European Settlers

Building the Foundations of Early American Music

As with all music, the development of early American Music was deeply rooted in the traditional music of the past while evolving to include the experiences of the lives of those in the  present.  To more fully understand the foundations of American music, one must look to the cultural traditions of those who settled here throughout the 16th and 17th century.  This included migrants from all over Europe and people from Africa who were forced into slavery.  It is this mixing of cultures and the wide range of music styles and traditions they brought with them that formed the unique conditions for a new music to emerge – American Music.

During the 16th and 17th century (1500s-1600s) large groups of settlers from the British Isles , France, Germany and Spain immigrated to the 13 colonies of America.  Along with the belongings they could fit on the ship, they brought with them their languages, style of dress, religious beliefs and their cultural heritage.  This included folk, sacred, and art music.


Of particular importance to the the formation of new music in the 13 colonies was the music of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland).  While each nation of the British Isles had its own unique forms of music and instrumentation, the music shared many common characteristics.  Migrants from the British Isles continued to perform the story songs (called ballads) and dances ( jigs, reels, ayres, etc.) in their homes and community gatherings.  In the early churches of America, parishioners would sing the same hymns that were sung in the Old World.  The classical art music performed in Europe during the Renaissance and the Baroque Eras continued to be performed in the New World.

Folk Music – Ballads and Dance Music

Though the largely secular form of music known as the ballad has its roots in medieval French dance songs (shares the same French root as “ballet”), ballads became especially popular and associated with the poetry and song of the British Isles.  Originally, the poetry set to the French “chanson balladée” would be sung by the dancers in time with the dance.  Over time, these songs became a type of poetry and song in and of themselves and began to be performed apart from the dance.  Ballads were most often performed in the local language and dialect, were passed down orally from generation to generation, and were heavily influenced by the region from which they came.  Most ballads have no known author, have many variations, and tell stories and legends of all types (tragic, romantic, historical, comic, etc).  These characteristics made ballads particularly influential in the creation of early folk music of the Americas.


French Dance Music – Chanson Balladée

Scottish Ballad (poetry) – “The Twa Corbies”

Scottish Ballad (song) – “The Twa Corbies”

English Ballad – “Robin Hood and the Tanner”

Folk Music – Instrumental Dance Music

Although the instrumental dance music from across the British Isles had many musical characteristics in common, each country has its own unique style and quality.  The folk dance music of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland shared certain commonalities such as the prevalence of the fiddle, accordion, pipes, hand-held drums, and flutes, as well as the importance of dance tradition and folk music to community life.  They also share common popular dance forms like the Jig, Reel, and Hornpipe.


The Jig is a lively dance in compound meter – the division of the beats are felt in 3.  The Jig originated in England in the 16th Century but was quickly adopted throughout the British Isles and Europe (including France, Italy, and Spain).

Medley of Traditional Irish Jigs

The Reel is another form of lively dance music but is played in simple meter – the division of the beats are felt in two.

Medley of Scottish Reels

The Hornpipe is another form of dance music that can be either fast or slow and is thought to have been influenced by the dances of 16th century sailors.  It is also performed in simple meter but the division of the beat is felt in swing time – the first part of the division is longer than the second (“long, short, long, short”).  This gives the music a bouncy feel.

Sacred Music – The Hymn

Early European immigrants to the “New World” brought with them their religious views and traditions including music.  There are many types of religious music but the “hymn” is of particular importance in that it is often sung by the congregation of the church and not just the choir.  A Hymn is a religious song specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration, or prayer.  Though hymns are not exclusive to Christianity, the main religions of the early immigrants to the Americas were forms of Christianity.  Many of the early settlers left the British Isles seeking religious freedom and many were part of the Protestant Reformation – a split within European Christianity.

Though we have no recordings of the hymns sung by the first American settlers, we know from the accounts of parishioners and clergy men that there were two traditions of hymn singing – the “usual way” and the “regular way”.   Some early American congregations followed the teachings of Protestant Reformer John Calvin (Calvinists) and used the “usual way” in which not only the hymn but also the style of performance was highly regulated.


Congregations who followed this style of hymnody would only sing hymns taken directly from the Bible (Psalms), stripped out almost all forms of accompaniment, and sang the text to very simple melodies.  This often took the form of “lining out” in which a leader would sing each line of a hymn as it was to be sung and then would be joined by the congregation.  Many of these hymns were passed down orally from generation to generation.

Psalm singing of Back Free Church (in Gaelic)

Other churches followed the teachings of Martin Luther (Lutherans) and used the “regular in which a greater variety of hymns were sung, the use of harmony and accompaniment were allowed and the use of written music was more widely used.  Many of the hymns sung in Lutheran congregations were sung by choirs and congregations alike in four part harmony and are known as “chorales.”


“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”

Over time, Singing Schools were started to teach early American Congregations how to read music and to sing in harmony.  These Singing Schools often taught a form of notation called “Shape Notes” and a system of sight-reading using a pitch syllable system called fasola.

“I’m Going Home” – Sacred Harp Singers using shape note singing

Art Music

Art music is a term used to describe formal music that is often written down by composers and played in concert halls or formal settings.  The early European settlers of the “New World” would have brought with them knowledge of this music and would eventually create their own ensembles to play in this style.  The timeframe of the largest migration of Europeans to the Americas took place during what we call the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music.

The Renaissance Period took place from around 1400-1600 and started as a cultural movement in Northern Italy that later spread to the rest of Europe.  It is considered to be the “bridge” between the Middle Ages and modern history in which there was a rise in humanistic thought (focus on the ability of humans’ rational thinking and science rather than faith or doctrine), a return to the classic arts of Rome and Greece, the development of diplomacy, increased innovation and discovery in all aspects of life, the rise of a middle class in Europe, and the Protestant Reformation.  During this time the Gutenberg Press was invented (wooden printing press) which allowed for the wide distribution of affordable music.  With a rise in music education in the middle class, art music became part of the day-to-day lives of many families.

During this period, the secular art music (non-religious) began to flourish along side sacred music and there was greater development of polyphonic singing (2 or more vocal parts played or sung at the same time to create harmony).  One form of secular vocal music that became very popular during this time was the Madrigal – an unaccompanied piece written for small vocal ensembles (2-8 voices) and often set to poetry dealing with themes of love.  This style originated in Italy in the 1520s and became popular all over Europe.  In each country where the madrigal became popular, a regional form of the madrigal would emerge with composers writing madrigals in their own language and style.  The early settlers of the Americas from the British Isles would most likely have heard and played music in style of the English Madrigal School.  One of the most famous of the English Madrigal composers was Thomas Morley who was a composer, organist, and singer who’s music is still sung to this day.


Thomas Morley – “Now Is the Month of Maying”

Another major development in art music of this time was the development of the symphony.  Early Renaissance composers typically did not specify the instruments they were writing for in these large scale instrumental works; they simply worked with what instruments they had in a given ensemble.  However, by the 1700’s, this began to change.  Composers such as a Claudio Monteverdi knew exactly what sound they wanted and called for specific instruments.  This new Renaissance orchestral ensemble begins to resemble our modern day orchestra that is organized into sections.


Claudio Monteverdi was an Italian composer, singer, gambist (early version of a Cello) and Roman Catholic Priest who helped bridge the gap between late Renaissance music and early Baroque Music (1600-1750).


One of Monteverdi’s most important contributions to music of the Baroque Era was opera – a form of performance art that combines vocal and instrumental music, acting, scenery, costume, and dancing.

Claudio Monteverdi – “Rosa de ciel” (Rose of Heaven) from L’Orfeo

His operas also included instrumental sections (called sinfonias) that helped to further develop the symphony.

Claudio Monteverdi – “Sinfonia” from L’Orfeo

By the 1700’s, the term “symphony” had been standardized to mean a work typically consisting of multiple distinct movements or sections (often four), with the first movement in sonata form.  The word symphony is also used to refer to the orchestras that typically perform them.  During this time the violin, viola, cello, and bass became central to the Baroque orchestra.  Musical leadership in the Baroque orchestra came from the keyboard instruments, with the harpsichordist or the organist acting as leader.

The German violinist, harpsichordist, singer, and organist Johann Sebastian Bach was a major composer of the Baroque Period and wrote in this new symphonic style.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer of the Baroque period, and his  orchestral music is considered some of the best of the Baroque period.  His music and the music of other composers of the Baroque Era would have been known by many of the later European settlers in the America’s during the 1750s and 1800s.

Johann Sebastian Bach – “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1”



The European immigrants who migrated to the “New World” brought with them a wealth of cultural traditions including music of all types.  The early music of America almost certainly looked much like the music of the settlers home countries.  European settlers would have brought with them their vocal and instrumental folk songs (ballads, jigs, reels, etc.), knowledge of the art music of the Renaissance and Baroque Periods (including the madrigal, symphony, and opera), and their sacred music (hymns).  Over time, this music would begin to mix with the music of other Europeans and Africans and form the basis for a form of music the world had never heard – American Music.