American Popular Song

The United States produced, over a period of perhaps seventy to eighty years, and most importantly in the first half of the twentieth century, an enormous body of popular music. James Maher estimates, (in Wilder 1972, p. xxxviii) that about 300,000 songs were copyrighted from 1900 to 1950. Before that period, American popular song was an amalgam of derivations from European parlor music and some native ballad traditions, including those of the large black population recently released from slavery. It was meant to be performed in the parlors of middle-class people, who owned and knew how to play pianos, flutes, and violins, and is best represented in the work of Stephen Foster.

I confess immediately to a deep cultural chauvinism. I think it unquestionable that American popular song of what is sometimes called “The Golden Age” is a striking cultural achievement that one does not find elsewhere in the world. It has now been superceded by the somewhat different, and less complex, genres of rock, rap, and their relatives, on the one hand, and by the further branching of its musical theater based genre into the simpler sounds of Andrew Lloyd Weber, on the one hand; and the more sophisticated and chromatic ones of Stephen Sondheim on the other. So I’m talking about a tradition that was once widespread, popular, and culturally dominant, which has now become esoteric, of concern mainly to antiquarians and aficonados.

The development of this characteristic American song style coincided with the growth of institutions in which that music, which had now moved out of the parlors of private homes, could be performed for the public: the vaudeville houses, musical theaters, taverns and night clubs that became increasingly common after the turn of the century. Later, it was a creature of the recording industry, and then radio and the films. I haven’t studied all these matters, and can only guess at how they work. My guesses are based on looking at some of the voluminous literature but, to be truthful, as much on my own experiences growing up in the heyday of this music and performing it for many years as a pianist in dance bands, night clubs, and the like (thus doing my part to prolong the tradition).

The Sound: Alec Wilder

The songs that make up this achievement have a characteristic sound and ambience. They are immediately distinguishable from the popular musics of other countries, although American popular song eventually came to dominate, or at least influence strongly, that of most other countries which shared the same western musical tradition. (Perhaps the only other country which has developed a popular music of equivalent variety and complexity is Brazil, perhaps because it had a similar multicultural heritage to draw from, both that of the many European immigrants who peopled the country and that of the Africans who were brought there as slaves. It is also true that Brazilian and American music have borrowed from each other extensively and repeatedly, jazz and pop tunes moving south while the maxixe, the samba, and the bossa nova came north.)

In a prodigious act of scholarship, Alec Wilder examined over 17,000 American popular songs to produce his book, American Popular Music 1900-1950, a definitive analysis of that distinctive sound and form. Wilder, however, operated in a peculiar and idosyncratic way, never enunciating, in the over 500 pages of his book, an explicit aesthetic. He proceeded entirely by what I sometimes think is the ultimate critical act: pointing, pointing to specific instances of songs, and specific places in songs, which he thought epitomized the characteristic aspects and virtues of the form. So you have to read between the lines to find the generalizations which, though hidden and implicit, are nevertheless there.

I want to say a word about Wilder. He was a composer who wrote music of every variety: for the symphony orchestra, chamber groups, and solo instruments; scores for the musical theater; and popular songs, of which a few became well known and entered the library of “standard tunes” (about which I will say more later) which every professional player of popular music knew. The most well-known of these songs are “It’s So Peaceful in the Country,” “I’ll Be Around,” and “While We’re Young.” This paper is in some respects an homage to Alec Wilder’s dedication and musical intelligence.

The specifics of the musical form Wilder analyzed can be simply listed. There were many variations, some of which I will mention, but the archetypal form was thirty-two bars long, divided into four sections: an eight bar statement of a theme (A), a repetition of that theme (A’), a second theme (B), often referred to as “the bridge,” and a final repetition of the first theme (A’’). Common variations were ABAB and ABAC (in which C would consist of a slight variation of B).  The major exception to this was the blues. Blues seldom had a real melody, though some (“St Louis Blues” is a well-known example) did. Rather than a melody, its characteristic feature was an invariant twelve bar succession of chords, again with certain common variations.

The thirty-two bar form could almost be called traditional, except that, as Hobsbawm and others have taught us about so many other traditions, it had a relatively recent origin. Wilder notes that “There were few instances of it in any type of popular music until the late teens. And it didn’t become the principal form until 1925-1926” (p. 56).

The melodies of these songs were so constructed that they could be sung by a person with no more than an average vocal range, seldom reaching beyond a tenth, and usually not even that much. Nor did they involve unfamiliar, uncommon or “difficult” skips or intervals between successive notes, since they consisted mostly of scalewise movements or broken arpeggios (the notes of a simple chord played in turn). The melodies were harmonized with chords native to the scale or ones that were reached through the circle of fifths, thus retaining the diatonic flavor . They did not ordinarily contain unexpected harmonies or dissonant melodic notes (such as were found, for instance, in Kurt Weill’s songs for the operas and cabarets he wrote with Brecht).

It will be obvious from this description that these songs could be sung by people who were musically untrained. No knowledge or ability beyond what someone might have acquired in school or from singing traditional songs was really necessary. Perhaps more to the point, the songs could be understood and “appreciated” by people with a similar lack of specialized training and skill. Hearing such a song was something like filling in the blanks in a printed form: you did not have to guess at the form but could quickly see which of the common ones you already knew it was. The melodies were familiar in their intervals and formats, proceeding by well-known steps and skips. The harmonies were likewise familiar. Together, at a higher level of organization, they produced familar patterns that could be interpreted in traditional ways as sad or happy, romantic, and so on. Composers of “mood music” for Hollywood films eventually codified these effects in libraries of readymade music for standard situations. (The similarity of all this to creation and recognition of standard visual patterns will be apparent to readers of William Ivins and Ernst Gombrich.)

This music acquired its characteristically “American” sound when composers began to incorporate into what they wrote the sounds being created by the musicians who were developing jazz, particularly syncopation, and “blue” and other altered notes in melodies and harmonies. Musicians had also adapted their playing to the requirements of the situations they were playing in, particularly by accepting the steady, unvarying tempos required by dancers, thus avoiding the characteristically “European” sound created by the extensive use of rubato and the fermata. These changes, and others, made a distinctively “American” sound.

Most Americans had learned to recognize this set of components and the typical ways of organizing them, and to respond to them in predictable ways, in their sleep so to speak. In their sleep? Almost literally in their sleep. When I played professionally in bars and taverns which stayed open until late at night, it sometimes happened that I fell asleep, and continued playing without getting lost. Which is only an extreme example of the deep level at which people acquired this knowledge. It was what some people in the field of performance studies now call “embodied” knowledge, a phenomenon studied in sociology only in David Sudnow’s unique book,Ways of the Hand (Sudnow 1978). That book, for those who have not read it, describes how, when Sudnow learned to play jazz as an adult (who had, it should be added, become an ethnomethodologist!), his hand learned things that, it could be said, his mind did not know; the knowledge was in his body.

Since this knowledge was so widespread, it could be taken for granted. It became a resource composers and performers could use, knowing that the resulting songs would be playable by anyone who could play at all, and understandable, musically and emotionally and unthinkingly, by anyone who heard it.

Many variants of these musical forms occurred, some extremely simple. Some—the ones Wilder extolled in his book—were extremely sophisticated, employing devices that went well beyond the simple versions I have just outlined as archetypal. A song might consist of only twenty bars, as in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” It might consist of sixteen, rather than eight, bar strains, as in “Yesterdays.” It might be organized as ABA, as in “Bidin’ My Time. ] It might change keys (“Too Marvelous for Words”) and use enharmonic spellings to do that in a startling way (“All the Things You Are”). It might use large skips (“I Got It Bad”or unconventional ones (“Darn That Dream”), in either case creating potential difficulties for singers.

If a few composers create some new forms and styles, that in no way guarantees that a successful, widely accepted popular music with great cultural penetration will develop. For these songs to be written and played, to be heard and responded to in the way I have described, a network of organizations, institutions, and customary practices had to grow up to maintain the music and carry to the world. What was that network? Traditions do not exist without people to keep them alive, especially so in a performed art like music. The forms I have described became “traditional,” but who carried the tradition and kept it alive?

Briefly, the tradition continued because one group of people—song writers—continued to write songs in these genres; because another group—musicians and singers—learned them and kept them alive by continually performing them; because commercial institutions existed—sheet music stores, record stores—to distribute them; because other commercial institutions—dance halls, night clubs, theaters, vaudeville houses—provided the places where audiences might hear the music in ways that gave it added cachet and meaning; and because the people who heard them continued to be able to “hear” them and to invest them with emotional meaning. It was never in any way “necessary” or given that such organizations would arise. It only needs be said that had those organizations not developed as they did, American popular song would not have been what it became. One might say that the music consisted, in a real sense, of the sounds and all that organization, conceived as a unity (somewhat in the way that Bruno Latour conceives networks of machines, people, and social organizations as unities). The development of each of the phenomena I have mentioned is a sociological study in itself, a study in the growth and maintenance of institutionalized ways of doing things.

Wilder, Aesthetics, and the Music Business

Sociologists are frequently criticized for refusing to make aesthetic judgments. Alec Wilder’s book is filled with judgments about which songs are good and what is good about them, most of which I share. Although he never states any explicit or systematically argued for criteria of what is musically good, it is easy to discern the outlines of one in his meticulously phrased analyses and judgments of particular songs and even musical phrases.

What Wilder is most concerned with is that a song be interesting: that in the construction of the melody and in the arrangement of the harmonies that underlie that melody the composer have made interesting choices between available alternatives, choices which show wit and elegance and sophistication. He concerns himself with the most minute aspects of a song: where notes are repeated and with what effect, what kinds of melodic skips are employed and where, what melodic and harmonic patterns are established against which a witty variation can be heard, which of the harmonizations of a song that might be employed are used.

The underlying aesthetic rests on notions that will be familiar to readers of Leonard Meyer (Meyer 1956;  Meyer 1973) and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (Smith 1968). Listeners to music (or readers of poetry) develop expectations as they proceed through a work. Given what they have so far seen or heard they expect, on the basis of what conventional patterns they are familiar with, they are familiar with, that certain words or notes or harmonies will probably follow. When the work does not satisfy these expectations, listeners experience tension and discomfort, resolved when the expectations are finally satisfied. The most satisfying works (the “best”) are those which reveal that listeners had mistakenly relied on the wrong models in generating their expectations, and the final notes or words turn out to be completely appropriate once the appropriate model is recognized. A musical culture of the kind I have described having come into existence, performers and audiences alike had plenty of models to use as the basis of their guesses as they listened to any song.

WIlder delights in just this, in the unexpected yet perfectly appropriate note, in the way a composer prepares listeners for something to happen, relying on their knowledge of the conventions of music and of the particular musical genre, and then instead does something else, which nevertheless is perfectly justified, “logical,”as the listener reviews it in retrospect. (Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” is a perfect example.)

Do listeners go through all this consciously when they listen to a popular song? No. They know that a song sounds fresh or interesting, but they do not know, or cannot put into words, the means that have been used to produce that result.


Behind the deluge of songs Wilder analyzed, of course, were the composers, the songwriters (to use the less dignified term most of them would have recognized) who created these popular songs. It cannot be overemphasized that this was an industry which ground out a continual supply of what would be called today, in the argot of Hollywood and television, “product.” Songs came out of the publishing houses, who originally made their profits by selling sheet music to people who would take it home and play it, and later made them by collecting royalties for the performance (especially the recorded performance) of songs they had published.

Most of these songs, like most of the production of any large-scale cultural industry, were forgettable. So much like hundreds of other songs, so banal in their melodic contrivances and harmonies, so trivial and derivative in their lyrics (the endless rhyming, in English, of “June” and “moon” became the object of many jokes). They were written to be recorded, played on the radio, sold in record stores, perhaps to become “hits” which would sell thousands, maybe millions, of copies and make the publishers (and perhaps the authors, if they were not cheated of their due, as they often were) a fortune. These songs seldom had the wit and freshness or elegance and sophistication or any of the other qualities Wilder makes much of and musicians and singers treasured so that the songs became classics, and entered what became a standard repertoire.

Some few had these qualities. They came, disproportionately, from a few writers, who mostly wrote their songs not for the sheet music factories of what was called Tin Pan Alley, but for the musical stage and the films. These are the composers to whom Wilder devotes the bulk of his book (but not all of it, to which I will return): Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers.                                                                                                      Writing scores for musical comedies gave composers much more room for innovation, though in a very limited range. Still, the singers who would sing their songs were better trained and capable of singing songs of greater range, with more unusual intervals and harmonies. The audiences who attended those shows were more sophisticated and capable of taking innovation in stride (though it was still a common criterion of judgment that you be able to whistle the tunes as you left the theater, a criterion which did not survive the advent of Stephen Sondheim), and the songs were supposed to carry some dramatic weight and move the narrative along (when there was one). Something like that was true of film music as well. As Wilder points out, the example of these writers who had the freedom of the musical stage gave others courage and exemplars, so that all the innovations were not restricted to that small group.

The people who worked in this genre thus produced the characteristic product of a relatively closed and stable cultural organization: vast numbers of songs whose quality varied enormously within quite narrow limits. Within the conventions of the form, composers could and did make works of great skill, art, and beauty, recognized as such by knowledgeable members of the world of popular song.


Wilder’s aesthetic is very much that of the world of the popular musician, the kind of musician I was in my youth. Such musicians, the people who played in bars and clubs, who played for dances and parties, routinely “knew” hundreds of such songs and could play thousands. When I say that they “knew” these songs, I don’t mean that they had memorized each one note for note, but rather that they could play all these songs once you gave them a bare minimum of information. In the best case, they might know both the melody and the harmonies that had been set to it. But they might, with only have a general idea of which of the several available harmonic models the song fit, and relying on the melody to provide sufficient clues to the harmony or vice versa, then be able to perform it adequately. So a player might identify a song his fellow players did not know as “I Got Rhythm” with a “Honeysuckle [Rose]’” bridge and others would be able to play along. As long as one player knew the melody, or even so long as someone in the audience could hum it for them, the others could pick it up as they played.

To these musicians, certain of the thousands of songs they “knew” in this way seemed especially good, in just the ways Wilder suggested. These songs have, as musicians said, “interesting changes,” that is, harmonies they found it interesting to improvise on. They have melodies which provoke interesting variations in the improvisations built on them. They are, in that sense, interesting and “fun” to play.

Because musicians liked these songs, they played them often, whenever they could choose what they would play, which was often enough. As the musicians made their choices of particular songs to play, based on their own preferences, on what they found “interesting,” they constructed a shared standard of judgment which then influenced further choices. This is one of the specific versions of what social scientists speak of as “culture.”

The application of this shared set of standards, put into practice in countless specific situations, weeded out the endless succession of similar songs produced by songwriters, most of which were ephemeral and not worth anyone bothering to memorize because they would not be asked for in the future. This left a smaller repertoire known to everyone. Because they were played a lot, those songs become the basis of a repertoire, the “standard” songs which every competent player in the genre ought to know and, in fact, did know. Although no two players would know exactly the same “standards,” most players and singers knew enough of them to make it possible for groups to perform an evening’s worth of music even if they had never met before, let alone rehearsed.

When musicians met to play in situations where they had not rehearsed, where they perhaps did not even know each other, they could assume, almost always correctly, that the other players there would know the same songs they did, so that it was sufficient to say “Sunny Side of the Street” and indicate a tempo for the group to then play a competent collective version of that song. They did not even have to indicate the key, because everyone “knew” that the “standard” key was C; if it was not to be played in C, perhaps to accomodate a singer’s range, someone would add “in F.”

This repertoire is an important foundational element of jazz playing. Most jazz performances are performances of a song chosen from among these standard tunes. Even if the melody is never played, even if a different melody is substituted over the distinctive harmonies, a competent player will recognize the song whose harmonies and format underlie what is being played, and will say, “Yeah, that’s ‘really’ ‘Cherokee’ (or ‘Exactly Like You’ or ‘All the Things You Are’).” Thus, the song made famous by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as “Ornithology” was, in this sense, “really” “How High the Moon.” In short, the existence of the standard repertoire is what made most jazz possible. Even when jazz players composed songs not based on an already existing popular song, they usually used the same thirty-two bar format and variations of well-known harmonic patterns.

It was not just the small jazz groups whose work was mainly improvised who carried this tradition. Big bands, of the kind that had begun to develop after the end of World War II, reached their peak in the Thirties and Forties and, unfortunately, began to die out in the Fifties. Made up of anywhere from twelve to twenty musicians, playing from written arrangements, they supported the large numbers of musicians out of which the more talented improvisers could emerge and in which they could get their training. While much of what they played consisted of ephemera, the 300,000 songs from which Wilder made his selections, they always played some of the standqrds as well, keeping them alive for the members of the national audience and making them part of everyone’s experience.


Singers deserve special mention as carriers of the tadition. For most laypeople these songs were indissolubly connected to the words that went with them (which was the case for musicians as well, most of the time). People learned the words from the singers who recorded them and sang them in films and on the radio and, later, television. Popular singers came and went—Perry Como, Bobby Darin, Dinah Shore.

Some singers—Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme are major examples—became, in their own way, “standards.” They outlived the vagaries of the entertainment markets and sang, as jazz players played, the standards of the repertoire. Still others—Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Michael Feinstein—specialized in a more esoteric repertoire, the lesser known or almost unknown works of the the masters Wilder writes about, and of others who were not well known masters at all outside of the inner circles of the music business (like Wilder himself, whose works are the subject of albums by such champions of the esoteric as Marian MacPartland, and Jackie Cain and Roy Kral). These singers were not so widely known, but a more specialized audience supported them and their work.

These singers were carriers of the tradition, as can be seen in the albums and CDs recorded by them—Ella Fitzgerald’s “songbooks” of works by Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, and others; Sinatra’s albums of classics. They kept the songs alive by continually performing them and thus training succeeding generations of listeners to prize them. The recordings of Short, Feinstein, and others made possible the continuation of even the more esoteric branches of the tradition.


The repertoire of standards, brought to the public by the singers and the big bands, was also what most lay people knew. Growing up surrounded by this music, several generations of Americans heard it, on the radio, in films, on the records they brought home, at the dances and clubs they went to. The songs were immediately accessible because of the simple, recognizeable structures I have already discussed. They became the language in which courtship was conducted, in which one learned to “feel” what one was supposed to feel in romantic situations, and in other emotional situations as well. Thus, all those Americans, and many people around the world, learned to associate the winter holidays with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Easter (in America, a day for promenading in new finery) with his “Easter Parade.” We fell in love to “Moonlight in Vermont,” celebrated our sweethearts with “My Funny Valentine,” and suffered heartbreak with “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”


I had trouble thinking how to end this talk. I was tempted to call on the show business tradition on which I have relied for my knowledge here, and “play myself off” with a chorus of “Fine and Dandy.” But that is hardly suitable for so serious an occasion, so I will, instead, close with the suggestion that this kind of integrated look at the institutions of an art and the various kinds of actors who made those institutions viable is transportable across the lines of time, place, and genre, and suggest that comparative studies by sociologists make a special point of taking into account, in a serious way, the fine details of the works themselves, arising as they do out of the continued interactions of all those people and groups.


Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Meyer, Leonard B. Explaining Music: Essays and Explorations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Sudnow, David. Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Wilder, Alec. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.