Much as the hallmark of American culture is its cultural diversity, this diversity is expressed in the multiple music forms found in the United States. One critic has said that American music can be defined simply as being an American and then writing any kind of music one wishes.
American music may be classified broadly as music composed by Americans. This covers the gamut of styles and standards, from good to unsatisfactory, and original to derivative. The question is raised, however, as to what constitutes an American composer. For instance, Stravinsky, Schonberg, Bach and other musicians emigrated from Europe to America. Their work is not considered to be American. In the case of Stravinsky, he developed a considerable following. While the music he composed in America is not considered to be American music, the works of his protégées are. An entire range of neo-classical music that came about due to the influence of Stravinsky, and is representative of a style of American music, presents a slight paradox too.
Yet, some music that is derived from Europe is considered to be American. The earliest Bay Psalm Book, first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is thought of as American music. An American composer such as John Knowles Paine who ventured to Europe to learn from musical styles there, is not classified as European as a result. The interweaving of the European and American cultural influences and connections creates a complex situation when attempting to categorize either music or culture. Moreover, the influx of European immigrants added to the mix of musical and historical models.
Theorists comment that perhaps the European influence itself was a necessary step in the evolution of American music, given significant ancestry from and ties to Europe. Certain composers sought to adapt the European musical style. Louis Moreau Gottschalk emerges from the European tradition, but utilizes rhythms that do not reflect that culture. Charles T. Griffes's music initially portrayed his German schooling, but his originality placed him in his own unique style. What was truly American music was not a straightforward issue. The diverse influences exerted on American society and, by extension, its music creates a complexity.
In many ways the concept of American music falls loosely into notions of "cultivated" and "vernacular" traditions. This comprises educated and popular culture; elite and mass art; and classical and popular music.
A significant category of American music is considered to be the jazz tradition, with New Orleans jazz having a distinctly American image. Perhaps best depicted as rooted in the history of the people, and particularly within an African-American context, it is a popular music form in the United States.
American performers and composers are steeped in ragtime, jazz and blues. Country, rock and roll, rhythm and blues (R & B), rap and hip-hop are popular music forms indicative of American culture.
In the early 1960s, when British groups such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark 5 and Tom Jones came to the American stage to perform, they claimed American music to have been a source of inspiration.
Rock and Roll emerged from a synthesis of African-American rhythm and blues, with a taste of country and western in the melting pot of the music. Originally heard in northern urban centers in African-American areas, it was initially criticized as a rebellious type of African-American music. When Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper brought Rock and Roll to "mainstream" youth in the 1950s, this style made its mark and created inroads in the first multi-racial and multi-cultural movement. Around the same time Elvis Presley also gave rock and roll a "legitimate" status.
Rhythm and blues originates within jazz, ragtime and African-American gospel and spiritual music. The narrative nature of the music, combined with its beat, provides the basis of what is today's rap and hip-hop musical culture. Modern American music is comprised predominantly of these forms.
Modern country and western music traces its roots to rural folk songs of the south as well as the popular music of singing cowboys. The woes of impoverished miners and farmers are expressed through the lyrics of early "hillbilly" sounds, telling their stories through music.
The rebirth of Latin music finds its way into rap, country, rock and R&B. Sounds of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico are heard in the rhythms, with lines beginning to blur.
Described at times as optimistic to depict the optimism of the nation, American music covers a range of diverse options. From music reflecting the popular idiom, to working class struggles, African-American voices and European traditions, from classical to jazz, to large scale concert-hall productions, American music is a conglomeration of multi-cultural and diverse styles and sounds.