Tin Pan Alley is Your Guitar Lesson.

Tin Pan Alley is Your Guitar Lesson.

“Popular music in the sense of a mass-mediated, mass-reproduced vernacular form begins in the late 19th century with the first rumblings of Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley is a term that refers to a number of things – first, a street, (more accurately, a series of streets) where New York’s music publishing houses were concentrated. Second, it refers to the professional popular music business as a whole. as it was manifested in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Third, it refers to a way of songwriting, a certain professionalism and perhaps emotional disassociation, an orientation towards selling as many copies of a song as possible.

Tin Pan Alley was an empire built on sheet music. Records were not to be an important force in the music business until the 1920s. Music publishers, who made their living by buying songs from songwriters, then printing and selling the sheet music, usually kept a staff of in-house songwriters, who would work a 9 to 5 day turning as many potential hit songs out as possible. In order to streamline their working methods, the Tin Pan Alley songwriters often worked in groups, with many lyricists and composers brainstorming on a song. It is not uncommon to see a song of the time credited to five or more composers and lyricists. They tried to employ quasi-scientific songwriting techniques in an effort to make songwriting as predictable as possible. As a result, Tin Pan Alley songwriting quickly became a mechanical process.

A great many Tin Pan Alley songs conform to a consistent formal scheme, a 32-bar AABA pattern consisting of two verses, a contrasting “bridge”, and a final verse, with all sections eight bars in length. As well, many of the internal details were similar from song to song, including chord progressions, melodic shapes and lyric themes, which strayed little from the topic of sentimental, idealized love. These standard forms and styles helped to make the compositional process a predictable one, as well as providing listeners with a comforting, predictable basis for popular songs.

The first real Tin Pan Alley hit was a song written by Charles K. Harris called “After The Ball”. This sentimental parlour ballad was published in 1892, and went on to sell some 10 million copies. Sales of this magnitude were simply not possible in America fifty years previous. The combined effects of rapid population growth, the rise of the middle class and an accompanying rise in disposable income made such numbers available. The overwhelming popularity of “After The Ball” and the incredible profits accumulated by the publisher and composer (at the peak of the song’s popularity, Charles K. Harris was earning $26,000 a week from it) established the music business as we know it.

A great many of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters were Jewish-Americans who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. European Jews arriving in America found many of the “legitimate” businesses closed to them, so they found work in the growing entertainment businesses, like Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Probably the prototypical Tin Pan Alley composer was Irving Berlin (1888-1989), born Israel Baline in Temun, Russia. The author of “White Christmas” (1942) and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), was raised in the Lower East Side in New York. After running away from home in 1900, he became a singing waiter and “song plugger” (an employee of an music publisher who would perform the publisher’s songs for prospective buyers, especially vaudeville performers). After his first hit in 1909, he became one of the most successful songwriters of the century, publishing hundreds of songs and composing the unofficial national anthem of the United States, “God Bless America” (1939).

The main audience for the publishers were the people who attended the travelling variety shows known as vaudeville. If a song became popular among vaudeville audiences, sheet music sales would increase as more and more people wanted to play and sing the song at home on their pianos. In the days before television and even radio, the piano was the entertainment centre of the middle-class home. One or more members of the household, usually female, would play the piano while the rest of the family listened or sang along. Since there was little means to learn songs by “ear”, new songs, in the form of sheet music, were in constant demand. And Tin Pan Alley was there to meet that demand.

The songs of Tin Pan Alley were generally simple, using well-worn, predictable chord progressions (generally drawn from the musical vocabulary of romantic-era art music), and lyrics that were sometimes beautiful but more often vapidly sentimental and overwrought, or simplistic and cheery. As various “exotic” musics entered the American consciousness in the early part of the 20th century (including the black forms ragtime, jazz and blues), Tin Pan Alley composers would include superficial features of these forms to make their songs stand out from the crowd. Often the songs would include a reference to blues or jazz in the title, while the song itself did not sound in the least bluesy or jazzy.” (http://www.mikedaley.net/musicologycourse.htm) GuitarPlayersCenter.com

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