Who are the most important American composers?

December 9, 2021


“Classical” music originated in Europe nearly a thousand years ago; therefore, most people think of classical music and associate it with composers of European or Russian descent. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky are known as the greatest classical composers.

From around the 1600’s through the late 1800’s, composers traveled to Germany, Italy, Austria, or France to study with the great masters and learn the art of music composition. Roughly at the turn of the 20th century, the rest of the world began to to be noticed – our world became more global. The tables turned and European composers began taking an interest in music from other continents.

In the 21st century, we enjoy over a century of a fantastic merge of musical cultures producing an array of different styles for the listeners to enjoy, but it’s not often we hear about American composers.

So where do American composers stand in music history? How big is their contribution to musical culture?   It turns out that the list of American composers (both of the past and living) is extensive! We invite you to visit this wikipedia page just to see how many names are on it.

For a non musician it is, of course, impossible to sort out the more important and influential names from lesser known names, so we are happy to do this for you with a few snippets of info!

Notable American Composers

Amy Beach, 1867-1944

The first successful American female composer who didn’t have a European training. Her “Gaelic” symphony was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896.

Scott Joplin, 1868-1917

A “King of Ragtime” who wrote over a 100 ragtime pieces for piano, 1 ragtime ballet, and 2 operas. We all know the “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Charles Ives, 1874-1954

One of the first American composers to be recognized internationally and with music regarded as “American original.” Check out his Piano Sonata #2, Concord, Mass. to hear his experimental and modernist music writing.

George Gershwin, 1898-1937

A prolific composer and pianist who produced music in the mixture of classical, jazz and popular styles and with a unique gift for melodic writing. His “Rhapsody in Blue” as well as countless other pieces are widely known around the world.

Duke Ellington, 1899-1974

A composer, pianist, and leader of the jazz orchestra with multiple Emmy awards and world fame. While the list of his famous and easily recognizable works is countless, check out “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

Aaron Copland, 1900-1990

A composer, teacher, and writer who was regarded as “the Dean of American Composers” who wrote in vastly different styles throughout his life. Many of his pieces may be described as unmistakably American in style. Appalachian Spring is a must listen. 

Elliot Carter, 1908-2012

An ultra-modernist composer and one of the most respected composers in the world in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Also one of the longest living ones composing music in his 100’s. Variations for Orchestra will give you an idea of his style.

Samuel Barber, 1910-1981

A great American composer whose pieces earned a solid place on the international concert stage. Listen to The Adagio for Strings to realize that you have probably heard this piece many times in your life!

John Cage, 1912-1992

A composer and philosopher who became a very influential figure in the 20th century arts scene. The inventor of chance music as well as music for “prepared piano” among many things. Listen to the charming Primitive for the prepared piano experience and look up the piece called 4’33 to learn about the philosophical side of his music.

Leonard Bernstein, 1918-1990

A prolific composer and the first American orchestral conductor who was recognized and widely praised internationally. A humanitarian and civil rights and anti-war activist, he was the one who composed The West Side Story!

Morton Feldman, 1926-1987

While a lesser known composer when it comes to the concert stage, nevertheless a very influential figure among the modern composers. Listen to the quiet and haunting sound of his music in Nature Pieces for piano. 

George Crumb, b. 1929

One of the most famous modern classical composers who is known for numerous avant-garde innovations including music notation and new types of sounds produced by classical instruments. Makrokosmos III is among his most performed pieces. 

John Williams, b. 1932

The composer of the film scores for the Star Wars, The Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and countless others. 25 Grammy awards and 52 Academy Awards nominations! I think it is safe to say that nearly every person in the world has heard the music of this great American composer.

Terry Riley, b. 1935

A pioneer of the minimalist movement which originated in the US and is currently one of the  dominating styles from stage performance to the movies and tv shows. Listen to his most well known work In C to realize how much of the film and tv music that you hear daily resembles this piece.

Philip Glass, b. 1937

The most famous representative of the minimalist movement that has earned an unparalleled success in performances of his piano and chamber works, operas, and film music. Listen to the Glassworks to hear the popular oriented style that we can still call classical music.

Not to overwhelm you with the number of names, we have omitted a dozen of other top tier American composers. Currently, the American school of composition might be the most prominent and influential in the world. 

Many of the pieces written by American composers are perfectly accessible to play for the students of even beginner levels. Do you want to play your favorite movie theme by John Williams or a cool Ragtime by Scott Joplin? Head over to Riverside Music Studios for music lessons in NYC and we will teach you how!

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