Music Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As successive waves of immigrants arrived in North America, their musical traditions provided a link with their homelands and served as an aspect of group identity. With time, these traditions changed in response to new contexts and merged with other traditions as new forms of music were created.

During the period of European colonization of America, settlers, missionaries, and traders from Spain, Holland, England, France, and other nations began to interact with some of the many Native American nations and communities that they encountered, initially in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coastal regions. Often an integral part of ceremonies, Native American musical styles reflect the various belief systems, environments, and narratives of diverse Amerindian cultures. After the voice, which is used in group singing as well as in solo genres, the most common indigenous instruments are drums and other percussion instruments.MusicMusic[cat]ARTS AND MUSIC;Music[03680][cat]CULTURE;Music[03680]

Despite dislocations, genocide, and assimilation, many Native Americans;music ofNative Americans maintained musical practices along with language and rituals, and sometimes adopted instruments and forms from nonnative communities, especially in rural areas. During the latter half of the twentieth century, activists in the pan-Indian movement utilized music, occasionally blending native elements with familiar rock and country styles, to raise political consciousness. The institution of the powwow often includes traditional music and dance performances in large cultural gatherings. Native American music has also been associated with meditation and the environmental movement. Nonnative American music has been influenced by native concepts of individuality in music, in that certain songs come into existence through private experiences associated with personal growth.

Spanish Settlers and Hispanic Communities

Spanish settlements in Florida, in Texas, and along the California coast during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries brought Roman Catholics;liturgical musicRoman Catholic liturgical music to the area as part of the mission system, and eventually settlers brought secular Spanish music as well, including stringed instruments such as the vihuela, guitar, and violin. Over time, cultural blending between Spanish and Native Americans resulted in syncretic practices, especially with regard to religious festivals. During the nineteenth century, Mexico;music ofMexican song genres such as the ranchera and corrido were sung and accompanied by traveling groups, who also incorporated musical elements from central European immigrant cultures.

Mexicans waiting to find day jobs in East Los Angeles play mariachi tunes, perhaps the most emblematic form of Mexican music.

(Getty Images)

After Latin American immigrants;music ofthe northern parts of Mexico became part of the United States in 1848, Hispanic and mestizo (blended) musical culture continued to develop in those regions and was further augmented by continued immigration from Latin America to the United States. In addition to the older communities in the American Southwest, newer immigrants from Puerto Rican immigrants;music ofPuerto Rico and other areas created vibrant enclaves in many American cities, particularly in New York, and contributed to the development of salsa, Latin rock, and other genres.

Northern European Settlers and <index-term><primary>British immigrants;music of</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Dutch immigrants;music of</primary></index-term>Communities

English and Dutch colonists brought their music with them as they established settlements in Virginia, in Massachusetts, and along the Hudson River during the seventeenth century. Congregational hymn singing was very important, especially in the Massachusetts;Plymouth Bay ColonyPlymouth Bay, MassachusettsPlymouth Bay settlement that was originally established as a religious community. Singing schools, taught by traveling musicians known as singing masters, became a way for communities to enjoy social gatherings as people learned part-singing, often with the aid of “shape notes” (solfeggio symbols combined with staff notation). Singing schools spread throughout the United States during the nineteenth century and led to the development of Sacred Harp singing in the South.

Secular music and instruments were also brought from England and other northern European countries. Often, the secular music was associated with social dancing (usually country dancing, square dancing, and quadrilles). During the nineteenth century, band music was cultivated, and the piano became an important instrument for middle- and upper-class families, who often gathered around the piano for recreational singing. As in England, women were encouraged to learn piano for playing within the home but discouraged from public performances. Concerts of classical music were sometimes given by European musicians for American audiences. British immigrants;music ofLess sophisticated Anglo-American audiences enjoyed humorous minstrel shows, which portrayed derogatory stereotypes of African Americans;and minstrel shows[minstrel shows]African Americans to the accompaniment of lively music. French-speaking settlers who had been removed from eastern Canada during conflicts of the late eighteenth century eventually settled in western Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana, which alternated being a French and Spanish colony. They became known asCajuns;music ofCajuns (or Acadian immigrants;music ofAcadians), maintained their language, and developed a unique musical style known as zydeco.

African American Communities

Beginning African Americans;music ofin the early seventeenth century, West African captives were forcibly brought to the American colonies as part of the Atlantic slave trade, and in reaction to physical and cultural oppression, they developed powerful forms of musical expression. The primary vocal tradition became known as spirituals: religious songs that also carried coded messages for escape and community support. Themes of redemption and justice in spirituals were both transcendent and concrete.

A secondary genre was functional vocal music to accompany manual labor. Both forms utilized West African concepts of “call and response,” in which musical phrases would alternate between a solo voice and group singing. Often, repetition would be used, with emotional intensity increasing through embellishment and inflection. Although drums were forbidden (with the notable exception of Spanish- and French-controlled areas), the banjo was reconstructed from African prototypes and eventually entered into the rural American mainstream.

After the U.S. Civil War ended and slavery was finally abolished in 1865, newer immigrants of African descent came voluntarily to the United States from the Caribbean region and, eventually, from Africa itself. Gospel music, an extension of spirituals and hymnody within African Americans;music ofAfrican American churches, rose to prominence during the twentieth century. Blues, a secular style with melodic similarities to African American sacred music, became well known at about the same time. In the blues, a rhymed couplet, with the first line repeated, is set to a three-phrase musical structure, often with the second phrase harmonized with the subdominant. The blues was also used in instrumental music, forming an essential element of Jazzjazz and becoming the foundation for rock and other popular genres.

Near the beginning of the twentieth century, African American musicians in New Orleans;musicNew Orleans and other cities spearheaded the creation of ragtime, followed by what is often regarded as the quintessential American music style: jazz, which incorporates many elements from European as well as West African musical practices. African Americans rose to fame as popular music stars–at first in Jazzjazz, later in rock, and especially in rhythm and blues (R&B), among other styles. Spirituals continued to be an important African American tradition during the twentieth century, inspiring classical settings and arrangements by Harlem RenaissanceHarlem Renaissance composers and being referenced in writing by Dubois, W. E. B.W. E. B. Du Bois and in speeches by the Reverend King, Martin Luther, Jr.Martin Luther King, Jr. Spirituals inspired solidarity and courage during the Civil Rights movement;music ofCivil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. During the late twentieth and earlytwenty-first centuries, new urban styles developed, including rap, which built on African and African Americans;music ofAfrican American traditions of incorporating rhythmic designs into speech, and hip-hop, which was begun by disc jockeys manipulating recorded music and superimposing their own sounds in live performances.

Celtic Musical Traditions<index-term><primary>Irish immigrants;music of</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Scottish immigrants;music of</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Welsh immigrants;music of</primary></index-term>

During the eighteenth century, immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and other regions settled in the Appalachian mountains. Fiercely independent and living in relative isolation, they cultivated narrative song and instrumental dance music traditions that they had brought from their homelands. In some cases, Appalachian ballads remained almost unchanged from their counterparts in Europe. Over time, the instrumental dance music acquired some African American inflectional and rhythmic influences, eventually leading to the development of bluegrass. During the nineteenth century, newer waves of immigrants from Ireland arrived but settled primarily in large communities within major cities such as New York and Boston. Because of these communities, Irish music was well documented and preserved in the United States, and some of the repertoire was eventually brought back to Ireland.

Other European Immigrants

During British North America’s colonial period, German immigrants;music ofGerman settlers, often escaping religious persecution and war, settled in many areas, especially in Pennsylvania, where they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch;music ofPennsylvania Dutch. Most of their music was religious, but Germans also added musical dance forms such as the waltz to North American and Latin American music. In smaller ensembles, the accordion became a mainstay, and an inexpensive and highly portable German instrument, the harmonica, was introduced in the United States in 1868, where it was received with great enthusiasm. The harmonica was adaptable to many musical styles, including blues and country, and its plaintive, lonesome sound became identified with travelers such as cowboys, and fortune seekers who rode the railroads in search of opportunities.

German and other central European communities contributed to the development and popularity of brass band music, and another lively dance form, the polka, echoed in the large German and Polish communities of American cities. Euro-American descendants of earlier generations of immigrants often looked to Europe for guidance in matters of culture, and until the twentieth century they frequently preferred exotic new European immigrants with classical training over their homespun American counterparts for teaching posts, compositions, and concerts. During the early twentieth century, immigration from Ashkenazi JewsAshkenazi Jewish communities in eastern Europe increased, bringing Klezmer music and Yiddish Yiddish;theaterTheater;Yiddishtheater to the United States. Many first- and second-generation immigrant musicians from Yiddish-speaking communities in Europe participated in the development of musical theater, music publishing, and the emergence of the popular music industry.

In American urban centers, Italian immigrants;music ofItalian, Greek immigrants;music ofGreek, and other immigrant communities created ethnic enclaves during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Music, along with language, cuisine, religious worship, and other shared experiences, contributed to community identity. Eventually, through assimilation and relocation to the suburbs, some of the enclaves became less distinct, but music and dance forms were cultivated, especially the Italian tarantella and Greek rebetiko music. Americans from outside these groups are sometimes invited to experience this music and dance in cultural festivals sponsored by city governments.

Asian Immigrants

Most of the first Asian immigrants;music ofAsian immigrants to the United States were from Chinese immigrants;music ofsouthern China. During the mid-nineteenth century, they were primarily male gold prospectors and manual laborers coming through San Francisco and other western ports. Cantonese opera and other southern Chinese music genres were occasionally supported as Chinatown enclaves grew in the cities, and Chinese Christian churches shared hymn repertoire with Missionaries;in China[China">Du Bois, W. E. B.missionary churches in China. During the twentieth century, immigrants from other Asian nations arrived, especially in Hawaii;Asian immigrantsHawaii, where Asian musicians contributed to the island’s multicultural heritage. During the late twentieth century, newer immigrants from Asia were often highly educated and supported elite forms of music, often inviting visiting musicians from their home countries.

Communities in Exile

The twentieth century brought unprecedented upheavals and relocations to the world, from the Armenian immigrantsArmenians fleeing Genocide;Armeniangenocide in Turkey;Armenian genocideTurkey in 1915 through World War I, global depression during the 1930’s, the Holocaust, World War II, the Cold War, wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Iranian revolution, and more. Many of those who were displaced or threatened by these events sought refuge in the United States. In some cases, music traditions that would have otherwise been destroyed were preserved. Although tolerance was not always a factor in America’s musical history, the increasing recognition of music as a marker of personal and community identity, and the increasing value placed on musical diversity, bode well for the future.Music

Further Reading
  • Bohlman, Philip Vilas, Edith Blumhofer, and Maria Chow, eds. Music in American Religious Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Collection of detailed chapters (based on presentations for a conference at the University of Chicago) highlighting specific dimensions of the topic and spanning many ethnic groups, religious faiths and/or denominations, and historical periods.
  • Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music, from the Pilgrims to the Present. 3d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Spans classical, folk, and popular music.
  • Roberts, John Storm. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Encompasses the evolution of Latin American musical forms as well as their influence in the United States.
  • Rubin, Rachel, and Jeffrey Paul Melnick. Immigration and American Popular Culture: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Includes extensive treatment of music, spanning the 1930’s to the early twenty-first century.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Comprehensive study includes all major genres and figures.


Berlin, Irving

Cultural pluralism

Lennon, John

Linguistic contributions



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