Archive | January 2014

Commercial Revolution: The Home Piano

It is difficult or even impossible to imagine, at any point in time, pop songs without music to accompany lyrics; without musical accompaniment, lyrics would simply be lyric poems and not necessarily songs.  For example, swing tunes from the 1930s would not swing without a band and disco music from the 1970s would not be danceable without a beat.  During the 1890s when the music industry was energetically publishing and promoting pop songs, the choice for musical accompaniment was the piano.  Long before per-recorded music was the norm and decades before radio and television brought music directly into the home, consumers purchased songs in sheet music format to be performed on the home piano.  The importance of the home piano cannot be understated in the development of pop song history, since nearly every home in America that could afford a piano had one as entertainment; if there were no way of producing music at home, I do not think that songs could have obtained commercial success in the way that they did without this innovation.For the pop song to have commercial appeal, people had to learn how to play the piano accompaniment which was paired with the lyrics of the sheet music.  While understanding the piano in modern America, according to Craig Roell, “requires a grasp of the peculiar interaction of the work ethic, domesticity, and the morality of music with the piano industry”[1] it also requires an investigation on how the cultures of piano and domesticity led to the popularity of commercial pop song in America.

            How the piano transitioned from a musical instrument intended for the concert hall into a domestic home appliance in the span of 30 years is itself a study of commercialism, marketing and business.  Through the 1870s and 1880s, a revolution in piano manufacturing created a vast number of less expensive pianos on the market available to consumers.  But like many new inventions in America during the Gilded Age like the telephone or the typewriter, Americans had to be convinced that buying a piano was worth the investment.  “It is difficult to make a piano, but much more difficult to sell it,”[2] observes Alfred Dolge.  In order to use a piano at home, though, the consumer had to learn how to play it and, long before popular song was a popular art form, the music publishing industry found that it could make money producing method books for piano instruction.  The aesthetic tastes of the times reflected the piano techniques of European virtuosi while the social mores of the day dictated that the toil of such domestic work like piano playing was left to the lady of the household.  Consequently, ladies and girls were schooled in technical, virtuosic piano playing.  However, ladies learning these virtuosic techniques at home bored of the constant dexterity practice and “scientific” instruction.  While piano sales increased and with more people playing it at home, a market for the pop song sprang from the market of the home piano.  

            Throughout the nineteenth century, the piano had a meteoric rise in popularity, but took its own distinctly American and marketed form.  In 1842, Charles Dickens, on a visit to America remarked on how the country had fallen in love with the piano.[3]  The piano was a European invention and in Europe, music schools, instruments manufacturers and musicians had the support of royalty and emperors.[4]  In America, however, there was no royal family in existence who could financially support music and so, American piano manufacturers from their infancy had to rely on persistent and constant marketing to showcase their products and encourage people to purchase their instruments.[5]  One such marketing technique that blended entertainment and business was the sponsored tour of America, in which pianists, usually classically trained in Europe, performed well-publicized concerts showing off the pianists’ skills and the piano brand, performing next to an advertisement for the instrument that the audience was hearing.[6]  Steinway for example, sponsored Anton Rubenstein for a tour in 1872, Chickering sponsored Hans von Bulow three years later.  Piano maker William Knabe & Co. even paid the expense of bringing Peter Illych Tchaikovsky to the United States in 1891.[7]  Piano makers had confidence that using such famous European performers to make their pianos popular would encourage people to invest in a piano for the home. 

            Marketing events like these sponsored tours did not, in fact, lead to immediate consumer enthusiasm or brisk sales of pianos made by Steinway or Chickering. There are a number of possibilities why the piano did not fit in the lives of ordinary Americans.  It was expensive,[8] it took up a lot of space in the home, and if ordered from a company by catalogue, it took months to arrive.  Before America’s Industrial Age, piano making in America was more craft and trade than business,[9] with its own system of apprenticeship and technical skill producing and assembling minute parts.  The typical indenture for an apprentice in the piano maker was seven years in fact.[10]  With so many small, complicated mechanisms per key, production costs were astronomically high and piano factories did not produce many instruments annually during the middle of the nineteenth century.  But, American piano manufacturers did gain some European support; in 1862, the Steinway Company had a booth at the London Exposition of that year[11] and the celebrated pianist Sigismund Thalberg was so impressed with the Chickering piano he had played on his sponsored tour of America during the 1850s that he paid for pianos to be shipped back to Europe.[12] By 1867, sales were slowly increasing and reputations of American piano builders were building, just not as brisk a pace as they would in the coming four decades.

            In 1870, a new production method would eventually transform the piano industry in America from artful craft to mass-produced commodity.  The change itself was a purely fiscal decision of a businessman, without any intent involving art of the piano or beauty in music.[13]  Joseph Hale, a businessman who had earned his fortune in crockery, was looking for an investment vehicle for capital to grow an industry and had found one with a piano factory.  For Hale, the piano had the potential to become a household appliance rather than the concert instrument that it had been and this philosophy could consequently earn him a profit.[14]  The first problem was to manufacture a piano quicker and more efficiently, by outsourcing the smaller piano parts involved with actions and keys and simply using his factory to assemble the components of the instrument in a compact upright cabinet form.  New and smaller divisions of labor had been created, individual parts had been outsourced and a lower stock of parts had been inventoried.  Eventually, this process managed to produce over one hundred pianos per week,[15] compared to Steinway’s output, which was roughly thirty per year in 1850, just twenty-five years previous.[16] For Hale, it was not merely an instrument on which to create music, but rather a business opportunity to invest funds and make money and his process resulted in a number of new commercial piano companies, each producing tens of thousands of cheaper pianos per annum.

            With so many pianos now coming onto the market and more commercial piano manufacturers going into business during the 1870s and 1880s, there needed a potential customer to purchase, lease or take out a loan for it. During this era, the piano was a domestic art for and it was the lady of the household who was in charge of learning it.  Women stayed at home, tended to the children, and made the home a refuge from the day’s stresses and music provided an entertaining toil in the household.  Yet, learning to play the piano while also tending to an entire household was hard work, and, according to Craig H Roell, such hard work was “morally purifying because it built character, fortitude, self-control and perseverance,”[17] admirable characteristics for Victorian Age America.  The messages of womanly piano playing were so engrained in society that the piano was often touted as a gateway to courtship and marriage.[18]  If piano manufacturers wanted to sell their products, they needed female consumers to purchase them and advertised aggressively to reach customers.

            However, simply having a home piano did not mean that it was inherently entertaining, ladies of the household had to learn how to play the instrument and make it useful, which required publishing music for instruction.  Before pop song era, music publishers did not publish many popular songs since they were not very successful.  When Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold Cold Groun’” sold 75,000 copies, it was considered extremely successful in 1852[19] and so, music publishing was focused instead on instructional methods.  It was business to get more women to learn how to play the instrument and buy instruction methods. During the late nineteenth century, the public had a taste for piano music that was technical, agile and fast; flashy piano pieces showcasing the speed and dexterity of the European school inspired by pianists like Franz Liszt.  Within this musical environment came various methods for the piano, not simple instruction of its play, but rather technical mastery of the keyboard.  Americans purchased such books with enthusiasm at a brisk pace, for example, one such method book, the Method of the German Klavier School, had grown into four volumes and was in its seventeenth printing by 1884.[20]The virtuosic piano mentality was so engrained in America that even ragtime composer Scott Joplin advocated the advanced methods of piano instruction than popular songs of the day.[21]  It seems as though music publishers could sell to a customer who had time for hours of practice daily.

            Such methods of virtuosic piano instruction for women and girls produced ire with female students of the Klavier School.  Women and girls were drilled for hours at a time at speed tests, scales, arpeggi, chords and agility etudes, but these methods do not seem to have had any objectives other than giving women another task to do in the home.  The method of Karl Czerny required three hours of practice everyday.[22]  Most piano teachers did not expect their students to follow the path to concert hall and Roell observes, “Accomplishment was secondary to the dignity, graceful manner, and moral replenishment inherent in learning music.”[23] It seems as though virtuosic piano methods existed for learning’s sake without any further application of the skill outside the home.  Oftentimes, woman found musical exercise for exercise sake boring and without heart and this kind of rigid practicing routine was dull and uninspiring.  For music publishers to create a bigger group of people to purchase their music, the market would have to expand to include more entertaining and even melodic forms of music. 

This is where I think the market for the pop songs truly began, with the boredom of the kind of playing expected from woman and the kind of technical music they were expected to learn.  The virtuosic piano music trade did not last long in the commercial piano era and instead, music publishers began producing popular songs with lyrics and piano accompaniment.  By the time that Tin Pan Alley, so named due to the number of pianos ringing from the windows of music publishers,[24] had gained success in the 1890s, consumers suddenly had an appetite for Romantic Age ballads.  In 1893 for example, waltzes like “O Promise Me,” “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),” and “The Fatal Wedding,” soon replaced virtuosic methods as the pop song became a form of home entertainment, selling hundreds of thousands of copies each and making millions of dollars.  It is interesting to note that if such a ballad were played in a saloon, according to one saloon owner, “the customers in my saloon would shatter their beer glasses in derision”[25] and so such popular songs were likely played at home and, if becoming popular enough, incorporated into vaudeville shows and musical theater.  By 1900, pianos and sheet music were nearly everywhere in American consumer society, in department stores where “piano girls” demonstrated the piano.  Publishers even produced folios and advertisements promoting the most popular and sensational songs of the day.[26]

            Eventually the market for piano had become so large that department stores had piano and sheet music departments, large conglomerates of piano manufacturers came into being. In fact, some had grown so large that they debuted on the stock exchange and piano trade groups held posh, lavish conventions.[27]  Marketing the piano was a tremendous success and by 1910, annual piano production reached over three hundred thousand instruments.[28] By 1900, everyone involved with music writing, publishing and piano manufacturing was involved with plugging their products ruthlessly.  All of these developments in the business of the piano and the rise of the pop song were due to its massive commercial success as a domestic appliance and decline of piano method books, leaving music consumers to play the accompanying parts of pop songs instead of the piano method books by which they had been taught.


Chase, Gilbert.  America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present, 2nd ed.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.  1966.

Colles, H.C.  The Growth of Music.  New York:  Oxford University Press. 1978.

Dolge, Alfred.  Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano.  New York:  Dover Publications.  1911.

Eyerman, Charlotte N. and James Parakilas. “1820 to 1870s:  The Piano Calls the Tune.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

Furia, Philip.  Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Hoover, Cynthia Adams.  “Pianos for Sale.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

——-.  “Promoting the Piano.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1999.

——-.  “The Workshop.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.   Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1999.

Lieberman, Richard K.  Steinway & Sons.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1995.

Parakilas, James.  “A History of Lessons and Practicing.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

Roell, Craig H.  The Piano in America:  1890-1940.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press.  1989.

[1] Craig H Roell, The Piano in America:  1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 3.

[2] Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano, (New York:  Dover Publications, 1911), 165.

[3] Charlotte N Eyerman and James Parakilas, “1820 to 1870s:  The Piano Calls the Tune,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 181.

[4] H.C. Colles, The Growth of Music, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1978), 192-193.

[5] Dolge, 174.

[6] Gilbert Chase, America’s Music:  from the Pilgrims to the Present, (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 322.

[7] Roell, 7.

[8] For examples on the price of pianos, see Cynthia Adams Hoover, “Pianos for Sale,” contained in James Parakilas, Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 40.

[9] Dolge, 179.

[10] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “The Workshop,” contained in James Parakilas, Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Year of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 42.

[11] Richard K. Lieberman, Steinway & Sons, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1995), 31.

[12] ibid, 29.

[13] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “Promoting the Piano,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 61.

[14] Dolge, 181.

[15] ibid, 180.

[16] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “The Workshop,” contained in James Parakilas, et al, 43.

[17] Roell, 4-5.

[18] ibid, 26.

[19] Furia, 20.

[20] Roell, 8.

[21] ibid, 35.

[22] James Parakilas, “A History of Lessons and Practicing,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 140.

[23] Roell, 13.

[24] Furia, 19.

[25] ibid, 23.

[26] Roell, 46.

[27] ibid, 69.

[28] Dolge, 181.

The Pop Song’s Place in Popular Music History

The Pop Song’s Place in Popular Music History

By Morgan Howland

            Trying to define where exactly pop song’s place is throughout the course of American musical history is a challenging affair.  Pop is, after all, an abbreviation of popular and so pop songs are examples of popular music, but not all kinds of popular music produce pop songs.  Popular music has existed in America since the furthest reaches of recordable American history; after all, Native Americans, Pilgrims and early settlers each had their own popular musical traditions. With the rise of the music publishing industry in the nineteenth century, the trend in pop song as a musical format fundamentally changed popular music.  Thereafter, music in America, particularly individual songs, have become a consumer product to purchase and consume, a commodity whose value rises and falls with whatever wave of popular genre is in fashion at the time.  But in order to examine what pop songs are, we must first understand their place within popular music; that it is a format which must be actively popularized by whatever promotional methods necessary and the success of which is gauged by sales.  By this definition, pop is not so much a specific genre of music, but a broad variety of song including some of the most popular songs regardless of genre, whether jazz, swing, rock and roll or hip-hop and this definition helps to give context to the whole of American pop song history.

The term popular music itself is a challenging concept to understand within the context of American musical history. Popular music is not any one single genre, but a mosaic of various influences from all over the globe from people coming to the United States and, like the trends of any art form, trends in popular music constantly replace one another as time progresses.  After all, precluding Native American peoples, America’s population is mostly descended from immigrants from all over the world of all different faiths; all of whom have brought their own popular music style with them and adding to the kinds of popular music being produced in America.  Even hundreds of years before pop songs became entertainment, the myriad of First Nations that populated North America each had their own musical traditions and when Europeans arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, people from each country, France, Spain, England among other places each had their own popular musical styles.  The plantation culture of African-Americans of the South has had arguably the most profound effect on American popular music as well, helping to produce such influential and distinctly American forms of popular music as ragtime, jazz and blues.[1] In America in particular, trying to look at popular music before the advent of the pop songs as a historical genre is extremely difficult regarding the nature of the musical traditions of its population.

During the later half of the nineteenth century, however, music was transformed into a form of popular entertainment and eventually into big business, changing the climate of American music significantly.  During America’s Industrial Age, American society became a more urban one, with people leaving rural agricultural areas for work in the factories and shops of big cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  During this time, immigrants arriving in millions from all across Europe were also bringing relatively new musical tastes to the cities of the new world.  During the 1880s, for example over five million immigrants came to the United States.[2]  Although life in a city was often crowded, dirty and noisy,[3] the population was enjoying a popular culture and music in theatres, saloons and even in their own homes.  At a time when many areas of American society were becoming industrialized including electric lighting and mass transit systems, music publishers of New York’s Tin Pan Alley were turning popular music into a profitable trade through the sale of individual pop songs to an eager audience willing to pay for their sheet music to play on the piano at home, which by 1910 were selling at a rate of 350,000 pianos annually.[4]  It was in this environment that pop songs were really able to have mass success.

When the pop song had become a commodity for consumption of the public during the 1890s, it had inherently changed the nature of music in America and set the pattern of the music business that still exists in the twenty-first century.  In order to sell, pop songs must be made popular and get an audience’s attention and this popularization is done by a number of methods, both technological and commercial.[5]  The musical theater, phonograph, talking movies, television, the LP album, the Internet, or whatever technology is available for sound production, have each been used to push songs onto American consumers for decades.  Even modern television commercials using songs can seem like commercials for songs within a commercial for a product.[6]  Likewise, individual singers and pop stars are also marketed to sell songs throughout pop song history.  This is as true for modern acts like Lady Gaga, One Direction and Miley Cyrus in the twenty-first century as it was for Madonna, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Doris Day, Bing Crosby or Paul Whiteman in the twentieth.  For nearly all of pop song history, commercialism and Show Biz are key factors in determining pop song’s place in popular music.

But songs do not “pop” unless the results of this popularization and commercialism are successful.  This is another key component in understanding pop song’s place in popular music; pop songs sell well.  To contrast this commercialism before the pop song era, during the early nineteenth century, a flurry of new hymnals and liturgical songs following the Great Awakening,[7] in which American evangelism had reached a broader popular audience .  But it is difficult to imagine that such a popular music movement was fueled by commercialism and sales of hymnbooks.  However, later in the century, when the first song in American history sold over one million copies in 1892, Charles K Harris’s “After the Ball,” a song was considered successful, not whether if it was good in musical or lyrical composition, but whether it sold well.  Other songs followed this sales trend throughout the 1890s including “Daisy Bell,” “O Promise Me,” “The Sidewalks of New York,” and “Hello Ma Baby.”  This is another factor which determines what songs truly pop in popular music, the ones that sell the most and have reached the greatest audience are considered more successful.

Of course, this music business of promotion crosses all kinds of popular styles over the course of musical history, which can lead to clashes in traditional classification of genre.  But I contend that both popular music and pop songs elude any kind of classification whatsoever and that songs of other genres can be pop as well.  The former simply assesses what trends are generally popular without any kind of genre labels, while the latter only gives examples of individual songs which follow such popular trends.  Even though the term pop song today generally refers to a danceable club banger in today’s terminology, the definition and explanations given here allow us to look at the whole of modern, commercial music under the umbrella term pop song, not just as a contemporary musical sub-genre.  This can extend to ragtime two steps of the 1910s, jazz and swing tunes of the 1920s and 1930s, so-called “traditional pop” of the late 1940s and early 1950s, rock and roll, disco, dance music and even hip-hop.  Even country music has had a few full on pop song moments over the last century.  Each of these genres retains its own kind of popular genre, but their songs can be labeled, I argue, as pop songs due to their popularization and commercial appeal and success.

In conclusion, the definitions set out about the popularization of pop songs allow us to examine the whole of pop song history’s place within this framework and even give a definition for the time in which popular music was changing into a pop song industry.  Even though various genres have been considered popular music of their times and songs are mere examples of these trends, such songs are considered pop due to promotion, popularization and commercial success.  This blog will examine the trends in successful pop songs over the course of the pop song’s one hundred and thirty year history and look at the trends in popular music of which these songs are examples.


Chase, Gilbert.  America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present.  2nd edition.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.  1966.

Dolge, Alfred.  Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano.  New York:  Dover Publications.  1911.

Furis, Phillip.  The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Morgan, Thomas L and William Barlow.  From Cakewalk to Concert Hall:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing.  1992.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi.  America:  A Narrative History, volume 2.  8th edition.  New York:  W.W. Norton and Co.  2010.

[1] Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalk to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930 (Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1992), 22, 57.

[2] George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America:  A Narrative History, vol 2, 8th ed, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 832.

[3] ibid, 828-829.

[4] Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano (New York:  Dover Publications, 1911), 175.

[5] For an examination of song promotional techniques, see Phillip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  a History of America’s Great Lyricists (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 19-25.

[6] Take, for example, the use of Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” in a 2013 commercial for Kia Motors, or Will Hoge’s “Strong” in the 2013 commercials for the Chevrolet Silverado.

[7] Gilbert Chase, America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present, 2nd ed. (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 217.