America is a country of wide musical taste. In any large city you may find performances of jazz, pop, and rock bands, symphony orchestras, opera, blues, folk, country and blue grass music, and musical theatre. America’s blend of music originated from a wide variety of sources, in particular, European classical traditions and the ethnic rhythms from its many immigrants. America’s earliest settlers brought their music - folk songs and dances, psalms, hymns, and some formal music. It was their religious music, the melodies and hymns passed down by oral tradition, which served as a basis of much colonial music.
NATIVE AMERICAN MUSIC Native American music styles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries remained as diverse as there were tribal communities. Despite this, some broad generalization can be made when compared with non-Native sounds and uses of music. Singing rather than instrumental performances grounded Native music making, although drums and other percussion instruments accompanied many songs, as did flutes and whistles in certain regions. Certain songs would be used for a particular ceremonial or seasonal event in traditional and innovative ways. With the increasing arrival of newcomers to the continent, tribal people adopted and adapted European instruments, such as the fiddle, to indigenous music making practices. Records kept by Spanish missionaries in California and New Mexico reveal the centrality of music to their conversion efforts.
SACRED MUSIC Music performed in the context of sacred observances was also important to African and European born and descended people. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the hymns of Congregationalist Churches had shifted from ritual to art with a full support system of church choirs, singing masters, published psalters, and singing schools. The first known black American published composer, the African-born former slave Newport Gardner of Rhode Island, emerged from this singing-school movement. By 1810, over 5000 musical compositions by American psalmodists had appeared in print, including Richard Allen’s 1801 hymn collection for his Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first known compilation of sacred music for a black congregation.
HOLIDAYS Often in conjunction with religious purposes, Americans heard an increase in music making during holidays. In primarily agricultural communities, early winter was a time to celebrate after a demanding harvest season. The English tradition, whereby lower sorts intruded into the homes of the wealthy singing demands for food and drink in exchange for goodwill, continued in early America. Rituals enacted during the Christmas season by African-Americans included public song and dance. In these, parading bands of musicians requested gifts of food or money, taking African-derived song and dance culture to the broader communities amongst whom they lived. Parades remained central to black public musical activities.
MUSIC OF THE SLAVES During the early American republic, music made by black Americans could be decidedly African, but it could also be distinctive from anything heard on that continent. The factors that shaped the nature of the African-derived music in early America largely depended upon a music maker’s exposure to the sounds of the diverse American populace. West and Central Africans made music as varied as the Europeans amongst whom those enslaved would eventually live in America.
MUSIC AND POLITICS Much political activity in the young nation transpired with musical accompaniment, although at times this “music” might more appropriately be called “noise.” Drums (and even pots and pans) drew attention to community grievances, as in the “rough music” used to enforce social norms under threat. Americans marked Independence Day and Washington’s birthday with patriotic songs, balls, and parades. They did the same to honor the Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette on his 1824–1825 tour of the country. One good example is the song “Yankee Doodle,” which might accurately be described as the first American national anthem. Singing “Yankee Doodle” exemplified what one scholar has called a “sophisticated rural self-parody.”
ART MUSIC In the earliest years of the century, no musical style or genre was reserved for a particular class of people. Concert music had existed in East Coast urban centers for a century when in the 1830s wealthy patrons financed the first professional orchestras. Lacking the aristocratic tradition of court and church patronage, the early American music “industry” had to function as locally financed businesses. From the 1790s through the 1830s, the number of theater and concert performances grew, the United States developed the necessary infrastructure to support the performing arts broadly. Immigrant musicians made up the majority of these professionals and typically performed European composed pieces. As a result, musicians transformed from craftsmen to artists. By the 1840s the elite had increasingly withdrawn into performances reserved purely for their own enjoyment (such as Italian opera performed in the original language).