Identifying what makes music sound “American”

Posted on: July 1, 2011

Thursday (6/30) on the NPR music blog Deceptive Cadence, Tom Huizenga writes, “For the most part, we know why certain food tastes American, and what makes movies look American. But what about music? If music is, as they say, the ‘universal language,’ does some of it speak in a distinctively American dialect? With the most American of holidays just around the corner, we figured it was time for a little self-analysis. In the 19th century, American composers came back from their studies in Europe and proceeded to write music that sounded remarkably like their German and French counterparts (think John Knowles Paine or Edward MacDowell). But eventually Americans found their own sound. But what is that sound? To help find an answer—if there is one—I shot off an e-mail to Baltimore Symphony conductor Marin Alsop, who is well-known for championing American music.’ ‘Risking gross stereotyping,’ Alsop says, ‘it is a melting pot of styles, woven together with these fundamental themes. It’s highly energized, rhythmic music derived from the blurring of lines between popular and ‘serious’ styles—you can hear it in Gershwin and Bernstein. Then there’s the descriptive tone painting of Copland, and the early American folk elements, as in Copland again, and Roy Harris.”

Posted July 1, 2011