This is Deep Tracks: the show where I give you the entire history of rock music through podcast-sized chunks every week. I am your intrepid host, Doug “That’s a lot of nuts!” McCulloch.

When I was a kid, I was really into superheroes and comic books. Actually, who am I kidding? I’m still really into superheroes and comic books. But in particular, when I was about 10 or 11, I started creating my own superheroes and my own comics. Initially, I enjoyed the creation of new characters more than the development of already-existing ones, so I went through a phase for a couple years where I was just making up new comic book characters left and right. I loved doing the character design, coming up with a backstory and what sorts of powers or abilities they would have, all of that stuff. But of course, the most important part in creating all these new characters was, I needed to come up with names for them.

So, at first I would just flip through a thesaurus looking for cool words that I thought sounded like superhero or super villain names. Every once in a while I would add the title “captain” or “doctor” in front of them. After a while, I started to cast a wider net in my search for name-ideas, and this led me to look through the Bible. You see, I’d already used the Bible to help me come up with a name for my character in dungeons and dragons—he was a rogue named Barnabus—so I knew it had some possibilities.

I remember during my search, while flipping through the book of Psalms, I noticed these funny words at the beginnings of the chapters or sometimes in the middle; I could sort of tell from context that they weren’t the names of people, but were something else. Words like “selah,” and “maschil,” and “al-taschith”… they sort of left me scratching my head. (And, in case you’re wondering: no, none of those words I just listed made the cut to become names for any comic characters).

But! What I didn’t realize at the time was, I had been looking at some of the earliest forms of music publishing right there. You see, Psalms are songs. So, it makes sense that those songs would include some ancient form of “lead sheets.” In this case, when it says “selah” in the middle of the text, it was most likely marking a break or a pause in the music. While maschil meant it was a song intended to give instruction or confer wisdom, so, that word was serving the purpose of signaling what type of song it would be. And al-taschith is most likely referring to a popular tune to which the words would’ve been sung—kind of like saying, “sing these words to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’” or, “to the tune of the Anacreontic Society,” or whatever. But my point is, you had elements of timing, style, and pitch right there…roughly one thousand BCE.

Then, about two thousand years after those psalms were likely composed, Christian monks in Europe—who had derived their musical traditions from the ancient Greeks (which is why those modes I mentioned a couple episodes ago have names drawn from Greek culture: Dorian, Aeolian, Lydian, etc.)—developed a system of formalizing the chant for their liturgy. They decided to use little dots. The higher dots would represent higher notes in the chant. The lower dots represented lower notes. And there would be different types of dots. Some dots would represent longer-held notes while other dots would represent shorter ones… Sound familiar?

Thus the roots of modern musical notation—which communicates both pitch and rhythm—had been born.

In this episode, we are going to do some world-building. So far, we’ve been talking about some of the elements contributing directly to rock music’s DNA, but we haven’t spent much time setting the stage for many of the other important factors at play during the time rock came into formation. So, as I mentioned at the end of last episode, we’ll be talking about radio, the recording industry, record charts, as well as what genres and artists dominated music pre-1955, but first we need to talk about the vertical within the music industry that dominated the industry pre-1945: sheet music.

As I pointed out in my little intro story to this episode, the idea of physically recording visual symbols of musical sounds and ideas has been around for thousands of years. But music publishing—which in large part owes its early rise to Ottaviani Pettruci in the early 1500s—would come to be a huge factor in shaping musical tastes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first known instance of published music in the United States was in 1764, in which a guy named Josiah Flagg printed some collections of popular and religious music in the colonies. However, the first professional music publishers wouldn’t arrive from Europe until after the American Revolution, in the late 1770s. At that time, Music publishing was mostly used for so-called “classical” music. With copyright laws being so lax and royalties being practically non-existent, there really weren’t a lot of songwriters actively publishing their stuff. Songs became popular primarily through word-of-mouth or through travelling shows, like the Minstrel Show we talked about a couple episodes ago. However, as the industry grew, there were those who saw the potential to make money—if they could protect their intellectual property.

This led to a number of songwriters, composers, and musicians at the turn of the century to band together—hehe, “band” together—and create a sort of enclave on and around 28th St. in New York. This area would eventually come to be called “Tin Pan Alley.” There are different accounts about where that name comes from and no one knows for sure, so we’re not going to dwell on that. The more important thing to point out here is that, even though Tin Pan Alley initially referred to a place, it also came to be known as a repertory, and a process. The repertory, as John Covach and Andrew Flory put it in their textbook on the History of Rock entitled “What’s that Sound?”, followed a “standard, though very flexible, formal pattern.” Essentially, If you analyze the structure of Tin Pan Alley songs, you’ll find a formula to them. It’s not unlike episodic television. And this formula, or structure, refers to the Tin Pan Alley process—a process that will be important to remember when we eventually talk about the “Brill Building approach” in the early ‘60s. So, you know, take notes or something.

Now, The process to which I’m referring is the craftsman approach to songwriting. Essentially what you had in Tin Pan Alley were a bunch of offices with songwriters, executives, publishers—basically it was a Wal-Mart of music publishing jobs, from creation to licensing to distribution and marketing. It was a very “assembly line” approach to songwriting. These weren’t blues artists singing about hard times or daily life, and these weren’t country artists memorializing folk traditions or baring their souls through song—these were craftsmen assembling products to fill a specific order. Again referring to What’s That Sound?: the Tin Pan Alley repertory was “unified not only in the way it [was] structured but also in the way it was marketed. In rock music, the basic unit of trade is a specific recorded performance, available on a record, tape, CD, MP3, or other format. But in the Tin Pan Alley era, the basic unit of trade was the song itself, not a specific recording of the song.” I’ll quickly insert here that I had a personal experience that may illustrate this differentiation somewhat. During my undergrad, I won a composition competition in which a piece I wrote would be performed by the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. It was an amazing experience for me as a young college student to hear my music performed by a professional orchestra in one of their concerts, and the concert was recorded—a copy of which was given to me for personal reference. However, if I wanted to use the recording for anything other than my own personal usage, I had to get written permission from the orchestra because, while I owned the rights to the music, they owned the rights to the performance of that music. But anyway, I’ll continue with the Covach/Flory quote on how Tin Pan Alley music was marketed: “A successful song was recorded by a series of artists, each trying to tailor the tune to suit his or her personal style, and the more versions, the more money that could be made by the songwriter and his or her publisher.”

As fair warning, I drew heavily from the Covach/Flory textbook for this episode, so I’ll be referring to it a bunch more. But since John Covach is the primary author and I’m mostly familiar with his output, I may end up saying just Covach when I’m referring to “What’s That Sound,” so I’ll apologize in advance to Andrew Flory if he feels I’m giving in short-shrift in my podcast. It’s not intentional.

Anyway, To demonstrate what that quote was talking about there with the song being recorded by a series of artists with their personal style, I’ll play clips of “I’m Through With Love” performed by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald:

Now, the songwriters in Tin Pan Alley were rarely performers themselves. These songwriters I’m talking about are people like George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, to name a few. They were the creators of the product. It was then up to the publishers to pitch the songs to performers who would work them into their sets. But once songwriters had had enough hits, you would see things happen the other way around in which they would be approached by performers or industry execs and commissioned for specific projects.

For example: Let’s say you’re a vaudeville star who needs a new hit that capitalizes on America’s favorite past time. Boom! [clip of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”] Or, You’re a radio singer who needs something to sing for your show on Armistice Day? Blam-o! You’ve got [clip of “God Bless America.”] Or, You’re a movie producer who needs a holiday song for a musical starring Bing Crosby? Shazam! [clip of “White Christmas.”]

And I know “shazam” is used for a very different purpose than creating hit songs but it was just the next word that came to mind.

This craftsman approach is a different approach to music creation than what we’ve looked at so far in this podcast. Artists like Hank Williams or Robert Johnson were writing and arranging songs based on what their personal tastes and experiences were. They were building on riffs and/or lyrics that would come to them organically and then they had the freedom to do with those musical ideas whatever sounded good to them. They were just lucky that those ideas sounded good to other people as well—though poor Robert Johnson wouldn’t live to see that happen.

But Tin Pan Alley was different. It was the other way around. You didn’t create something in the hopes that it would fill audience needs: you were often given the need first, and then you crafted a song to fill that need. Even if you weren’t commissioned by a specific performer or filmmaker for a specific occasion or movie, it was still a very “top down” approach to music creation because there were always the publishing execs who were telling you what would sell and thus, what to write. You weren’t always allowed the freedom to just get up in the morning and follow your muse and, whether it was a song idea that interested you personally or not, that was irrelevant. You had to come up with something. The guys who wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” had never been to a baseball game in their lives. “White Christmas” was written by a Jewish man. Personal experience and preference meant nothing—only results.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m trivializing Tin Pan Alley, I will point out, There’s something to be said about that sort of skill. They’re not just artists: they’re artisans. They may not be breaking molds or moving the art’s evolution forward, but they are people who’ve mastered the craft and can mold it and manipulate it according to whatever the situation demands. Composers like Haydn and Mozart functioned primarily under a very similar directive. They had their patrons who would say, “I’m totally throwing a party this weekend for the Duke of Awesomedom and I need something to impress him while he’s here. Write me something fun that will show how rich and amazing I am. Oh, and dedicate it to me, so he’ll think everyone likes me.” And then the composer would go and throw together a string quartet or some other chamber ensemble piece; then the 18th century’s version of session musicians would rehearse it real quick and then perform it. Many of those composers—Mozart in particular—chafed under this system and the fact we find so much complexity and genius in their compositions is probably really just a sign of them trying to combat the boredom of fulfilling another dumb request from whoever was paying their bills.

But it’s not all drudgery. As a composer myself, I’ve had some experience in this realm. While I was in college I once co-wrote a bunch of music for a musical stage play that was a spin on the Epic of Ramayana in a film noir setting. So the writer/director wanted the music to be a mixture of old big band and jazz with Indian ragas, and I had a blast combining those musical traditions together into some unique hybrids. Another time I wrote some music for a musical production in Florida in which almost every song was a different style of music, so I was writing stuff that had to sound like funk, polka, blues, pop, and so on. It stretched me as a composer in ways that I wouldn’t have thought to do on my own. Recently, though, I was able to indulge in a project that came my way that also hit on some of my other interests: I’ve been able to do a couple of intro tracks for Level One Geek, a tabletop gaming Twitch stream, the most recent of which was for a Nordic mystery horror game called Vaesen. [play clip] So, that’s always nice, is when projects plop in my lap that also tickle my other fancies. And, actually, while I’m at it, if you enjoy tabletop gaming of any kind, please check them out at or their Instagram is Level1Geek—that’s “level”, the numeral “1,” “geek.”

But anyway, to get back on topic, my point is, it’s a very different approach than other times when I just sit down at the piano and start jamming, but it’s still fulfilling—for me, anyway…most of the time. I’ve had some projects that I wasn’t as excited about, but those have been the exception rather than the rule, in my experience.

Anyway, we’ll be revisiting this concept of these two different approaches to music—the craftsman vs. the artist—when we discuss the Beatles and the evolution of their music.

But, the main takeaway I want you to have for Tin Pan Alley is that, for them, sheet music was the biggest thing. The point of performers like Bing Crosby or even Ella Fitzgerald was to drive people to the music store to purchase the sheet music. I mean, drive them, like, push them in that direction, not, like, literally drive them in their car to the store… that would be weird.

Anyway! We’re going to shift gears—hehe—and now look at what would eventually become sheet music’s biggest competitors: the recording industry and radio broadcasting. That’s right: they would eventually shift from being the publicity arm of sheet music to overshadowing sheet music completely.

[play edison’s mary had a little lamb]

That was Thomas Edison. He recorded that in 1877 when he invented the phonograph. It would be another 25 years before recording technology would be developed enough to be a viable money-maker. Initially the fledgling record companies sent guys out to record popular arias from operas, but they quickly began releasing recordings of other types of music as well. Brass bands did the best on those early recordings—partly because that music was popular at the time, but also because those instruments just came through really well on those old machines. This is somewhat ironic because this ended up being a boon to the career of John Phillip Sousa—I say it’s ironic because Sousa was not a fan of the phonograph. [read excerpt from “Listen to This”]

Seven years after Edison’s invention of the phonograph, Marconi invented radio telegraphy in 1894. At first, the only sounds being transmitted through radio waves were the little “beeps” and “boops” of Morse code communications. But then in 1900, a guy named Reginald Fessenden (remember that name) successfully transmitted speech over a distance of about one mile, which appears to have been the first successful audio transmission using radio signals. They were too garbled to be commercially viable, but by 1906 he had perfected the process enough that, on Christmas Eve, he was able to broadcast music and spoken word from his location in Brant Rock, Massachusetts well enough that ships at sea were able to pick it up.

Which, can I just insert a little aside here: Imagine you were one of those guys on one of those ships. Radio is brand new and up ‘til this point it’s only been used for sending the equivalent of R2-D2 monologues through the airwaves, and then suddenly one night you’re out at sea and you hear some guy playing “O Holy Night” on a violin followed by him reading some Bible passages. It must’ve been mind-blowing. Or at the very least, a head-scratcher.

Nevertheless, by 1912, Marconi had built the first factory designed solely for the purpose of assembling radios for distribution. Now, I should point out, Radio had already been growing rapidly even before that—in fact, one of the issues the crew of the Titanic ran into when sending out their distress signals was the fact that the airwaves were so clogged by amateur radio operators. This led to Congress passing the Radio Act of 1912, which would put regulations and parameters in place to make sure that problem would, you know, no longer be a problem.

But it’s important to make sure it’s clear that radio during the first couple decades of the 20th century was nothing like radio as we think of it today. Radio broadcasting and the creation of radio stations wouldn’t really start until the 1920s.

The Dutch were the first to create a regular wireless broadcast for entertainment in late 1919. Then in August of 1920, the first known radio news program was broadcast in Detroit, Michigan under ownership of the CBS network. The first college radio station began broadcasting in October of 1920, from Union College, Schenectady, New York under the personal call letters of Wendell King, an African-American student at the school.

Also in October 1920, that same station in Schenectady—I can’t say that name enough—aired what is believed to be the first public entertainment broadcast in the United States, a series of Thursday night concerts initially heard within a 100-mile radius and later for a 1,000-mile radius. In November 1920, it aired the first broadcast of a sporting event.

The one thing you may have noticed that hasn’t been played over the radio yet is a record. You see, initially, records and radio were two completely disconnected spheres. If you listened to the radio, it was understood that you were listening to a live performance. This was a large reason why Nashville became Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry—which first went on the air in 1925 under its original name of “Barn Dance”—would be bringing in musicians every week to do live performances on its show, and with all these country and western musicians coming and going all the time, you started to see an infrastructure build up in support of that: guitar shops, instrument repairs, sheet music and paraphernalia, etc. That’s how that city became the Mothership of country western. And even when, out of necessity for some smaller, poorer stations, pre-recorded material was played over the air, it was generally frowned upon and even seen as dishonest. So, if you were in the mood to listen to some music while entertaining guests, you used your record player. But When the family sat down to enjoy a show together, they would sit around the radio.

You see, A large part of radio was still news and sports broadcasts, not to mention FDR’s fireside chats that ran from 1933 to 1945, while the entertainment side of radio would come to be dominated by dramatic performances like…

[Superman, Lone Ranger, War of the Worlds clips]

That last clip comes from Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, which supposedly caused mass panic when many radio listeners believed it was real, though I’ll include in the show notes a link to an NPR article that sheds some light on that legend.

Despite all of that, One of the most important things to know about radio’s impact on music during those early years is that it helped create a national audience and break up the regionalism of music. I’ve mentioned regionalism a little bit before in this show. Remember how, many early blues styles were known by their place of origin—such as delta blues, which came from the Mississippi Delta. And remember how much of the music that the Carter Family performed wasn’t really well known outside their native region until Ralph Peer recorded and distributed their performances.

There’s this great quote from sportscaster Red Barber that captures this perfectly:

“People who weren't around in the Twenties when radio exploded can't know what it meant, this milestone for mankind. Suddenly, with radio, there was instant human communication. No longer were our homes isolated and lonely and silent. The world came into our homes for the first time. Music came pouring in. Laughter came in. News came in. The world shrank, with radio.”

With radio, you could hear artists from a completely different region performing their music and be exposed for the first time to styles and sounds that you wouldn’t have heard, otherwise. As John Covach put it, “When NBC went coast-to-coast with its national radio network in 1928, regional boundaries in popular culture began to blur. … Network radio audiences suddenly became national audiences.” This new creature called “national audience” will be a huge factor in rock music’s birth.

But Covach also points out that, “Especially important to the history of popular music is the way some pop styles became national while other styles kept their regional identities. To a great extent this can be attributed to the programming of the networks: the mainstream pop music of Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, the big bands, and later Frank Sinatra were heard frequently on network radio; country and western, and rhythm and blues were not.” There’s a reason for this. Continuing with Covach: “the mainstream pop played on network radio during the 1930s and ‘40s was directed at a white, middle-class listening audience. Music that business people thought might appeal to only low-income white or low-income black listeners (rural or urban) was mostly excluded, or at best, given a marginal role in radio programming. Since country and western and rhythm and blues were considered music for such low-income listeners, these styles were not often programmed on network radio; as a consequence, they retained their regional distinctions.”

The rise of radio networks would be a large factor in what music would reach this new national audience. Even if your station had the ability to broadcast farther than it actually did, radio stations couldn’t just blast their signals into the world willy-nilly. There were regulations within the U.S. for how far and wide certain stations could broadcast their signals. Some broadcasters found a way around this by placing their transmitters in Mexico where they’d be outside the restrictions of the U.S., and then blast their signals as far as possible, some of which reached as far north as Chicago. But then at night, while many radio stations ended their programming for the day, other stations—super stations—had the rights to boost their signals while those sleeping stations would pull theirs back. So the way that regionalism was impacted by radio was even affected by what types of licenses different radio stations had. If you think about how the output of recording artists is influenced by what they’re exposed to and raised on, then these broadcasting licenses even had a direct impact on what type of music the next generation would be creating. Imagine if those super stations that could boost their signal were all 24/7 polka music stations. I wonder what early rock music would’ve sounded like…

But I digress! AM radio was the first to dominate the airwaves. That guy I mentioned earlier, Reginald Fessenden, was one of two guys to whom the invention of AM radio is attributed—with Lee de Forest being the other guy. It was a better technology for broadcasting than what had existed before it, and it would reign as the king of radio broadcasting all the way until 1978. In fact, as a kid growing up, I remember my mom still tuned in to AM radio whenever she wanted to listen to music, while I would tune in to FM radio—which is of course the format most people use today. The FM platform was patented in 1933 and FM broadcasting in the U.S. began in the late 1930s. Initially, all the popular, mainstream stuff was on AM, with everything else on FM—basically the opposite of how things are today. This would start to change in the 1960s and ‘70s with Album Oriented Rock and San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue, with 1978 being the first year that more listeners would tune in to FM rather than AM. But those are tidbits for a future episode. For now, it’s important to understand that, for the most part, whenever we’re talking about radio in these episodes, we’re talking about AM radio.

But like I said earlier, a large part of radio’s entertainment programming was dramatic programming. When television entered the scene it changed everything. For example, an early radio show was the Lone Ranger. And an early television show was the Lone Ranger. So…if you had the option of listening to the Lone Ranger vs. watching the Lone Ranger, which would you choose? Needless to say, TV supplanted radio’s dramatic programming so that radio stations were forced to find new material with which to fill their air time. It was only natural that music would fill this void. Thus, music went from being an occasional smattering on the airwaves, to dominating the airwaves. And of course Because of this, you couldn’t realistically expect to have live performers all the time, so radio stations had to start hiring people to play pre-recorded material—or, as it came to be known: spinning platters.

And thus was born the disc jockey. However, we’re going to end things there for today. Next time, we’ll pick things up where we left off and we will discuss the birth of the American DJ as well as Billboard and record charts.

Until then, you can access a transcript of this episode on my website,, where you can also sign up for my newsletter and gain access to the show notes, more resources for any rabbit holes you’d like to go down in your own research, as well as some fun merchandise designed by yours truly.

Show Notes

  • If you'd like to learn more about the history of music notation or even the origins of modes and scales within Western music, one of the best sources for music history is the textbook "A History of Western Music," by Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, and Peter Burkholder (though, we always just called it "the Grout" for short in college...).  
  • The textbook I referred to the most in this episode, "What's That Sound?" by John Covach and Andrew Flory, is also the textbook I've used the most in my time teaching rock history college courses.
  • The BBC has a great article on Marconi's first radio broadcast.
  • When radio first became widespread, the ubiquity of amateur radio operators actually got in the way of rescue efforts for the Titanic.  This led to the passage of the Radio Act of 1912.
  • If you're curious about the differences between AM and FM radio, check out this great article on Mental Floss.
  • has a great entry on the history of the recording industry.
  • The FCC (Federal Communication Commission) has a pretty cool, almost "year-by-year" history of radio on their website.
  • Here is the NPR article I referenced about the panic surrounding the "War of the Worlds" broadcast.