Classical Music in America

The surprising history of classical music in America from colonial times to the present


Age range: High school

Estimated Time: Each podcast is less than 15 minutes long, so the three together will take less than an hour.

Key Technology: You will need speakers (or headphones) and QuickTime or iTunes.

Subscribe to this audio series:

A trio of podcasts tell the most exciting parts of the history of classical music in America, from the earliest colonial beginnings to the present. While the general sweep of events is made clear, the focus is on interesting stories that most listeners will find surprising. Music clips enliven the presentation.

Think About...

  • Before you get started, think of what you already know about classical music. Keep this in mind as you listen, and note any things you learn that surprise you.
  • As you listen, identify on a map the places being discussed.
  • List the styles or genres of music you hear.
  • As you listen, stop the audio track now and then to sum up what you have learned.
  • These podcasts are downloadable- grab them for your MP3 player for repeated listening.


  • What examples of classical music are given from the early 1700s in Europe? In America?
  • What reasons are given for the relative lack of classical music in the Americas at that time?
  • Some of the composers discussed in the podcasts are well known Europeans: Bizet, Haydn, Debussy, and Dvorak, among others. How did early Americans, without the internet or radios, hear the music of these composers?

Critical Thinking

  • We learn that classical music was typically played in homes in early America, while now we associate it more with professional musicians in concert halls. Why might this have been true? What might be different now if this had continued to be true?
  • The influence of other nations on American music is discussed several times during the podcasts, as is the influence of American music on other nations. How does this reflect the development of American culture as a whole?
  • Considering what you know about American history, think about how communities across the country might have responded to the traveling bands described in the podcast. Would it be different today?
  • In discussing Rodeo, the speaker says, “It just sounds American.” Do you agree? Why or why not?


Quiz Yourself!

  • What was the story of Rameau’s Les Sauvage as he used it in his opera “Les Indes Galantes”?
  • Dvorak had some essential advice for American composers, which most ignored. What was it?
  • What change did WWI create in classical music?

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

Use the Perfect Pitch interactive microsite to learn more about the instruments of the Western orchestra. Listen again to the podcasts and list the instruments you hear.

For the Educator


This podcast discusses interesting aspects of the history of classical music in the United States, from the 18th to the 20th century, in three segments.

The first segment examines classical music in the 1700s and the early 1800s. From the New England School to the Moravians of North Carolina to the multicultural society of New Orleans, American music is illuminated. The podcast uses clips of music and interviews with musical history experts to present the surprising details of American classical music.

The second segment continues with the evolution of New Orleans as a center of classical music in America. The segment discusses the rise of traveling bands, the effect of the Civil War, and the increasing importance of – and influence of – folk music. We learn, too, about the ways in which American music influenced European music.

The third segment traces the development of a uniquely American style of classical music and the emergence of the United States as a force in global culture. The podcast also examines the sometimes underappreciated importance of African-Americans and Hollywood on American classical music.

Prior Knowledge and Preparation

Listeners with a fair background in U.S. History and geography will get the most from this resource.

Suggested activities will require the use of bulletin board paper or chart paper.

Instructional Strategies

There is no visual element for this item. Some people find it difficult to concentrate without visual or tactile input. To help students focus while listening, consider one or more of these activities:

  • Prepare a three-section Venn diagram on chart paper or bulletin board paper to compare and contrast the three podcasts, each of which covers a different time period. Label them “18th-19th centuries,” “19th-20th centuries,” and “20th-21st centuries.” Listen a second time, stopping and starting the recording as needed to complete the graphic organizers.
  • Divide into groups, giving each group a region of the United States. Have groups listen for information relevant to their regions and record what they hear on chart paper. Students may need to activate prior knowledge to identify relevant information, and may also need to use knowledge of history and critical thinking to extrapolate from what they hear. Have each group, or each student, write a paragraph encapsulating what they‘ve learned about their region.
  • Have all students quickly sketch out illustrations as they listen. Then, as a group, choose pictures to use to create a mural on bulletin board paper showing the span of classical music in America from the 18th through the 2oth centuries. Work together on the mural through repeated listening to the podcasts, or to the pieces of music featured in the podcasts.

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