I've been doing some research on the great American songwriter Irving Berlin and something struck me as odd. Several sources claim he never learned to read or write music. While this is certainly believable for later songwriters with easy access to recording equipment, how was Irving Berlin able to pass his songs along to live Broadway orchestras without a transcription? Is this folklore, or did he come up with some way to write music without writing down the notes?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Yes, it’s true. The composer of countless beloved standards and show tunes including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “White Christmas,” and “God Bless America” couldn’t read or write music. As you rightly suppose, neither can lots of modern songwriters, but here’s the thing: musical illiteracy wasn’t all that rare in Berlin’s day either. Fact is, if the music industry thinks you’ve got commercial potential, it’ll figure out a way to compensate for your technical deficiencies. All you need to do is come up with the hits.
Born in Russia and brought to the U.S. at age five, Irving Berlin dropped out of school in his early teens and taught himself to play the piano while working as a singing waiter from 1904 to 1907. He played almost entirely in the key of F-sharp, allowing him to stay on the black keys as much as possible. This wasn’t unheard-of for a self-taught musician, since it’s easier for untrained fingers to play the black keys (which are elevated and widely spaced) without hitting wrong notes. In a 1962 interview, Berlin said, “The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music.”
So how did he write music if he couldn’t write music? Simple — he got someone else to write it down for him. Music publishers in those days had professional arrangers on staff for that purpose, since many tunesmiths (a lot of black composers of ragtime, for instance) were similarly self-taught. Berlin would bring in whatever he had — sometimes just a whistled melody, sometimes the piano chords to go with it — and the arranger/collaborator would help fill in any blanks, then write it all out in musical notation. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the song that made Berlin a star, was dictated to one Alfred Doyle, who reportedly was paid 50 cents a page.
Getting tunes down on paper wasn’t Berlin’s only challenge. Having limited skills as a pianist, he couldn’t easily change keys. Not to worry. Around 1910, as his career was starting to take off, he bought an upright “transposing piano” for $100. To one side of the keyboard was a small wheel. Turning the wheel shifted the keyboard right or left relative to the strings, positioning the hammers over higher or lower notes than they would ordinarily strike. Thus while still playing on the (mostly) black keys of F-sharp major, Berlin could hear the music in a variety of other keys. Transposing pianos were common back then; almost every music publishing house on Tin Pan Alley had one. Berlin called his instrument his “trick piano” and sometimes his “Buick,” presumably because of the transposing wheel’s resemblance to a steering wheel (he later got another model that used a lever instead). He took it with him almost everywhere, including on vacation cruises with his family.
In 1916 Berlin asked a friend, the famous composer Victor Herbert, whether he should study music. Herbert said it wouldn’t hurt but seemed unnecessary. Berlin took piano lessons briefly but quickly decided his time was more profitably spent dictating songs.
As Berlin’s fame grew, he could afford to hire a secretary with formal music training to transcribe for him. The first of these assistants was pianist Cliff Hess, who held the position from roughly 1912 to 1917, followed after World War I by Arthur Johnston. At one point the young George Gershwin applied for the job, but Berlin thought him too talented to be happy as a mere amanuensis. Finally the job was taken by Helmy Kresa, a German-born musician trained at the Milwaukee Conservatory who worked as Berlin’s musical secretary for almost 60 years, with time off for the occasional spat. Kresa was present at the creation of most of Berlin’s songs and helped defend the composer against phony plagiarism charges. Berlin always maintained that his musical secretaries were essentially stenographers — the secretary may produce the letter, but the executive has to dictate it.
Berlin boasted of his ignorance of music. As early as 1915 he said that since he knew little about the rules of songwriting, he was free to violate them, “and the result was [often] an original twist.” Evidently he was also free of the demons that drive some creative sorts to an early grave. Having donated his transposing piano (the later version, with the lever) to the Smithsonian in 1973, he died in 1989 at age 101.
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