Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

record cover, Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

One of a flood of early recordings that established “Autumn in New York” as a standard.

The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs.

New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York.

That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable. Continue reading

A revolution in the music business: the phonograph

78 rpm record, history of phonograph, recording music industry

Victor Record 78 rpm License Label, ca. 1905-1906

New media and services like YouTube and Spotify are shaking up the music industry. But they have no more impact than the phonograph record player did just over a hundred years ago.

Not very long ago, if anyone wanted to experience music, they had to go to a concert or make it themselves.

Many towns and smaller cities had no local professional concert organizations. Their citizens could attend a concert only if traveling performers chose to stop there.

On the other hand, nearly every middle class household had a piano. Many people sang and played other instruments. Even small towns had bands, perhaps attached to a local militia unit.

Then came the phonograph record player. Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs

Irving Berlin, Tony Martin, counterpoint songs

Photo of Irving Berlin and Tony Martin from the television program Irving Berlin’s Salute to America.

Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs.

Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint.

Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. Continue reading

Classical music that used to be popular music

composers classical vs popular music You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers.

  • Bach
  • Beethoven
  • Brahms
  • Wagner
  • Liszt
  • Rossini

Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists.

So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed? Continue reading

Don Drummond, a great, but underappreciated trombonist

Don Drummond

Don Drummond, by unknown photographer, possibly 1962

I came across the name “Don Drummond” on the Trombone Forum in connection with something called “ska.”

I mentioned Drummond and ska trombone in A History of the Trombone, but didn’t investigate. Then I thought of him when trying to decide what to write about here and listened to some videos.

Wow! Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry


18th century sheet music.. popular music industry

18th century sheet music. “Rule Britannia” by Thomas Arne

What’s the popular music industry? For that matter, what’s popular music?

Most people today seem to equate “music industry” with “recording industry,” but it’s older than that.

There’s no point in talking about a “classical music industry.”I looked that term up and only found articles about how badly classical music leaders conduct business.

Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “industry.” Only three seem applicable:

  • systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value
  • a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; especially:  one that employs a large personnel and capital especially in manufacturing
  • a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises <the banking industry>

An industry, in other words, seeks to create something of value, is capital and labor intensive, and intends to make a profit. Popular music is inherently commercial and industrial. The popular music industry began in the late 18th century. Continue reading

How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry

I want a girl. Tin Pan  Alley songTin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication.

The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before. Continue reading

1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?

4th of july fireworks 1812 overtureThe U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war.

The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display?

Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture.

It had to jump through one more hoop before it could fit with Independence Day. American popular culture had to wrest the piece from association with Russia. Continue reading

orKIDstra: delightful music outreach to children

orKIDstra audienceThe local newspaper had an article about a concert called orKIDstra. It combined building both literacy skills and enthusiasm for classical music in preschoolers.

I wondered if it is strictly a local program, or something larger. Yes, sort of, to both questions.

The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra has called its outreach to pre-school students “orKIDstra” for more than 15 years. Its emphasis and structure have changed a few times. It has used current combination of percussion ensembles and children’s books for about five years.

A web search found classical music programming for children called orKIDstra in three different countries. Besides the clever pun, I find no connection. Continue reading

10 odd facts about trombonists you’d never guess

trombonist enrages neighbor

Enraged Neighbor, a lithograph by Bourdin after an image by Robert William Buss (1838)

Trombonists, who have been mostly human, have always had lives. Some of them have commanded great personal and professional respect, but not others.

The trombone itself has had its ups and downs. In fact, the high points in the reputations of the trombone and trombonists have not necessarily coincided.

Sometimes playing trombone has been their principal profession, more often, though, not. In fact, most musicians throughout history have had to earn money from something besides music in order to survive. Continue reading