Tag Archives: Tin Pan Alley

Catchiness in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “popular music” originated with songs emanating from Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley and competing publishers in other major American cities. From the 1880s to the early twentieth century, these mass produced songs captured the ears and hearts of American consumers. Almost as soon as the tunes penetrated the market, another term was coined: “catchy.” An ad for A. G. Henderson’s “No More Parting, Norah Darling” (1889) hypes the song’s “easy, sweet, and catchy melody, set to pretty and effective words. A very striking and well-arranged chorus. Sing this song ONCE, and the air will haunt you.” A review of “My Jenny’s Shelling Peas” (1892), by Chicago music publisher S. W. Straub, opines: “It has an interesting story, and has a beautiful, catchy melody with a superb chorus. It will become very popular, we predict.”

Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths sold thousands of songs to fast-pace publishers, who, in turn, fed sheet music to hungry household pianos. As John Shepherd writes in his definitive book, Tin Pan Alley, “The faster the songs…could be produced, the more money there was to be made.” One consequence of this assembly line approach was that “catchiness” became the norm, rather than a quality reserved for especially well-crafted melodies. Originality fell victim to the rapid-fire ethos. For expedience, melodists turned to modifying and piecing together bits of pre-existing melodies. Lyricists returned again and again to well-worn themes and clichés. Of course, a legitimately clever hit occasionally rose above the homogenous whole. But, for the most part, every song possessed some catchiness by virtue of sharing variations of the same rhythms, verse-chorus forms, melodic phrases, and sentiments. To this day, recycling of this kind is a defining aspect of popular music.

A handful of scientific papers have sought a formula for musical catchiness. These include a study of the UK’s top-ten sing-along songs and an analysis of musical “hooks” (memorable musical fragments). These studies, which investigate why some recordings are seemingly catchier than others, tend to leave out salient factors, such as radio play and promotion from the music industry. Lesser-known or overlooked songs often have the same features, but lack the popularizing platforms.

Rather than tracing catchiness to a unique trait or set of traits, it is perhaps better to think of catchiness as a synonym for “familiar,” or even “familiar before it is ever heard.” Catchy songs trigger musical information already stored in the brain. Other elements, such as a magnetic performance or generational sentiment, certainly play a role. But a truly catchy melody—one that resonates beyond a recording or performer—requires high levels of musical déjà vu. Otherwise, it won’t catch hold of the listener.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Folkalization

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The name Tin Pan Alley likely started as a linguistic reappropriation: a disparaging term that was flipped into a positive, self-describing label. The etymology is sometimes traced to journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld. In one version of the story, Rosenfeld visited the New York office of music publisher Harry Von Tilzer in preparation for an article on the music business. He noticed that Von Tilzer had pieces of paper wound over the strings of a piano to make a tinny sound—a nostalgic trick harkening back to his playful youth. This allegedly gave Rosenfeld the idea for an article titled “Tin Pan Alley,” published in his column for the New York Herald or the New York Clipper in 1899 or 1900 (to my knowledge, the actual article has not surfaced). Von Tilzer later claimed coinage of the term. Others cite it as a derogatory description of cheap upright pianos heard on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The cacophony of clashing tunes reportedly resembled the banging of tin pans. The term was eventually applied to the U.S. music industry of the late 1800s to the 1930s or 50s (depending on the periodization).

The name’s organic emergence predicted the treatment the music itself would later receive. Although created for financial gain and distributed through commercial means, many of the songs entered the popular vernacular. In so doing, they became subject to a folk process, wherein cultural artifacts are changed, minutely or significantly, to form new artifacts. A combination of performance restraints and cultural dissemination stripped these songs of their particularistic trappings, and left the universal core. The result can be dubbed “commercial folk music.”

A number of Tin Pan Alley tunes survive in the collective consciousness. Some, like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “Always,” and “White Christmas,” are so universally known as to lose association with the composer. They consolidate and articulate popular sentiments, and reaffirm and express an aesthetic mainstream. By virtue of aural reception and oral transmission, they are functionally the public property of the American people.

Among the elements contributing to this perpetual resonance was the elimination of the verse. Tin Pan Alley standards, such as those listed above, began as self-contained story songs. The generalized emotions of the chorus were framed by specific details, usually of a personal nature. “White Christmas” (1940), which Berlin wrote while sitting poolside at a Phoenix hotel, opened with the verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, LA/But it’s December the 24th/And I am longing to be up north.” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908), written by Albert Von Tilzer (Harry’s brother) and lyricist Jack Norworth, began with a baseball-obsessed woman: “Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad/Just to root for the home town crew/Ev’ry sou/Katie blew” (“sou” is a small amount of money). These verses gave narrative context to the familiar choruses we sing today.

Several factors led to the erasure of the verse. In some instances, the melody, meter, or pace of the verse clashed with feelings conveyed in the chorus (e.g., minor to major, 4/4 to 3/4, slow to brisk). These shifts, while musically intriguing, made the songs difficult for singing and dancing. There were also technological constraints. 10-inch 78-rpm records could only hold about three minutes per side, thus necessitating the trimming of “extraneous” verses in favor of catchy choruses. The radio format likewise restricted song durations to three and a half minutes in order to give time to news, announcements, and advertising. Furthermore, the rise of Broadway and film musicals, where songs punctuated larger story lines, made the contextualizing verses obsolete. For example, Berlin cut the verse from “White Christmas” for the film Holiday Inn (1942).

Concurrent with these top-down commercial considerations was the bottom-up folk process. The choruses were easier to remember and more inclusive than the set-up verses. Rather than being tied to a particular setting or idiosyncratic emotion, they could be assimilated as one’s own expression, whether patriotic, nostalgic, romantic, or something else. With this folkalization, artist- and context-specific tunes were transformed into the durable pseudo-folksongs we still sing today.

Tin Pan Alley is not a stand-alone illustration. Popular music of all kinds—industry distributed music of wide appeal—challenges conventional separations of creators/producers and consumers/audiences. Consumers become potential producers, capable of recreating the songs in their own voices and reading their own experiences into them. Subtle or drastic changes inevitably creep in, bringing a fluid orality to the ostensibly fixed media of sheet music and recorded sound.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Baseball’s Greatest Hit (Book Review)

Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles. New York: Hal Leonard, 2008. 210 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

At first glance, Baseball’s Greatest Hit appears to be a coffee table book. Published in 2008, coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it is heavy, oversized, and filled with photographs and illustrations. Yet, unlike most books of that sort, its contents are not limited to captions and text blocks, and its approach to the subject, while thoroughly entertaining, is hardly superficial. The authors, along with the graphic design staff at Hal Leonard, have artfully balanced visual appeal with meticulous research.

Covering all the bases (cheap pun intended), Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson and Tim Wiles trace the evolution of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” from Tin Pan Alley to the seventh-inning stretch. The song came from the songwriting team of Jack Norworth (1879-1959) and Albert Von Tilzer (1878-1956). Norworth, the lyricist and gregarious one of the pair, was the son of an Episcopal choirmaster. He was drawn to the theater from an early age and had a penchant for marketing his work and himself. Von Tilzer, the more reserved composer, was born into a large Jewish family in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was one of five brothers, all involved in the music business. The family name was Gumm, likely shortened from Gumbinski or Guminski. Albert’s older brother Harry, a prolific music publisher and kingpin of Tin Pan Alley, changed his name to Tilzer (their mother’s maiden name) and added “Von” for an extra touch of class. Albert and the other brothers followed suit.

As with many well-known songs, there is much mythology and intrigue surrounding the origins of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The book examines the range of theories and stories, including the oft-repeated (though difficult to substantiate) claim that neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer attended a baseball game before or in the decades after writing the song. They also contrast Norworth’s insistence that he wrote the lyrics while in a subway car with Von Tilzer’s assertion that he composed the tune around the words “One, two, three strikes you’re out . . .” and handed it to Norworth to fill out the rest of the lyrics. Whatever the case, the authors conclude: “The best estimate is that, in less than an hour, in the spring of 1908, Jack and Albert composed an immortal hit” (p. 22). Within a few months, it became a Top Ten hit of 1908, and today is the third most frequently sung song in the United States, after “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The book offers far too many interesting tidbits to be listed in a short review, but here are a few highlights. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was first introduced to the public as part of a short-lived phenomenon known as the “illustrated song play,” in which a movie theater audience would sing along with the house vocalist and pianist as slides illustrating a song were projected on the screen. The song’s popularity spread quickly, and it sold some six million copies of sheet music. However, it was not until the 1970s, with the efforts of the late Cubs announcer Harry Caray, that the tune was integrated into the seventh-inning stretch. The song has been published in 160 arrangements, has appeared in over 1,200 films and television shows, and is performed at about 2,500 baseball games per year. It is also a little-known fact that what is sung today is only the chorus of the song, which, in its original form, began with this verse: “Katie Casey was baseball mad, 
had the fever and had it bad.
 Just to root for the home town crew,
 ev’ry sou
 Katie blew. 
On a Saturday her young beau
 called to see if she’d like to go 
to see a show, but Miss Kate said ‘No,
 I’ll tell you what you can do…’” (from the 1908 version; Norworth rewrote the verse in 1927).

The chapters flow quickly from one to the next and touch upon seemingly all aspects of the song. Among the book’s many outstanding features are a timeline beginning with the earliest known reference to the seventh-inning stretch (1886), an ode to ballpark organists, a listing of over one thousand commercially published songs about baseball, a brief history of the Cracker Jack, interviews with collectors of the song, a detailed musical analysis by Dave Headlam of the Eastman School of Music, and a CD with sixteen varied renditions of the song. With all of this and more, Baseball’s Greatest Hit is sure to please fans of the song and the game it represents. As a case study in American popular music, the book is a home run (another cheap pun intended).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.