Scholars have classified music as "popular" based on various factors, including whether a song or piece becomes known to listeners mainly from hearing the music (in contrast with classical music, in which many musicians learn pieces from sheet music); its appeal to diverse listeners, its treatment as a marketplace commodity in a capitalist context, and other factors. Sales of 'recordings' or sheet music are one measure. Middleton and Manuel note that this definition has problems because multiple listens or plays of the same song or piece are not counted. Evaluating appeal based on size of audience (mass appeal) or whether audience is of a certain social class is another way to define popular music, but this, too, has problems in that social categories of people cannot be applied accurately to musical styles. Manuel states that one criticism of popular music is that it is produced by large media conglomerates and passively consumed by the public, who merely buy or reject what music is being produced. He claims that the listeners in the scenario would not have been able to make the choice of their favorite music, which negates the previous conception of popular music. Moreover, "understandings of popular music have changed with time". Middleton argues that if research were to be done on the field of popular music, there would be a level of stability within societies to characterize historical periods, distribution of music, and the patterns of influence and continuity within the popular styles of music.
Anahid Kassabian separated popular music into four categories; "popular as populist," or having overtones of liberation and expression; "popular as folk," or stating that the music is written by the people, for themselves; "popular as counterculture," or empowering citizens to act against the oppression they face; and "popular as mass," or the music becomes the tool for oppression. A society's popular music reflects the ideals that are prevalent at the time it is performed or published. David Riesman states that the youth audiences of popular music fit into either a majority group or a subculture. The majority group listens to the commercially produced styles while the subcultures find a minority style to transmit their own values. This allows youth to choose what music they identify with, which gives them power as consumers to control the market of popular music.
Music critic Robert Christgau coined the term "semipopular music" in 1970, to describe records that seemed accessible for popular consumption but proved unsuccessful commercially. "I recognized that something else was going on—the distribution system appeared to be faltering, FM and all", he later wrote in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), citing that records like The Velvet Underground and The Gilded Palace of Sin (by Flying Burrito Brothers) possessed populist qualities yet failed to impact the record charts. "Just as semiclassical music is a systematic dilution of highbrow preferences, semipopular music is a cross-bred concentration of fashionable modes." In his mind, a liking "for the nasty, brutish, and short intensifies a common semipopular tendency in which lyrical and conceptual sophistication are applauded while musical sophistication—jazz chops or classical design or avant-garde innovation—is left to the specialists."