Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song


For nearly a century, New York's famous "Tin Pan Alley" was the center of popular music publishing in this country. It was where songwriting became a profession, and songs were made-to-order for the biggest stars. Selling popular music to a mass audience from coast-to-coast involved the greatest entertainment media of the day, from minstrelsy to Broadway, to vaudeville, dance palaces, radio, and motion pictures. Successful songwriting became an art, with a host of men and women becoming famous by writing famous songs.


The history of Tin Pan Alley is the history of the United States as seen by its tunesmiths. Songs seem to have mirrored every aspect of American life from the 1890s to the digital technology of the 2000s. We can chronicle the changing musical tastes of Americans, along with our social, economic, and political concerns, by the kinds of popular music we bought, played, and listened to: from the tearjerker to the latest rock song.

Just what is Tin Pan Alley, and where is it located? In the era before Elvis Presley made a song's performance more important than its publication, when a song's popularity was determined not by the number of records it sold but by the number of copies of sheet music it sold, Tin Pan Alley was the name given to the branch of the music publishing business that hired composers and lyricists on a permanent basis to create popular songs. Publishers marketed songs in sheet music form by means of extensive promotional campaigns. Originally, Tin Pan Alley was a nickname given to West Twenty-eighth Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, where many of the fledgling popular music publishers had offices. In time, it became the generic term for all publishers of popular American sheet music, regardless of their geographic location.

How Tin Pan Alley Got Its Name

According to legend, the naming of Tin Pan Alley came at the turn of the twentieth century, when Monroe Rosenfeld, a prolific composer-lyricist, wrote a series of articles for the New York Herald on the new and energetic popular-music publishing business. For research, he visited the office of Harry Von Tilzer, located at 42 West Twenty-eighth Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Many other fledgling publishers were located on this street of reconstructed brownstone flats. Their "offices" usually consisted of a broken-down, out-of-tune piano, a secondhand desk and chair, file cabinets, and wooden racks holding the stock of sheet music. Rosenfeld heard a din of competing pianists as he left Von Tilzer's office, and he recorded that this street, with dozens of demonstrators working at the same time, sounded like a bunch of tin pans clanging. He characterized the street where all of this activity was taking place as "Tin Pan Alley."

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