Popular Music in the Twentieth Century

As promised, here’s a really short and completely biased survey of American popular music in the twentieth century. Putting together a mixtape is a lot of fun, but you always want to add more. But I can’t. Otherwise, all we’d do is listen to music all day.

The playlist has just about everything I wanted to include, but there were some noticeable absences.


It Works on Paper

The American music industry has its birth not as phonographic recordings but as printed sheets of music. The sheet music industry would be dominated by a set of publishers, many of whom were located in midtown Manhattan around West 26th Street. The area was known as “tin pan alley” because of the terrible sounds emanating from budding composers who were hoping to get discovered. (Think of the early rounds of American Idol, if anyone still watches that show anymore). The most popular music player late nineteenth century was the piano. People would buy the sheet music so that would have some software for their hardware. The most popular musicians would be composers not performers. After all, you were the performer!

Tin Pan Alley
Tin Pan Alley

A major star of the sheet music era was the head conductor of the US Marine Corp Symphony, John Philip Sousa. His music is still well known today to most Americans, such as “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

An early and very popular genre of music circulated in the nineteenth century was the rag. Listen to a composer Scott Joplin’s most famous rag, “The Maple Leaf Rag.”

Tin Pan Alley

Most of the most popular music of the twentieth century was composed by musicians who never performed the songs in public. Tin Pan Alley refers to the tradition of composers who penned some very popular songs, many of which became the basis of the “Great American Songbook.” Here’s one such song composed by Cole Porter and performed by a few different acts.

Here’s Benny Goodman’s big band performing with Peggy Lee. Note the ethnically insensitive opening line.

Here’s another version by one of America’s most famous crooners, Bing Crosby. The “Chinks” and “Japs” line remains.

This recording by Ella Fitzgerald is a much slower and sultry version. Also, the opening line is different than the other two versions.

Note how these songs feature a very particular pattern: verse-chorus-verse. Note the length: around three minutes, due to the capacity of the 10-inch, 78-rpm record.

Rock ’n’ Roll

Rock ’n’ roll signals the end of the Tin Pan Alley era.

One of my favorite songs to exemplify the split between the composer and the performer was “Hound Dog.” The song was most famously performed by Elvis Presley.

But the song was first performed, to some renown,by Big Mama Thorton.

However, the song was written by neither of these performers. It was composed by two Eastern European Jewish kids from Brooklyn, Michael Lieber and Jerry Stoller.

One particular noteworthy rock ’n’ roll song is “Rock around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. It was one of the first rock ’n’ roll songs to hit number one on the Billboard charts.

The song appeared on the popular movie Blackboard Jungle and became a hit for younger audiences of the day.

Multitrack Recording

Multitrack recording enabled some very innovative experiments in recorded music. In class, I mentioned that multitrack recording enabled stereo and, for a short time, quadrophonic recordings. But early on, it made possible trying out new combinations of sounds. Rock music, usually featuring only a couple of guitars and drums, could now utilize string and wind instruments.

One of the most famous examples of this multichannel recording was the Pet Sounds album by the Beach Boys. Notice the gradual layering of sounds, such as those instruments that weren’t part of a live rock ’n’ roll band performing.


Our tour of music in the twentieth century ends with Motown. The textbook describes how a music composer who couldn’t break into the mainstream music business founded an independent record company that released pop records by African-American performers. Here’s one of the label’s earliest recordings, “Please Mister Postman,” by the Marvelettes.

Motown would become one of the most quintessentially American musical forms of the twentieth century. Headquartered in Detroit, it was a long way from New York and Tin Pan Alley.

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