Between the composed and cultivated classical art music which was created for the elite upper class and the earthy and functional folk music which was crafted by the people in the lower class was a third category which, at times, blended elements of classical and folk into its own path: popular music.
If classical was music for the elite and folk music was music by the people, popular music can simply be defined as music created for the people.
The original printed popular songs in Britain were ballads which found their way onto single sheets containing just the lyrics (called “broadsides”) or collections containing both words and music (called “songsters”). These ballads were refined folk song stories which had been transcribed into music and sold to the public. Often dozens, even hundreds of variations on one folk ballads existed, which only helped to build the market demand for the most current broadside sheet or songster collection.
However, in early 18th century America, the printing presses were controlled by the religious community, which limited the type of music and songs being printed to proper hymns and sacred music. By the 1760s, when the first music store started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it stocked a variety of musical instruments as well as the availability of printed American popular ballads or story songs.
In the early 19th century, the musical difference between American cultivated music and American composed ballads was slight. American composers of “serious” music were modeling, borrowing and openly copying from their European counterparts, such as Mozart and Beethoven. At the same time, the writers of popular song ballads were also patterning their efforts after the more respected European musical literature.
Early in the 1800s, however, the split between the fine-art classical music and the vernacular popular music began to grow. Popular music, like folk music, was utilitarian in nature, for the purpose of entertainment. It was un-selfconscious, unpretentious and openly sentimental. Art music, on the other hand, was concerned with maintaining a cultural piety and sophistication which elevated the listening experience from mere entertainment to the level of esoteric experientialism. Popular music was designed to appeal to the most base elements of the masses. Art music invariably drew a distinction between those who appreciated Beethoven from those who appreciated bratwurst. During the course of the century, composed American music moved from one broad style of popular/art music to two very distinct genres a universe apart.
By the 1820s and ’30s, popular song in America was evolving into overly sentimental ballad songs with syrupy melodies and lyrics capable of wringing the hearts of growing middle class audiences in music halls. These audiences, more refined than the backwoods folk singers and less snobbish than the elite upper class, were finding the balance in saccharine songs like “Woodsman, Spare That Tree” and “The Lament of the Blind Orphan Girl.”
Aiding in the popularity of these songs was the availability of printed sheet music and the affordability of mass produced instruments – most importantly, the piano. For the first time, the public could buy a single printed copy of the lyrics and music for a song. Armed with the sheet music to the songs they had heard in the concert halls, the middle class could retire to their parlors to perform the songs on their pianos for family and friends. For this reason, these sheet music songs were called “parlor songs.” For this reason, the rise of the sheet music industry in the 1830s was the formal beginning of the modern American popular music era. But the first great American popular songwriter was still a decade from penning the first great American popular song.