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How big is music around the world, in youth culture, and for a particular young person? Huge. There’s no question about it. Some young people may be hooked on video games, a few addicted to television, and all affected by media in general, but music is a particularly powerful communication to, and expression of, the youthful heart. Today’s music communicates powerfully through touch (the blast of the bass), sound, sight, emotional feeling, and mental challenge. A movie may (and movies do) have a tremendous effect on a young person who may see it dozens—even scores—of times. But music is a subcultural bond and part of a person’s soul.

Music, young people say, stimulates them when they are feeling sluggish; mellows them out when they are feeling hyper; relieves them when they are enraged; soothes them when agitated; helps them cry and release bottled up emotions. Music can tickle your ears, hit you hard in the guts, get you on your feet dancing, help you through an emotional pit, and stimulate your mind with thoughtful lyrics.

Anthony Storr (Music and the Mind, 1992: 2, 17) describes music and hints at its possible origin:

Music can certainly be regarded as a form of communication between people; but what it communicates is not obvious...Some anthropologists have speculated that vocal music may have begun as a special way of communicating with the supernatural...

Music is a universal expression and celebration of the human spirit—although music styles are particular to a culture or subculture. Music unifies even as it may divide people culturally. Throughout time humankind has made love to music, put babies to sleep with music, worked with music, gone to war with music, mourned with music, worshipped with music, or just passed time with music.

James Lull describes music this way (Popular Music and Communication, 1992: 1-2):

Music is a passionate sequencing of thoughts and feelings that expresses meaning in a manner that has no parallel in human life. It is a universally recognized synthesis of the substance and style of our existence—a blending of personal, social, and cultural signification that is confused with no other variety of communication. Music promotes experiences of the extreme for its makers and listeners, turning the perilous emotional edges, vulnerabilities, triumphs, celebrations, and antagonisms of life into hypnotic, reflective tempos that can be experienced privately or shared with others.

Popular music is a unique and extremely influential communications form that deserves serious analysis—not just on the street and in the popular press, but in the scholarly literature and classroom as well.

This Encyclopedia wants to engage in such serious consideration of music—interactively with young people and music critics around the world. At present its articles are rather spotty in terms of covering such a vast topic, but we hope to have more contributions (which might come from you or your friends).

Webster’s definition of music includes "the art and science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds or tones in varying melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre...any rhythmic sequence of pleasing sounds, as of birds, water, etc." Microsoft’s Encarta defines music as "the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time."

As with all media and popular culture, music is

  • an art,
  • a technique and technology,
  • a big business,
  • an audience,
  • a product and ratings,
  • a lifestyle.

Can you talk intelligently about each of these aspects of popular music? To criticize a musical group or kind of music, you must remember the principal elements of music (though only vocal or instrumental organized sounds are necessary):

  • timber (tone or sound quality),
  • rhythm,
  • melody, harmony, and instrumentation,
  • lyrics,
  • and, we might add, the lifestyle of the artists which has become so important.

Once I had the chance to get a lot of financial support from a wealthy man who wanted me to provide him with a quick and simple devastating critique of a rock and roll band that was coming to his city. Some organizations have gotten rich providing people with such negative and simplistic criticisms of pop music.

We don’t believe culture can be effectively critiqued unless it is first understood and appreciated. If you want to know about any kind of music, inquire of those young people who are really into it. To consider heavy metal music, find its young fans, respectfully hear their interest in their music and find out what it does for them. Those who love alternative or rap have a story to tell. Hear it first. Learn about the music and culture from them, and then begin to process the music and its lyrics.

Adult critics are into lyrics first of all. For most young fans, the beat is the thing, followed by the instrumentation, musical quality, and finally the lyrics. Some young people, of course, are really into the lyrics. Evaluations of music by some conservative critics tend to emphasize lyrics and life style rather than mood and culture—so important for most young people. Most young music listeners do know "very well" the lyrics of songs they listen to; studies show a very small percentage do not know the lyrics (USA Weekender, 2-4 May 1997). These same teenagers know most adults do not know them. Young people give attention to adults who do know their music and treat it with respect.

To tell an individual or group their music is bad or degrading is clearly counterproductive. Get to know and appreciate young listeners because you really care about them. Then, respectfully learn about the music, their culture, and their personal lives. Out of these relationships, you can help them process the music.

Lull (1991:25) points to evidence that young children have a special relationship to music (Christenson, DeBenedittus, & Lindlof, 1985). But music can become crucially important as adolescents are working out their personal identities and friends are replacing parents as the primary influence in a person’s life (McLeod & Brown, 1976 and more). Identity is especially worked out among peers, and music is often critical in these friendship groups. Lull (1985 and 1991:27) claims that "active participation with a medium increases its potential as an agent of socialization."

Lull (1991: 27, 29) goes on to describe how music is both a subcultural bond and socializing factor:

Subcultural style is expressed in ordinary behavior as well as in art (Williams, 1965). This involves, not only music, but verbal and nonverbal communication, fashion, gender relationships, religion, food, family, and peer interaction (Hebdige, 1979).

Subcultures are often organized around music and its related socializing. The definitive moment of punk subculture, or instance, is the live performance where young people meet each other, share the ideology and aesthetic or punk, and ‘thrash’ (Lull, 1987). Heavy metal subculture fits a similar description, providing an identity and haven for countless young people who are disenchanted with home, school, jobs, churches—the institutions of containment. Other subcultures that have developed around particular popular music are Rastafarian, hip-hop, Deadhead, even country and western. And while their music cannot be easily identified by any one genre, a number of gay and lesbian singers and groups have emerged to help unite those subcultural communities, too.

In many countries around the world, teenagers will be listening to four kinds of music—or we might say doing four kinds of things with music:

  • They are listening to Western, English music from America and the UK.
  • They are modifying these musical styles into their own languages and styles.
  • They are listening to their own native or folk music.
  • They are coming up with original styles of popular music (ethno pop).

There is also the globalization of music in what’s called World Pop or World Beat. Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel have done much to combine world styles.

Brenda Sefeldt of "Wild Frontier" (309 Commerce St., Box 66, Occoquan, Virginia, 22125, 703-494-0497) has compiled many interesting facts from US sources in her 1998 Statistical Collection for youth workers. We will draw on some of her statistics in the following paragraphs.

Teenage tends to be a time when TV is watched a little less and the radio is listened to much more. What is being listened to on the radio is mostly music. According to Broadcast & Cable Yearbook (AP News, 7 April 1996), of 11,214 US radio stations:

  • 2,727 played country music
  • 2,135 played adult contemporary music
  • 1,178 played religious music
  • 1,004 played oldies music
  • 820 were newstalk
  • 657 played top forty music (Seefeldt: 1998:147)

And USA Today (9-11 February 1996) noticed the growth of alternative rock stations on FM (Seefeldt: 1998:147)

  • 67 in 1993
  • 104 in 1994
  • 171 in 1995

Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) is one of the most highly regarded sources of adolescent market statistics in the US. They revealed the top teenage music choices to Teen Magazine in May of 1998 (Seefeldt, 1998: 148)

  • alternative—45.7 %
  • rap—31.5 %
  • country—14.9%

A Swedish study (Keith Roe: 1987: 218; quoted in Lull, 1991: 26) found that "adolescents’ media habits and preferences for various kinds of music are formed in large measure by how well students do in school, rather than the other way around....‘aspects of the school experience lead to involvement in certain peer groups and subcultures rather than others, which has effects upon the uses and gratification obtained from different media’ including, especially, popular music." Still, top students may strongly identify with alternative or even rebellious music.

We must add some words about the multi-billion-dollar music industry. Consider the $16 you might pay for a CD. That CD has cost the record company about $5.35. Here is how that breaks down (US News & World Report, 25 September 1995 from Seefeldt, 1998: 147):

  • artist royalties and copyright fees—$2.50
  • marketing—1.50
  • disk manufacturing—0.75
  • jewel box—0.30
  • printed booklet—0.25
  • distribution—0.15

It is easy to see how much profit there is to be made. We can understand why music companies have gotten so big.

In the spring of 1998, Seagram liquor sold off its Tropicana juice company for $4 billion in order to buy the largest of all six major music empires, the Dutch company PolyGram. The price Seagram paid for Polygram was an astonishing $10.6 billion. Seagram already owned Universal Studios with its own music, film, and themepark empire.

This new combined music company now boasts an incredible array of top music managers, a powerful distribution system, and a most impressive array of signed artists including rap artist LL Cool J, country-Western star, Shania Twain, and pop idol Elton John. There are of course more: Universal also has contracts with Erykah Badu, through MCA Records of Nashville, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, Mary J. Blige, Lyle Lovett and B. B. King of MCA Records, George Benson and Diana Krall of GRP Recording Company, and with Geffen Records, names like Guns n’ Roses and Counting Crows.

To these Universal stars, Polygram adds: Hanson and Vanessa Williams with Mercury Records; U2, the Cranberries, and Melissa Etheridge of Island Records; Motown Records’ Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men; Sting, and Sheryl Crow of A&M; and Jay-Z and Foxy Brown of Def Jam. Most of us have little idea that all these companies are owned by larger companies, let alone that they are now all under Edgar Bronfman’s new Seagram empire—known to most as a liquor business. This is the age of big mergers and acquisitions among the multi-nationals. (See Newsweek, 1 June 1998)

Rap music has accounted for much of popular music’s commercial gains at the end of the 1990s. It is fascinating to study the modifications of rap music in France, Scandinavia, Russia, China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere. From the hip hop culture which developed in the South Bronx of New York in the 1970s to general acceptance its important place in pop music and the global youth culture, rap music is big.

Two companies dominated rap music through the 1990s and created a deadly East-West Coast rivalry. The Notorious (and now deceased) Mr. B.I.G. of New York’s Bad Boys Records and Suge Knight of Death Row Records (with the deceased Tupac Shakur) were in control. Gradually independents sprung up. One of the most successful of these independents is No Limit Records and Films of New Orleans. In five years Master P (Percy Miller) moved from a being a hustler of CDs and cassettes—from the trunk of his car—to being CEO of his own label (which saw $80 million sales in 1997). He persuaded Snoop Doggy Dogg to move from Death Row to No Limit and features stars like Mia X (who sings nihilistic rap). Master P produced "Ghetto D" in 1997 (giving instructions for cooking crack cocaine). His 1999 "Da Last Don" will be his final solo venture as he now prefers taking care of the business.

Since music is omnipresent in our world, it is able to express what so many are feeling, and has the power to influence an individual for right or for wrong. It provides a bond and signification for subcultures and is such a huge commercial enterprise—we ought to keep track of music and its trends. But behind music, people are always most important.



  1. What most interests you in this article? With what do you most agree or take exception? How could it be revised or rewritten?
  2. How important is music to you? How much do you listen to?
  3. When was music most important in your life? Why? What songs or artists most stand out to you?
  4. How can music be most profitable discussed with others?



    • Music is a large and important part of individual and social life. There is no doubt it has a socializing function as a person grows up.
    • Young people often, but no always, listen to music their friends listen to; they are often joined by their common interest in music.
    • Where music divides people, or where individuals are locked into only one style of music, it is good to stretch their capacity for appreciation. I try to get people who only like rock, rap, or alternative, to listen to some country or world beat. First there may be objections, but if everyone gets a chance to share his or her favorites, then they will also listen to one of mine as well.
    • Popular music should have a place in all school and youth group curricula.

Dean Borgman cCYS