Sounds of Early America

Teaching colonial American music in the classroom


Listen to all the music referenced in this article via the Sounds of Early America iTunes Playlist.

When settlers from Europe arrived in North America in the 17th century, music wasn’t the first thing on their minds. One man whose fiddling had entertained his fellow passengers on the ship abandoned music altogether when he arrived in Jamestown in 1620. With houses to build, crops to plant, and businesses to oversee, colonists had little free time and few resources for leisure activities like music. The religious beliefs of some settlers even discouraged instrumental music-making.

Nonetheless, we know that colonists made and enjoyed music. Initially, most music made in the colonies came directly from Europe. As more settlers arrived and as towns and cities became established in the New World, American musical traditions began to take shape.

Unlike music in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which enjoyed the support of royal courts and an established aristocracy, music in the colonies was by necessity a do-it-yourself endeavor. The go-to instrument, as you might imagine, was the voice—always at hand, inexpensive, and requiring no special training to use. Singing also occurred regularly in many religious services, making most colonists quite comfortable raising their voices in song. In their homes, colonists could make music using notation and instruments imported or brought with them from Europe. They also hired traveling music and dance masters for home instruction.

Read on for more on the everyday music of America’s European colonists and for some classroom activities to help bring this period (roughly 1620–1776) to life for your students.

At Church

Church was the main place outside the home where the first colonists made music together. Early Puritan colonists in New England sang simple psalms in their services with no harmony or instrumental accompaniment. Because few people knew the psalms by heart or could read music, psalms would often be “lined out”—the leader would read or sing one line or phrase and then the congregation would repeat it.

Listen to an example of lined-out singing in “London Tune: Psalm 19” from the Bay Psalm Book (published in 1640).

In some churches, congregation members sometimes chose their own individual melodies for each line, resulting in a cacophony of sound. But that was just fine, because the Puritans valued above all the individual’s expression of worship; to pay too much attention to the quality of the music would detract from this purpose.

Try It! Try singing a song in lined-out style with your class. Choose a song that you know well but your students might not. Plan in advance how you will divide up the lines. For example, if you were using “Yankee Doodle,” you might sing “Yankee Doodle went to town,” then have the students repeat this phrase, and then do the same with “riding on a pony,” and so forth. After completing the lined-out verse with the class, have the students try to sing that verse from memory. Discuss what it’s like to learn a song this way, and explain why the colonists lined-out their church songs. Ask: Do you think you will remember this song in a week? A month? Why or why not?

Around the turn of the 18th century, a movement began to improve the quality of church singing. In the 1720s, New Englanders opened schools that taught basic singing and musical literacy. These “singing schools” also became an important social outlet, allowing colonists (particularly young people) a place for church-sanctioned socializing. The singing schools gave rise to some of the first truly American music, as new religious anthems were written and harmonized by American composers like William Billings (1746-1800) for use with musically literate congregations.

Listen to William Billings’s “Cobham,” a religious piece in the newer fashion, and compare and contrast it with the lined-out “Psalm 19.”

At Home

On an 18th-century Southern plantation, music and dance were an important part of a cultured person’s education. Following the English model of a well-rounded education, wealthy parents made sure their sons and daughters were taught musical skills. Professional musicians, who made their living primarily from teaching and were called “professors,” traveled between plantations offering lessons in singing, dance, and instrumental music. Musical instruments included violin, flute, and keyboard instruments, particularly harpsichord and spinet (for more details, see “Popular Instruments” above). Professors also taught nonmusical skills like fencing, drawing, and needlework. In the Northern colonies, Puritan ministers were wary of the traveling professors, reasoning that music and dance distract the population from work and worship. Although dancing masters were even banned from settling in Boston for a period of time, music remained a popular form of home entertainment.

Throughout the colonies, families and friends made music together at home. Most often, they would simply sing, in unison or in harmony, and sometimes accompanied by a keyboard instrument. Their songs of choice were folk songs from the English and Scottish traditions of their homelands. When members of households had more training, they would play chamber music on musical instruments, including guitar, flute, violin, and viola da gamba. Again, they first looked to traditions from home, ordering sheet music from Europe by composers like George Frideric Handel, John Stanley, Thomas Arne, and William Boyce. Later in the 18th century, amateur musicians would find musical pieces in popular publications like Gentleman’s Magazine.

Listen to “One Morning in May,” a ballad from the English tradition and representative of what colonial-era families and friends might have sung together.

Many of the leading public figures of the 18th century were also musicians. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was an accomplished violinist who practiced regularly and met weekly to play music with other prominent Virginians, including the royal governor of Virginia. His colleague Patrick Henry was also a fine violinist. Benjamin Franklin, a multi-instrumentalist, even invented an instrument called the glass armonica, a set of tuned glass bowls on a turning spindle that were played with the fingers.

Try It! Ask your class: If the only way to enjoy music and dance was to make it yourself, what could you do? Have students brainstorm a variety show using songs, dance, and musical instruments easily available or created (but no electronic instruments or music files, of course!). Discuss what music and music-making might contribute to people trying to establish new communities in unfamiliar lands. Time permitting, have students perform some of the ideas they brainstormed.

In Public

By the middle of the 18th century, people began using their increasing personal wealth to pay for concert tickets in cities like Boston, New York, Annapolis, and Charleston, South Carolina. Their support provided income for a limited number of professional and semi-professional musicians. Like their rural counterparts, these musicians depended on teaching and other day jobs to supplement their income.

Formal concerts in the large cities featured works by popular European composers, including Handel, Corelli, and Vivaldi, as well as lesser-known composers like William Felton and John Stanley. Many, if not most, concerts of this time concluded with music for dancing. Another popular musical genre was the ballad opera, a comic theatrical production with satirical verse set to well-liked tunes from serious opera. One of the most popular of these was The Beggar’s Opera by the English writer John Gay.

Concert programs also featured works by colonial composers, most commonly performed by the composers themselves. Most of the American compositions followed trends from Europe, but were generally less complex. An exception to this was the music of the Moravians, a small German religious group that settled primarily in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The Moravians were known in Europe for their high level of musicianship, and they brought their tradition of musical excellence with them to the colonies. Much of the music written by Moravian composers consisted of sacred (religious) vocal pieces, although some composers wrote works for chamber music groups as well. Not widely known today, this music is being rediscovered as some of the best early American music.

Listen to two examples of concert music composed in the colonies in the late 18th century. “Lesson: Cantabile” is a short piece composed by John Palma between 1763 and 1780 in Philadelphia. Quintet No. 1 in D was composed in 1789 by Johann Frederich Peter, a Moravian composer who lived in North Carolina.

Try It! Have students compare and contrast the works by John Palma and Johann Frederich Peter. Discuss: How many (and which) instruments do you hear in each example? Is the tempo slow or fast? Would you count the rhythm in 3 or in 4 beats per measure? Point out to students how in “Lesson: Cantabile,” we hear a single melody line (first the oboe, then violins) with a simple bass line accompanying it (first bassoon, then strings). In the quintet, each of the instruments takes turns playing some melody lines, and the accompaniment is much busier and more complex.

In the rural Southern colonies, you were most likely to hear public music performances at balls hosted by the larger plantations. These celebrations often lasted for several days. Activities included minuets (a formal dance with French roots) and country dancing (less formal social dance from the British Isles) with music performed by slaves. The festivities also included eating, drinking, playing cards, and gambling. Colonists—including George Washington, who was known as a fine dancer—practiced dances diligently to “put their best foot forward” at the ball.

Listen to a medley of English country dance tunes. All four tunes in the medley were included in John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, an important collection of dance music published in 1651.

Try It! Have students learn the Virginia Reel, a dance similar to colonial country dance. With lively music and steps that promote mingling, this dance would often be the last one called at a ball, and it left dancers in a very good mood, indeed.

Click here for instructions on learning the Virginia Reel.


7/8 violin from 1658 by Jakob Stainer Violin
Brought from Europe, the violin was the instrument of choice for dancing as well as chamber music (small group performances). In contrast to a modern violin, the Colonial-era violin had a different-shaped bow, no chin rest, and strings made of animal guts instead of steel.

Various viole da gamba Viola da Gamba
A relative of the violin and the guitar, this European instrument was made in a range of sizes to play at different pitch levels. The viola da gamba is played with a bow and has frets, like a guitar, to guide the placement of the fingers on the fingerboard.

Traverso (baroque flute) by Boaz Berney, after an original by Thomas Lot, Paris ca. 1740 Flute
Flutes were also played in the colonies, primarily by men (it was not considered ladylike to pucker the lips). Unlike the modern metal flute, the 18th-century flute was made of wood.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Portrait of Mrs. Robert Gwillym, 1766 Guitar
The guitar was a popular instrument among women and men alike, played both as a solo instrument and as an accompaniment for singing. In the 18th century, most people played what was called the English guitar, which was shaped like a lute with a flat back and had nine or ten wire strings.

Harpsichord Harpsichord
A predecessor of the piano, the harpsichord was a popular keyboard instrument with sound produced by small quills plucking the strings (in contrast to a piano, in which hammers strike the strings to produce the sound). Other keyboard instruments played in the colonies were the spinet and the virginal, which were smaller than the harpsichord but produced sound in the same way. The piano, which was invented and refined in Europe in the early 1700s, did not become popular in North America until the 19th century.

B. Franklin's Glass Armonica Glass Armonica (sometimes called glass harmonica)
Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the glass armonica consists of a set of tuned glass bowls on a turning spindle that is played with a finger placed on the edge of each bowl.



Anne Elise Thomas
Original Author

Editors & Producers

Marcia Friedman

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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