Tin Pan Alley

As I was listing Benny Goodman’s most famous music, it occurred to me that a lot of the music we’re most familiar with as dancers comes from a stock of popular songs. Most of the artists we listen to have done their own versions, but where do they come from originally, and who wrote them?


Tin Pan Alley

West 28th Street in New York was originally given the nickname of Tin Pan Alley in about 1885 because it accommodated several music publishers. With very relaxed copyright laws at the time, competing publishers could release their own versions of popular songs and they promoted these by playing them on pianos for the public to hear. The story goes that the cacophony of  the music being played simultaneously from all the shops and studios above sounded like pots and pans being bashed. In the early days of Tin Pan Alley, customers were usually Vaudeville (Music Hall) acts. Famous artists were given arrangements by publishers for free, while the lesser known performers would have to buy their sheet music from the publishers.

In London, Denmark Street was also given the nickname Tin Pan Alley for the same reason. It was here that musicians went to do their networking. They would gather on Denmark street and make hand gestures to represent what instrument they played. If you were in need of a trombonist, look for people pumping their fists up and down in the air!


Song writers, Lyricists and Pluggers

The piano had become a common instrument in many homes by the 1880s and amateur players and singers were in abundance. They wanted music to play and sing at home for their own entertainment, as well as going to hear professional acts. Publishers hired song writers and lyricists to write songs that were easy enough to play and sing along to. They were then advertised and promoted extensively. Song pluggers were an important part of the pre-recorded music world. They were employed directly by the publishers and it was their job to play and sing to demonstrate and advertise the new songs for customers, so they could hear what they sounded like before they bought the sheet music.



The standard structure for a Tin Pan Alley popular song was known as the 32 Bar song form. Unsurprisingly it consists of 32 bars of music. This can be divided into 2 contrasting 8 bar phrases: A and B. So the overall song structure is AABA (A section is repeated, then new material is heard, then the A section to reinforce the main melody.) One of the simplest examples of this is the classic Tin Pan Alley tune by Gershwin: I Got Rhythm.

A I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man  Who could ask for anything more?

A I’ve got daisies in green pastures, I’ve got my man,  Who could ask for anything more?

B Old man Trouble, I don’t mind him, You won’t find him ’round my door

A I’ve got starlight, I’ve got sweet dreams, I’ve got my man, Who could ask for anything more?

Try counting the bars as Gershwin plays:



Tin Pan Alley churned out an incredible number of hits influenced by the popular styles of the day including ragtime, jazz and blues. These were the commercial pastiches created to appeal to a mass market, which in some opinions separates them from the “authentic” music of  these styles. Nevertheless, Tin Pan Alley provided the starting point for some of the best known and loved songwriters of all time.

You Should Know…

George and Ira Gershwin

  • Porgy and Bess- Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’

  • Lady Be Good

  • Funny Face

  • Embraceable You

  • I Got Rhythm

Harold Arlen

  • Get Happy

  • Stormy Weather

  • Wizard of Oz- Over the Rainbow

  • That Old Black Magic

  • Accentuate the Positive

Irving Berlin

  • White Christmas

  • Blue Skies

  • Puttin’ on the Ritz

Shelton Brooks

  • At The Darktown Strutters Ball

Huey Cannon

  • Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home

Hoagy Carmichael

  • Stardust

  • Georgia on my Mind

James P Johnson

  • Charleston

Jerome Kern

  • A Fine Romance

  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

  • The Way You Look Tonight

  • I Won’t Dance

Johnny Mercer

  • Goody Goody

  • Jeepers Creepers

Macio Pinkard

  • Sweet Georgia Brown

Cole Porter

  • Let’s Do It- Let’s Fall in Love

  • Night and Day

  • Anything Goes

  • I Get a Kick Out of You

  • Just One of Those Things

  • Begin the Beguine

  • I’ve Got You Under My Skin

  • My Heart Belongs To Daddy

  • I Love Paris

Fats Waller

  • Honeysuckle Rose

  • Ain’t Misbehavin

  • I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby (possibly, also attributed to Andy Razaf)

  • On The Sunny Side of the Street

  • Basin Street Blues

Jack Yellen

  • Ain’t She Sweet

I have no dancing suggestions for you this week as the variety of styles is enormous. For the sake of space I have only listed songs we often dance to, but there is a huge variety of other music from Tin Pan Alley including rags by Scott Joplin and my favourite song title of all time: Yes, We Have No Bananas. If you’ve discovered that several of your favourite songs are by the same artist, listen to some more of their work and ask yourself if you notice any common features in their songwriting.