Centre for Continuing Education

Music of North America Course

Music. Learn, enjoy, appreciate.

Being a ‘new’ nation with some similarities to Australia, North Americans sought to define their identity through the establishment of musical traditions. This course covers the development of American music from the 1830s to recent times, and touches on the development of Jazz, musicals on Broadway, and music for Film.

Beginning with Stephen Collins Foster and the minstrel shows, we will chart the direction of both popular styles (John Philip Sousa) and serious music (the ‘Boston Six’). Contemporaneous to the development of iconic works by Charles Ives, the seeds of Jazz can be found in the ‘rags’ of Scott Joplin, and the course will include examples of composers and performers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Composers for Hollywood films, including Harold Arlen and Bernard Hermann (as well as many immigrant composers, such as Eric Korngold) also found international success. We will assess the art-music of modernist composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Elliot Carter, as well as more conservative composers including Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Finally, we will explore the work of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and John Adams, who continue to write music today.


This course aims to provide a thorough survey of historical and cultural contexts necessary for an appreciation of North American art-music, supported by numerous examples from the repertory. In particular, it aims to show how the search for national identity has paralleled the twin ideals of both art and popular-music styles. Historical tensions between indigenous, African-American and white-settler cultures will be assessed to highlight divergent musical styles, and the two-way influence of American and European cultures throughout the 19th and 20th centuries will be portrayed through the biographies of the most important composers and their musical works.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the historical and cultural contexts for around 20 of the most important North American composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and be aware of their major works
  • exhibit a familiarity with the overall trajectory of North American music over the past 200 years
  • identify the cultural markers in the evolution of North American popular, and art music
  • relate the development of North American music to other cultures, particularly to Australia
  • exhibit a familiarity with the important role played by North American composers of music for film
  • identify differences between 20th century North American musical styles, such as avant-garde, minimalist, popular, nationalistic.


This course covers the following topics:

  • early pioneers – Stephen Collins Foster, Gottschalk and Sousa
  • The Second New England school – MacDowell, Beach
  • the beginnings of jazz – the Cakewalk, Scott Joplin’s Rags
  • pioneering modernists – Ives, Cowell
  • musicals – Kern, Porter, Gershwin
  • jazz greats – James P Johnson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Count Basie
  • new American styles – Copland, Carter, Barber, Cage
  • music for film – Herrmann, Williams
  • the ‘minimalists’ - Reich, Glass, Adams.

Intended audience

Suitable for anyone with an interest in both classical and popular music forms, who wish to increase their general understanding of the canon of the repertory and learn more about specific works and composers.

While the early development of North American music built on the efforts of at-times obscure composers, their achievements were the basis for a tradition that now has wide international appeal in the forms of Jazz, Musicals, Film music, and popular symphonic works.

Delivery style

Delivered as a series of lectures where active participation is encouraged.

You will learn through a variety of methods including:

  • listening to musical excerpts
  • watching short video segments from operas and other performances, such as Jazz
  • looking at slides of visual art works architecture contemporaneous to the music being discussed.

Recommended reading

Chase, G. 1992). America’s Music: From Pilgrims to the Present (revised Third Edition), University of Illinois Press, Illinois.

Heintze, J. (ed.) 1999, Perspectives on American Music Since 1950, Garland, New York; London.

Nicholls, D. (ed.) 1998, The Cambridge History of American Music, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Saffle, M. (ed.) 2000, Perspectives on American Music, 1900 to 1950, Garland, New York; London.

Strubel, J. W. 1995, The History of American Classical Music, Facts on File, New York.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion