Note: The article below is not intended to be a complete history of music in the Americas. Rather, it is designed to provide a cursory and background knowledge of this art form. It should be freely supplemented with more focused, narrowly-directed research on any of the topics mentioned therein.
The development of a truly American music has been a touchy subject among music historians. At the turn of the 20th century, students of music postulated that there could be no such thing as a truly "American" music; the best we could do is expand on the European styles that had dominated the music scene for the last three centuries. And, in turn of the century America, they were right. American composers simply could not create an American art form. In fact, European composers were having more success writing American music than American composers. Anton Dvorak, a Czech composer, composed his 9th Symphony "From the New World," while living in America, and utilized Negro Spirituals among the thematic material.
Quite obviously, the first "American" music came from its native peoples, the Native Americans. The folk music of the Native Americans was varied, though several similarities reign. Most of this music lacked harmony and polyphony, and used instruments that were easy to construct with the technology that existed, such as flutes, rattlers, drums, and shakers.
The roots of Anglo-American music lie in its earliest days. In the 18th century, colonists tweaked tunes from English, Scottish, and Irish descent to create the first mainstream American popular music. In their most common form, these songs were songs of dissent from the imposed British rule, and were widely distributed throughout the colonies. Of course, it is difficult to classify this music as truly American, because the actual tunes were adopted from existing European sources.
Even earlier, in 17th and 18th century New England, Protestant Hymns evolved into a specific style that became quite different than the European tradition. However, again, the origins of this music, the chorale, is not American in nature; rather, its roots are in Germany, and most idiomatically in the music of German composer J.S Bach.
America was born into the classical era of music, with composers such as Haydn and Mozart premiering their music in the concert halls and opera houses of Europe. In America, composers worked almost exclusively in the European style, and very little variation into an "American" style was evident.
At the dawn of the 20th century, America, and most every other developed country, was swept into a nationalistic fervor, a desire to develop and define what made each country its own entity. This drive extended into the musical world, as the sound of each country became more and more defined. But, while the Germans had Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc. etc, the English had Purcel, Handel, Elgar, the Russians had Mussorgsky, Rimsy-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, the French had Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and the Italians had Rossini and Vivaldi, who did America have? Nobody had yet constructed the "Great American Symphony," or carved out a niche for America among the titans of music. Gustav Mahler, a German composer, ran the New York Philharmonic, the world face of American music at the time. American musicians, composers, and scholars, turned inward to discover what was the crux of the American genre of music.
When Dvorak composed his "New World Symphony" by using themes developed from Negro Spirituals, it sparked a national craze in African American musical forms. However, American composers faced a fundamental problem in trying to use this material to a truly American end. For the most part, American composers were educated in Europe, using European teachings that highlighted European considerations to writing music. This infiltration of the European style made it exceedingly difficult to write music not influenced by it, and most attempts were not successful.
Around this time another question arose. The African-American population in the United States can trace its root back to Africa. How can music that comes from another country be American in nature? There are two schools of thought on this. The first is relatively simple: it isn't American at all. The true American music stems from the Native Americans, and if we are to use any sort of material to create an American art form, then it is there that we must direct our focus.
However, the second is much more complicated. Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the most famous of American composers and music scholars, says that while the true developments of African American music are not so much important, it is important to recognize that as the cultures of various African countries and European immigrants melded in the South, certain music styles, such as the Creoles in Louisiana, and the Spanish and Latin American in Florida and Cuba. This melding of styles is what constitutes African-American music, and it is this that makes it American, and not of other nationalities.
Either way, the evolution of African-American music after the Emancipation of slaves after the Civil War led to the blues singing of Charleston and New Orleans, as well as minstrel shows. This all predated what has been called the essential contribution of America to music: jazz.
According to Bernstein, jazz, at its simplest level, has five main characteristics:
1. It uses African American melodic and harmonic considerations. This is, at its simplest form, a juxtaposition of major and minor sonorities, using flattened scale degrees that would ordinarily signify minor harmonies against major sonorities. In its original, unaltered forms, these are "quarter tones" which actually lie between two notes. If you simultaneously sound an E and Eb on the piano, the quarter tone would be exactly in between of those two pitches. It is a further division of the half-step. However, Western music is not equipped to handle the quarter tone, and for that reason it has evolved to include both the natural and flattened form of the scale, i.e both E and Eb. Therefore, the scale that takes these considerations into account uses both the natural and flatted 3rd scale degree, 5th scale degree, and 7th scale degree. Therefore, a C scale in this consideration looks like this: C D Eb E F Gb G A Bb B C.
2. African-American rhythmic considerations. This is essentially the presence of swing. However, this also takes into account the syncopation so common to jazz, in which accented beats do not fall where they are expected, and the listener is made disoriented by placing the accent where it "does not belong."
3. The African American timbre. Again, this has a lot to do with the "quarter tones" that have already been mentioned. When one thinks of playing a bend on the guitar, one realizes that this is a manner of introducing this timbre. Anybody who's ever heard a jazz guitar or trumpet solo in which there are "scoops," "doinks," "falls," "smears," etc. etc. understands what is meant by this consideration.
4. The 4/4 base. This is very simple. Most jazz music is in 4/4, which allows for the driving drums that have become so common to jazz music.
5. Jazz uses counterpoint. Counterpoint is the presence of more than one melodic figure at once. "Shout" strains, improvisation, and other such methods are the vehicles through which this counterpoint is often exhibited.
Jazz was hugely important to American music, because it was music that came directly from America, and was something radically different than what was being performed in other countries. While "serious composers" worked feverishly to develop an American style, it was being developed in the jazz clubs right under their noses. Jazz also formed a node from which branch two completely different continuums of American music. This distinction is that of "Serious" music versus "Popular" music.
"Serious" music, which is all and all an unfortunate name to affix to such music, because it implies the falsehood that all other music is not serious, evolved from jazz through the work of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. While there were certainly many others in this boat, these three are the most famous of the American school of composition, and share many characteristics. These three realized that the development of an American music could only be done through embracing the cultural melting pot that had become America. Thus, their music is very eclectic in nature, bearing the influences of European classical music, Jewish klezmer music, and jazz, among others. All three composers were Jewish, and the folk music of their homeland, klezmer, had much in common with the jazz that had become popular in the beginning of their careers. Thus, they served to combine these styles into a truly American art form. When one listens to Copland's "Piano Concerto", or parts of Bernstein's "West Side Story", or Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", one hears all of these cultural overlaps brought together in a cohesive tapestry of American art. From these pioneers of American music, other composers, such as John Cage, John Adams, and Steve Reich, which used the concept of minimalism, which uses constant harmony, repetition, and slowly changing musical ideas. These composers have pushed America into the 21st century of music, and have helped to advance the evolution of American "Serious Music."
Popular Music is a beast of a totally different color. Jazz melded and fused with a variety of different outside and influences, and splintered into a plethora of American forms. Country music used the folk music of the Appalachians infused with blues and jazz to create music that takes influences from around the world and makes it its own. Country music is characterized by the fiddle, which is European in nature, the banjo, which was developed by African-Americans, and various improvised percussion which mostly was just what was had on hand in the homes of folk musicians, such as washboards and glass bottles, along with guitars, drumsets, string basses, and other such members of the jazz ensemble.
Rhythm and Blues music was a direct evolution of jazz music. In the 1930s and 40s, a general thinning out of the big bands that had so characterized the times before began to occur. Rather than the dense horn lines of big band hits, a more rhythmic base evolved, with blues singers singing over this heavily rhythmic base. Soul music is the infusion of gospel music into R & B.
Rock and Roll evolved out of country and R & B music with performers such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. This saw an even further stripping down of the jazz ensemble into just the rhythm section: piano, drums, bass, and guitar. Also, influences from Latin America and the Afro-Cuban melding of music were present. Rock became the main vein through which popular music evolved in the mid-20th century, with many subgenres becoming present. A few of these are listed with brief descriptions of their development.
Surf or Beach Rock- used distorted guitar sound as well as a strong focus on melody.
Folk Rock- an even further stripping of the jazz idiom, using "Singer-songwriters" who were usually just one performer with a guitar and maybe a harmonica. Many of these singers wrote music that dealt with political or moral issues, and led to the genre of protest rock.
Psychedelic Rock- was usually aided by illicit drugs, and attempted to replicate the mind-altering effects of such drugs.
Metal- almost a subculture of its own, it is characterized by a "wall of sound" that hits its listeners, creating a music that can be both felt and heard.
Punk Rock- Usually characterized as loud, simple, and aggressive. Punk music is usually quite fast, and puts emphasis on the lyrics over the music.
Hip hop or rap music is almost a paradox within itself. On the one hand, it hearkens back to the spirit of jazz music, with its focus on improvisation and rhythmic complexity. On the other hand, it takes the melodic and harmonic considerations almost completely out of the picture, using spoken-word and sampled tracks as the backdrop to its music.
It is obvious that America has become a major player in the world stage of music, and has done so largely in just the last 100 years. While the previous article is a relatively cursory glance of music in America, it allows the reader to trace the development of art through music from its European roots to the music of today.