The “American” Sound

After reading a comprehensive summary and analysis of Bernstein’s senior thesis by Geoffrey Block, it is clear that Bernstein felt that American music owed much of its influence and distinctive sound to African American music, specifically in the way of jazz. Bernstein seems to think that American music influence can be condensed to white and black influences, mentioning only New England musical traditions “with its American modifications” (Block, 56) and jazz—with the latter being the common denominator among Americans since the New England traditions had a much more far reaching ethnic and cultural influence from outside the United States while jazz was primarily conceived within the country’s borders. While this may be true to an extent, Bernstein ignores the influence of Native Americans, and does not even mention Hispanic influence. Bernstein even went so far as to argue that such influences were “socially negligible.” This both irked and intrigued me; how could the diversity of influences in America’s soundscape be so limited to only two of the cultures represented with these types of music? In addition, can a distinctive “nationalist” sound even be defined in a country that has such a wide span in regards to culture as well as geography? Or is it like Virgil Thompson said, where all you have to do to compose American music is be American?

While I disagree with the sole inclusion of New England and jazz influences, Bernstein’s argument does hold some merit. His geographic standpoint and the sphere of social and cultural influences he received were large contributors to the conclusion he made in his thesis. With the majority of his career taking place in the Eastern part of the United States and not making it to the West side until he was well established in his career, it makes sense why he would only see these two as primary influences of American music; he may have not been as acutely aware of other cultural influences as he was of jazz influence. Another somewhat redeeming point of Bernstein’s argument was the fact that jazz was so markedly different from the known European traditions that it was a completely new type of music and developed within the borders of the United States; with that in mind, it would be logical to consider anything that sounded like jazz distinctly “American.” However, what about the other regions and cultures that are undoubtedly present in the US?

Peter Narváez discusses the influence of Hispanic culture on blues and sheds more light on the reason why Hispanic influence on American music has been overlooked. Although blues is a different genre than jazz, both have heavy African American influences. Narváez focuses on two main areas where this crossing between African American and Hispanic music cultures occurred: the Texas-Mexico border where blues artists were influenced by Mexican street singers, and New Orleans where blues was influenced by Cuban rhythms. However, much of these influences went unnoticed by larger audiences because of two reasons: 1) much like jazz, this evolution took place on the streets and was unrecorded, and 2) recording companies only distributed the type of sound that was already recognized as blues in order to keep blues musician’s sound “pure.” Most of the crossover between cultures was overlooked simply because it was a regional phenomenon, or deemed unfit or unnecessary for the ears of larger audiences, which would explain why it was not a major influence according to Bernstein.

While Bernstein comes off insensitive at times in regards to Hispanic culture’s influence on American music (and downright offensive in regards to Native American music), in the 1930s when he initially wrote his thesis, he could only experience what little part of American music to which he had been exposed. Since he grew up in an area that had neither a heavy Hispanic or Native American population, it makes sense that at this point of his life he considered jazz to be the largest contributor to “American sounding” music. Evidently, with his creation of West Side Story he did incorporate Hispanic sounds into his music and still created a work that is now considered part of the American musical aesthetic. However, there is much more to be discussed in the way of what music can be classified as “American,” which is largely a subjective point. Due to its sheer landmass and the density and diversity of cultures with which it is populated, there cannot be one, or even two concrete, definitive sounds that accurately represent America. Of course, you have the loud and bombastic sounds that Bernstein describes, like “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but you also have Porgy and Bess, and West Side Story, both which include some of the jazzy roots that Bernstein talks about, but also a plethora of other influences, especially in the case of the latter. And that’s just speaking about the classical genre of music. In popular music, you have genres that have evolved from the mixing of all of the different cultures that are present in the US: reggaeton, hip hop, rock n’ roll, and pop, just to name a few. I believe the American sound is as simple as Virgil Thompson says it is, “All you have to do is be an American, and then write any kind of music you wish.”


By Jacque Hale





Block, Geoffrey. “Bernstein’s Senior Thesis At Harvard: The Roots of a Lifelong Search to Discover an American Identity.” College Music Symposium 48 (2008): 52-68.

Evans, David. “Musical Innovation in the Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson.” Black Music Research Journal 20, no. 1 (2000): 83-116. doi:10.2307/779317.

Narváez, Peter. “The Influences of Hispanic Music Cultures on African-American Blues Musicians.” Black Music Research Journal 22 (2002): 175-96. doi:10.2307/1519948.

Starr, Larry. “Ives, Gershwin, and Copland: Reflections on the Strange History of American Art Music.” American Music 12, no. 2 (1994): 167-87. doi:10.2307/3052521.


One Comment Add yours

  1. susiesmith1991 says:

    Jacque, great argument here. It took me a while to decide whether or not Virgil Thompson’s claim (“All you have to do is be American, and then write any kind of music you wish”) holds water. While his claim may be technically correct, it leaves a lot to be desired if a country’s collective aim is to establish a distinct, unique sound that cannot be confused or mislabeled as another culture’s sound. Ultimately I think that theoretically there would be no national identities in art if all that determined a nation’s sound was whether or not the composer was a citizen of that country.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s