Sound of the States

There's something familiar about American compositions, across genres and musical periods. What's behind the American sound?


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What qualifies something as “American”? Political candidates accuse their opponents of not being American enough, yet for every constituent who agrees, there is another who defines their country in a completely different fashion. In the world of arts and culture, America lacks the lengthy history of Europe to define itself. At just a few decades over 200 years old, we haven’t had nearly enough time to establish the same artistic legacy as the rest of the world. Even defining purely American food proves a difficult task; almost everything we eat seems to have historical roots planted in another country.

American music follows a similar narrative, but the story has a different ending. Yes, much of our music was inspired by sounds from around the world. But, from the traditional African music that became jazz to the European jigs that inspired bluegrass, our musical genres ultimately became uniquely American. And though this American sound may be easy to hear in genres like jazz and bluegrass we find a similar sound in a more surprising style: classical.

To organize classical pieces by their period — baroque versus romantic, for example — simply by listening is difficult. It requires a good familiarity with classical. Listening to a piece and then guessing which country it is from, then, is even more difficult. And because most countries have centuries worth of classical compositions, listening to and identifying pieces from a specific European country often becomes more an exercise in memorization than an awareness of stylistic patterns.

But there’s no doubt that when we listen to George Gershwin and Aaron Copland there’s something more to their music, stylistically, than the traditional sound of “classical.” They are very distinctly American classical. What is behind this sound? Gershwin is famous for sampling jazz, even working it into his opera Porgy and Bess, but not every American composer or composition samples jazz and blues. Could it be an American reliance on our brass, wind, and percussion section? These are the driving forces behind much of Copland’s Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man. Then how do we explain Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings?

One pattern that links these pieces is their narrative quality. Read the term “narrative” loosely here. Narrative does not strictly refer to a piece that accompanies a story such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (from Russia) or any work that accompanies a ballet (though Porgy and Bess and Rodeo are meant to accompany staged scenes). The narrative American works I am thinking of tell a story without added narration or scenery; the music itself is all you need.

The easiest example here is Gershwin’s An American in Paris (easiest in that it is so loved and celebrated that it is not often overlooked). This is a purely orchestral work — no dancers, actors, or narrators are required for a performance. But we can still hear the American’s fascination with Paris and, later, feel his homesickness.

Is this perhaps a product of the individualistic ideals associated with being American? It is not enough to simply compose a piece; we must compose a piece that shows our audience our own emotions and experiences.

Individualism as inspiration is a nice sentiment but it overlooks something more practical. Most famous American composers, particularly those already mentioned, were a product of the romantic, impressionist, and post-impressionist periods. What each of these periods has in common is their focus on expression over technique. It was more important, during these periods, for music to convey something like an emotion than adhere to traditional music theories.

But not every American composer produced works typical of these periods. Though he lived through the burgeoning impressionist era, Scott Joplin, the African American composer famed for The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, was one of the main forces behind ragtime (another uniquely American genre).

Even John Philip Sousa, who was a legitimate romantic composer, captures a quality beyond what a romantic composer from any other country would be able to create. Sousa, of course, is known for his military marches, particularly Stars and Stripes Forever.

The choral composer, William Billings, was one of the earliest American composers; he even came before the romantic period, working in the late half of the 18th century. Thus, his America style cannot be attributed to his period or the incorporation of other genres like jazz. Billings’ psalms, composed in colonial New England, are still popular today — despite the fact that they sound exactly as you would expect a psalm from colonial New England to sound. The lyrics still resonate with contemporary church choirs and their melodies are certainly more modern in sound than, say, any elegant Bach chorale you can think of.

So what links these American composers together across decades, genres, and the instruments employed? The answer is a product of one of the political ideologies that defines us: accessibility to the masses.

Before America established its own unique legacy, classical music was not typically enjoyed by the “hoi polloi”. As far back as the baroque era, classical composers were commissioned by the wealthy or royalty, this was how composers like Bach and Mozart made a living. And you’d rarely hear samplings from local folk music from these eras because genres were kept strictly separate — as were classes of people.

American classical, was composed to appeal to everyone. William Billings worked around the time of the American Revolution; of course his ideology would lead him to produce compositions that would appeal to the common man. Gershwin had the luxury of experimenting with classical and jazz because he was American — though, ultimately, the likes of Ravel, Shostakovich, and others where inspired to do the same. Here we don’t have hundreds of years of classic music sensibilities limiting creativity. In fact, it is beneficial if you create something popular. After all, America is a capitalist society.

Somewhere in our history, there was a shift in thinking and, now, what’s popular doesn’t necessarily correlate with what we respect. Still, the tradition of mixing popular and classical lives on — most contemporary American composers also write scores for film. But today’s composers, such as John Williams, haven’t gained acclaim within the classical community as a composer such as Gershwin has, despite their success in the film world.

Yet it would be impossible to argue that Williams, though most famous for his works for film like Star Wars and Jaws, isn’t a true classical composer. His compositions are as emotionally wrought as any other classical piece. The music that plays as Luke looks out over the vistas of Tatooine in A New Hope gives me chills every time I hear it. 25 January 2013


Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters,, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.