered songs by The Beatles, Beach Boys, ABBA, and so on. Once they’d discovered the delights of singing harmony with others, many workshop participants would go on to join the choirs.

In the early days, there was huge resistance when I introduced Georgian songs, for example. The singers didn’t like them and couldn’t understand the harmonies. But as time went on, the Georgian songs (and others from unfamiliar cultures) became their favourites. And in concerts, they were also the songs that audiences requested for encores.

The new songs in the repertoire had become popular.

The idea of which songs are popular change with time as new musical genres appear in the charts, as Spotify algorithms suggest new music, and as we introduce new repertoire to our choirs and audiences.

Don’t feel that you have to always stick to what is ‘popular’ or what you think people want. Singers and audiences have a wider taste than you think, you just need to introduce new things slowly.

Chris Rowbury


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