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Foundations: Music Before 1955

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In what ways did Tin Pan Alley enrich American music? In what ways did it limit the development of American music?

The Beginning

The rebuild of America began soon after the Civil War and recently freed African Americans were establishing themselves as citizens. There was a large spike for sheet music that was sold due to the growing piano and home music market. Over 25,000 new pianos a year were purchased in America and by the late 19th century, over 500,000 youths were studying piano. As a result, the demand for sheet music more and more publishers began to enter the market and specialized in popular music. This movement laid the foundation for the area concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan that would come to be known an as "Tin Pan Alley". Tin Pan Alley received its name from Monroe Rosenfeld as an offensive reference to the collective sound made by many "cheap upright pianos" all playing different tunes bringing to mind of the banging of tin pans in an alleyway. Eventually, the term was used to refer collectively to the songs that were the product of these publishers as well as to this very large group of publishers themselves as a whole. Tin Pan Alley signifies the height of the sheet music industry in the United States and at the same time, New York was becoming America’s leading musical and performing arts center.

The Rise of Tin Pan Alley

The rise of Tin Pan Alley, like music and institution, was highly influenced by the mass migration of East European Jews to New York beginning in the early 1880s, and the historical shift of America's black people from South to North. The Tin Pan Alley depended on a gathering of Jews and African Americans in the modern American city, where the two cultures intermingled casually in neighborhoods, music halls and businesses. The key Jewish figures of Tin Pan Alley were Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, and Harold Arlen, to name a few. Their professions were wrapped around with their connections to the African Americans. But this was not something new as Blackface minstrelsy had been the dominant form of American popular entertainment for much of the 19th century, and these Jewish artists were, on some level, the inheritors of this tradition. It is no surprise that both Berlin and Gershwin had early hits with songs that made reference to the work of Stephen Foster, the most important songwriter for the minstrel stage in the 19th century.

Tin Pan Alley presented many new innovations in the production of a popular song. The publisher had inclusive control of the company. Composers and lyricists worked simply as staff members. They presented songs to the publisher who, if he liked them, set a complex process in operation. A staff arranger was given responsibility for putting the music into a form that would be playable by the average pianist and for the preparation of the music for the engravers. To suit the requirements of professionals, orchestrations for bands of twelve to sixteen players were made in the key that had been selected by the arranger but in four other keys as well: two higher and two lower. Moreover, variations were made to the lyrics to suit delivery by a man or by a woman or different combinations of singers. Monitoring what was selling and what was successful in the theaters, the publishers worked hard to stay abreast of trends and in effect controlled popular music styles until the second half of the 20th century.

Musical Cues

By the time the popular music publishers were setting up operations along 28th Street, the use of a 32 bar chorus was becoming fashionable, and it became the standard in Tin Pan Alley songs. Lengthening the chorus to 32 bars in practice meant building a musical structure upon four eight-bar phrases. If each eight-bar phrase is labeled with a letter of the alphabet, using a different letter for different melodic material, then a variety of configurations is possible: AAAA, ABAB, ABAC, AABA, ABCD, and so on. This simple device afforded composers a variety of ways to add contrast to their material. The most frequently



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