Tin Pan Alley: Definition, History & Composers

Instructor: Kathryn Brown

Kathryn teaches high school vocal music, music history, music theory, and musical theatre. She also maintains an active piano teaching and performance schedule.

Tin Pan Alley was the music publishing hub in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and it provided economic security and fame for many of America's greatest composers. Read more about the history of Tin Pan Alley below.

Origins

Tin Pan Alley was the publishing center for the musical world from the late 1800s through the 1920s. As American cities grew in size, grandeur, and wealth, the transformation of music into a wholly American art form took place with the music of the Civil War era and ragtime. These developments required a unified industry for music publication and promotion. This industry developed in New York City. Tin Pan Alley, as it was coined by writer Monroe Rosenfeld, could be found on 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway. Music publishers hired pianists to perform in their buildings to demonstrate new music, and according to Rosenfeld, the dissonance created a sound resembling hundreds of people pounding on tin pans.

Thomas B. Harms and Isidore Witmark of M. Witmark & Sons were two of the most successful publishers. Other Tin Pan Alley publishers included Irving Berlin, Inc., Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., and E.B. Marks Music Company. The publishing industry focused on popular music selections and newfound marketing to reach a larger audience of music connoisseurs; however, many expanded to church music, instructional materials and classical items for home and school. Broadway shows from Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert took precedence, followed closely by movie songs in the 1930s.

Composers

George Gershwin entered the music industry in 1914 after leaving high school to work as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger. These pianists and singers were charged with performing music for customers and promoting the sale of new music. It was due to musicians like Gershwin that sales of music grew from the thousands to the millions. Another prominent musician to have his start in Tin Pan Alley was Irving Berlin with his piece 'Alexander's Ragtime Band~.' In 1919, he opened his own publishing company.

The first big Tin Pan Alley hit belonged to Charles Harris titled 'After the Ball'. His first major offer for rights came from Julius Witmark for $10,000. Figuring higher profits by self-publishing, Harris declined and organized his own publishing house. While he never had another hit quite like 'After the Ball,' his fortune was cemented in the publishing of his own works and the music of other songwriters.

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