Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music

“Tin Pan Alley” was the nickname given to a section of New York City’s Twenty-eighth Street, where many of the largest popular-music publishing companies were located. The name was inspired by the chaotic sounds of pianos playing simultaneously throughout the “alley.” Tin Pan Alley popularized music, and its success opened the door to what has become a multibillion-dollar music industry.

Summary of Event

Before the emergence of the popular music industry during the late nineteenth century, the market for songs and sheet music was limited to professional musicians and those wealthy enough to afford music lessons. At the time, music publishing firms viewed individual sheet music as a side business and focused their attention on items such as hymn books, lesson books for music students, and sheet music for orchestras. The composers who worked for these companies were expected to be music scholars with academic connections. Tin Pan Alley
Music;Tin Pan Alley
New York City;Tin Pan Alley
Music;sheet music
[kw]Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music (1890’s)
[kw]Tin Pan Alley Music, Rise of (1890’s)
[kw]Music, Rise of Tin Pan Alley (1890’s)
Tin Pan Alley
Music;Tin Pan Alley
New York City;Tin Pan Alley
Music;sheet music
[g]United States;1890’s: Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music[5670]
[c]Music;1890’s: Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music[5670]
[c]Business and labor;1890’s: Rise of Tin Pan Alley Music[5670]
Harms, Thomas B.
Witmark, Isadore
Harris, Charles K.
Rosenfeld, Monroe

The larger firms maintained vast catalogs of classical standards and religious music, and songs were not advertised or marketed. Sheet music, which averaged fifty to seventy-five cents per copy, could be purchased only at a music or instrument store.

These realities changed in the years following the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), when Americans began to have more leisure time. Minstrel Minstrel shows shows and early vaudeville Vaudeville performances brought music to the masses, and pianos had begun to appear in more private homes. In 1887, twenty-five thousand pianos had been sold, driving the demand for sheet music, both for the classics and for songs heard on stage.

A new type of publisher emerged in response, a publisher that would focus on popular songs only. Many of these companies established their offices in the buildings on or near New York City’s Twenty-eighth Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, in an area that would come to be known as Tin Pan Alley. Two of the most famous and successful publishing companies were Harms, Inc., founded in 1881 by Thomas B. Harms Harms, Thomas B. ; and M. Witmark Witmark, Isadore & Sons, founded in 1885 by Isadore Witmark. Harms is notable for having been one of the first to see the potential in publishing the music from a successful Broadway play, while Witmark is famed for publishing songs based on newspaper headlines.

In the days before phonographs and phonograph records, the amount of sheet music sold determined the popularity of a song; songs also were popularized by vaudeville performers and in the theater. These new publishers responded quickly to trends in music and frequently imitated the success of their competitors. Songs were often topical in nature, referencing and responding to current events. Charles K. Harris’s Harris, Charles K. “After the Ball” (1892) is considered the first Tin Pan Alley song. Its sheet music sold more than six million copies.

To meet the needs of new consumers, the Tin Pan Alley music publishers hired songwriters and placed them under contract that gave the publishers exclusive rights to the music the composers created. For the most part, publishers either bought the songs outright or paid to have them written. Fifteen to twenty-five dollars per song was the going rate, and royalty payments to composers, while not unheard-of, were rare. Amateurs also trying their hand at songwriting submitted thousands of unsolicited manuscripts to Tin Pan Alley publishers.

The publishers also realized that songs moderately popular on their own could become hits with the right marketing. Sheet music became more than just words and notes on a staff; presentation became part of the package, as elaborate illustrations were commissioned for the sheet music covers. Sometimes the cover illustration was of the subject of the song, and sometimes the cover showed the performer who made the song popular. No longer was sheet music sold exclusively in music stores at fifty cents per copy; it was now available at stores such as Woolworth’s and Macy’s at one-fifth the price of music stores.

Each year, before the vaudeville season began, performers and their agents made the pilgrimage to Tin Pan Alley to audition fresh material for their acts. Performers and other interested parties could stop by the publishing offices to have the new music performed for them, either by the composer or by an in-house pianist. Marketing people, known as “pluggers” or “contact men,” were responsible for getting the new songs into the music stores and concert halls and for persuading popular performers to play or sing a particular song. A big name performer could even commission music written specifically for him or her. Traditionally, performers would pay for their own sheet music; now, they received it for free because every performance offered a chance for publicity.

As the industry grew, the larger publishing houses began targeting and swallowing up the smaller houses. Publishers were no longer musicians or even necessarily music lovers; they were salesmen. Some of the top songwriters became embittered by their lack of royalties and became publishers themselves. The Music Publisher’s Association of the United States was formed in 1895 to protect publishers’ copyrights. One of the reforms initiated by the association was the extension of the music copyright to forty years, with the option to renew for another twenty years.

The phrase “Tin Pan Alley” did not come into popular use until it was used in an article about the music publishing companies that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune
New York Herald Tribune during the early twentieth century. The author of the article, Monroe Rosenfeld Rosenfeld, Monroe , was also an occasional songwriter and is said to have coined the phrase at the office of his publisher, Harry von Tilzer Tilzer, Harry von . While the two men met, they heard the sound of piano keys from the surrounding offices, and Rosenfeld noted the resemblance to the sound of tin pans being banged together. Eventually, the phrase “Tin Pan Alley” became a generic term that referred to any music-publishing firm.


The demand for songs and sheet music increased in the final years of the century, as two new inventions, the player piano and the gramophone, revolutionized the way people could hear music. While pianos limited the appeal of sheet music to those who knew how to play an instrument, anyone could operate a player piano or a phonograph. Sheet music had been the only media available for music distribution, but by the late 1890’s, publishers could distribute their songs also through player piano rolls and gramophone records.

The industry continued to grow after the beginning of the twentieth century. Legendary composers such as Irving Berlin Berlin, Irving , George Gershwin Gershwin, George , Cole Porter Porter, Cole , and George M. Cohan Cohan, George M. all got their starts with Tin Pan Alley publishers. At the time, it was highly desirable to have a song recorded or performed by as many artists as possible.

Gramophones would soon give way to phonographs, and radios would appear in private homes. Sources differ on when the Tin Pan Alley age officially ended. The date of its demise ranges from from 1920 to the end of the 1950’s, when the birth of rock and roll effectively killed Tin Pan Alley. Performances became more important than songs themselves, and music was no longer marketed toward adults but to their teenage children.

Further Reading

  • Ewen, David. The Life and Death of Tin Pan Alley: The Golden Age of American Popular Music. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1964. A classic and still-useful overview of the Tin Pan Alley publishers.
  • Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Focuses on the songwriters who composed the music that made Tin Pan Alley famous.
  • Hischak, Thomas S. The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Encyclopedic reference covering the most popular songs that emerged from the Tin Pan Alley era, including commentary and information about the composers.
  • Jasen, David A. Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song. New York: Routledge, 2003. Encyclopedic reference covering the Tin Pan Alley era, from the 1880’s to the 1950’s,
  • Tawa, Nicholas E. The Way to Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Song, 1866-1910. New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, 1990. An overview of the birth of popular song, which set the stage for the evolution of Tin Pan Alley.

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Scott Joplin. Tin Pan Alley
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