The History of Tin Pan Alley

By Margot Callahan ; Updated September 15, 2017
A strong piano sound was typical of Tin Pan Alley music.

Tin Pan Alley was both a place and a music-publishing phenomenon. The place was West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York City. The phenomenon was a concentration of songwriters and publishers who dominated popular music in the United States in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The precise origins of the name are not clear but “Tin Pan” may have referred to the popularity of pianos tuned to a more percussive sound. It also may have been derogatory, referring to the sound of many song demonstrators or "pluggers" enthusiastically pounding out hundreds of new tunes simultaneously.

Physical Location

At the end of the 19th century, New York City was becoming a hub for the performing and musical arts. Sheet music and player-piano rolls were booming commodities with the new popularity of having a piano in the home – every fashionable family had at least one. Thus, music publishers were in the process of turning music from an art form into an industry. The major publishers of sheet music at the time included M. Witmark & Sons, Aeolian Co., and Joseph W. Stern and Company. Their offices, located in buildings on 28th Street between Fifth and Broadway and in the Famous Brill Building on Broadway, formed the geographic nucleus of what came to be known as Tin Pan Alley.

Famous Composers and Songs

Initially, Tin Pan Alley composers specialized in ballads and comic novelty songs, but it also embraced the styles of the late 19th century: the cakewalk and ragtime. In the 1910s and 1920s, Tin Pan Alley published pop songs and dance numbers created in the newly popular jazz and blues styles. Famous composers and works most often associated with the movement include Irving Berlin's “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” George Gershwin's “Swanee,": Cole Porter and Scott Joplin.

The End of "Tin Pan Alley"

Tin Pan Alley's dominance of the music industry faded away as Broadway musicals and the recording industries evolved. The need for a steady stream of one-off popular songs gave way to integrated narrative musicals and record albums. Although it continued to resonate as a cluster of influential music publishers through the World Wars and up until the 1960s, the Tin Pan Alley era ended with the Great Depression.

Part of the Cultural Landscape

The impact of Tin Pan Alley as a cultural force should not be underestimated. The connection of its composers and lyricists to the achievements of black musicians, the evolution of Broadway, and the creation and promotion of a native music culture is profound. In addition to producing a lasting songbook of classic American popular songs, Tin Pan Alley publishers were integral to the creation of a regulated music industry in the states, forming the Music Publishers Association of the United States in 1895. The group was a precursor to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which was founded in 1914 to aid and protect the interests of established publishers and composers.

About the Author

Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.