从历史上来看，流行音乐是任何并非民间音乐、而获得极大欢迎的音乐－－从中古的吟游诗人、到原先只想为少数、精英听众的精致艺术音乐的成份，都变得受到广泛的接受。在工业革命之後，真正的民间音乐开始消失，而维多莉亚时代（Victorian era）与20世纪早期广为流传的音乐，是那些音乐厅堂与讽刺性轻歌舞剧（vaudeville）的音乐，而这些音乐有它由奥芬巴赫, 赫伯特以及其他人的华尔兹音乐与轻歌剧所主导的上层领域。在美国，黑脸歌唱团表演表演的像佛斯特这样的词曲作家所作的曲子。在1890年代，锡盘巷浮现，接着是达到高度精致化的音乐剧。以雷格泰姆为起点，在1890年代，非裔美人开始将复杂的非洲旋律，与欧洲的和声（harmonic）结构相结合，此一综合最终将创造出爵士乐。音乐的听众大幅扩充，部分是科技的原因。至迟於1930年，留声机唱片开始取代活页乐谱（sheet music）成为音乐在家庭中的主要来源，促成未受音乐训练者也能聆赏广泛流传的歌曲。麦克风也减轻了歌唱者训练嗓子的需要，也能将声音贯遍於大型的厅堂。电台广播有能力达到乡村社群，也有助於新的音乐风格，有名的例子是乡村音乐，以及程度略逊的蓝调。美国的流行音乐，在第二次世界大战後的几十年间达到国际性的主宰地位。在1950年代，非裔美人向北部城市的迁移，已使得蓝调与爵士的快节奏间的成份相互激荡滋养，而创造出节奏蓝调。摇滚乐，在诸如普里斯莱和小理查这样的人物之下，很快就发展成一种融合节奏蓝调、乡村音乐以及其他影响的混合物（参阅rock music）在1960年代，英国的摇滚乐团，包括披头合唱团和滚石合唱团，成为具有国际影响力的乐团。摇滚乐很快就吸引了西方青少年的热诚拥戴，他们在拥有新的可处置的收入，取代了年轻成人成为流行音乐的主要听众。从1960年代晚期开始，黑人的流行音乐（black pop）开始争取到大量的白人的听众。流行乐的历史在整个1990年代，基本上是属於摇滚乐及其变化的历史，包括狄斯可、重金属音乐、庞克摇滚和讲唱歌曲，这股音乐已经散布至全世界，并成为许多国家年轻人标准的音乐惯性。
Historically, any non-folk-music form that acquired mass popularity－from the songs of the medieval minstrels to those elements of fine art music originally intended for a small, elite audience but that became widely popular. After the Industrial Revolution, true folk music began to disappear, and the popular music of the Victorian era and the early 20th century was that of the music hall and vaudeville, with its upper reaches dominated by waltz music and the operettas of J. Offenbach, V. Herbert, and others. In the U.S., minstrel shows performed the compositions of such songwriters as S. Foster. In the 1890s Tin Pan Alley emerged, and later the musical, which achieved great sophistication. Beginning with ragtime in the 1890s, black Americans had begun combining complex African rhythms with European harmonic structures, a synthesis that would eventually create jazz. The music audience greatly expanded, partly because of technology. By 1930, phonograph records had replaced sheet music as the chief source of music in the home, enabling those without musical training to hear popular songs. The microphone relieved singers of the need for trained voices that could fill large halls. The ability of radio broadcasting to reach rural communities aided the dissemination of new styles, notably country music, and to a lesser extent blues. U.S. popular music achieved international dominance in the decades after World War II. By the 1950s, the migration of American blacks to cities in the North had resulted in the cross-fertilization of elements of blues with the uptempo rhythms of jazz to create rhythm and blues. Rock and roll, with such figures as E. Presley and Little Richard, soon developed as an amalgam of rhythm and blues with country music and other influences (see rock music). In the 1960s, British rock groups, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, became internationally influential. Rock quickly attracted the allegiance of Western teenagers, who, with new disposable incomes, replaced young adults as the chief audience for popular music. From the late 1960s black pop gained a huge white audience. The history of pop through the 1990s was basically that of rock and its variants, including disco, heavy metal, punk rock, and rap, which have spread throughout the world and become the standard musical idiom for young people in many countries.