16 Of The Greatest American Composers You Should Know

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Great composers are composed of a mix of raw talent and dedicated hard work. They create music that touches listeners because they themselves have been touched by music in some way.

Here are the 16 composers who have contributed the most to the American music scene, from its very beginning until today.

1. Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein was a conductor and composer, and he was also a pianist, music teacher, author, and humanitarian.

A first-generation American, Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

On the insistence of his grandmother, he was born as Louis Bernstein, legally changing his name to Leonard as his parents called him shortly after his grandmother passed.

He was the first American conductor to lead an American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and he was the first American conductor to gain international notoriety.

His compositional style ranged from symphonic and orchestral to chamber to choral.

He taught himself piano at the age of 10 and then began taking lessons as soon as possible.

One of his early piano teachers later became his secretary.

He studied at Harvard University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and with the Boston Symphony orchestra.

Bernstein wrote for many ballets, film, and theater and is best known for the musical West Side Story, a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the music from which originated from his earlier ballet, Fancy-Free.

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story – Prologue

He is also well known for his opera Candide and his 1950 production of Peter Pan and has won countless Grammys and other awards.

He passed away in 1990 from a heart attack.

2. Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman by The Kuhnster / CC BY-SA 2.0

Danny Elfman is a current composer, singer, and songwriter who focuses on pop, new-age genres, and quirky film scores.

He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where he still resides and works in television and movies as well as stage theater and concerts.

He is best known for his collaborations with film directors Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, and Gus Van Sant.

Elfman grew up obsessed with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies.

He had no interest in music until he started hanging out with a group of peers in high school who were very into jazz and Stravinsky.

Elfman left high school before graduation and joined his musical brother Richard on a tour of France playing the violin.

When the tour ended, he took his own musical journey through Africa.

Upon returning to L.A., Elfman became the musical director for Richard’s theater group called Oingo Boingo.

Fans of this group, Tim Burton and Paul Reubens approached Elfman about beginning to compose movie scores, and the rest is history.

Some of his most notable films include Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and The Nightmare Before Christmas – for which he also voiced the songs sung by the main character, Jack Skellington.

3. Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington more commonly known as Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899.

He was one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century and a fantastic pianist as well as a prolific composer sometimes composing multiple records within a single year.

He was a rare talent that gained enough popularity that he played not only in African-American venues, but ones for whites only as well which was a rare feat at the time.

Ellington is a very decorated musician with 14 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and more even continuing to win awards after his death.

These awards include a Pulitzer Prize and multiple inductions to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Some of his most famous compositions include “Take the A Train,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart.”

Later in his life, Duke Ellington suffered from lung cancer.

Between cancer and contracting pneumonia in 1974, his body couldn’t hold on any longer and the legend died a few weeks after his 75th birthday.

4. Cole Porter

Cole Porter

Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana in 1891. He was classically trained but was drawn to the theatre side of music from an early age which led to a majority of his compositions being musicals.

Porter composed dozens of highly successful musicals finding success on Broadway beginning with Paris in 1928.

By the 1930s, he was one of the most successful composers on Broadway with some of his other works being heard in shows such as Aladdin, The New Yorkers, High Society, and Kiss Me, Kate

Porter was one of the only songwriters on Broadway to compose both the melody of the song and write the lyrics as well.

Cole Porter had so much success on the Broadway stage that he was also invited to Hollywood on numerous occasions with a number of his productions and songs making it onto the silver screen.

His success led to him having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedicated to him after his passing.

Porter developed severe ulcers on his leg in the 1950s which led to him requiring over 30 surgeries. Sadly, however, the surgeries were not enough and in the end, his leg needed to be amputated.

Even though those close to him thought Porter was doing better after the amputation, he never returned to music and lived out his final years in a reclusive state.

He died of kidney failure in 1964 when he was 73.

5. Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

African American ragtime composer Scott Joplin was born in 1868 in Texas.

Throughout his life, his family moved around quite a bit though and was located in at least 5 different states throughout the course of his life.

He was among the first freeborn men in his family since his father was a freed slave. Both of his parents were amateur musicians so he gained his passion for music through them.

Joplin was famous for writing ragtime music but he also composed opera and classical pieces as well.

Some of his well-known works include “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer“, “The Cascades,” and “Sugar Cane Rag.”

Joplin started recognizing the effects of syphilis in his body in the early 1900s and in 1916, he ended up with dementia as a result of the progressing disease.

In early 1917, he was admitted to a mental institution due to the severity and was never released and died there a few months later at the age of 48.

6. George Gershwin

George Gershwin

American Jewish composer George Gershwin, born in 1898 and raised in the Yiddish Theater District of Brooklyn, New York is one of the best-remembered American composers.

During the rise of jazz in America, his work help to transition classical music to the new style of music.

At the age of ten, he started playing the piano originally meant for his brother, Ira, and then left school at 15 to pursue a professional music career.

He is often considered part of a duo alongside his lyricist brother, Ira, with whom he collaborated on many of his best-known works.

He connected with director and songwriter William Daly in his early 20s and started working with him on Broadway.

In 1924, he composed what many would consider being his most popular piece – Rhapsody in Blue.

George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin eventually moved to Hollywood, California.

He went on to compose many famous pieces for famous productions, including An American in Paris, Strike Up the Band, I Got Rhythm, and Porgy and Bess.

In the mid-1930s, Gershwin began exhibiting headaches, coordination problems, mood swings, and hallucinations.

Believing he was suffering from mental illness, his wife sent him out of their home.

It was quickly determined that he had a brain tumor, and he passed away shortly after.

7. Florence Price

Florence Price

One of the few famous African American female composers, Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock Arkansas.

She was a pianist, organist, and music teacher in addition to being a composer and was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer.

Her mother was a music teacher and led her to her first piano recital at age 4 and by the time she was 11, she released her first composition.

Price composed a diverse repertoire of pieces including choral music, symphonies, concertos, piano pieces, and more.

Some of her most cherished pieces include “Symphony No. 1 in E minor,” “Fantasie Nègre,” “Ethiopia’s Shadow In America,” and “Summer Moon.”

Throughout her career, Price worked extensively with the African-American pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds.

In 1953, Price suffered a stroke which sadly took her life and she was only 66 years old at the time.

Her music has remained largely in circulation but Price’s popularity has been surging again in the 2020s.

This has led to the inaugural Florence Price Festival which is now to be an annual event at the University of Maryland School of Music.

8. Philip Glass

Philip Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore was another American composer and pianist who is known for embodying minimalism.

Glass has released various types of music including concertos, film scores, symphonies, and string quartets.

He’s received a variety of awards for his music including a Golden Globe Award, BAFTA Award, National Medal of Arts.

Glass has had such an influence on modern classical music that he’s had 6 documentaries made about him to date.

Some of his most influential works include North Star, Einstein On The Beach, Notes On A Scandal, and The Hours.

Glass continues to be active in the classical music community. As of 2021, he’s 84 years old and still both touring and composing.

9. John Cage

John Cage

John Cage Jr. born in 1912 in Los Angelos was an American composer best known for his experimental work with musical composition likely due to having a semi-diverse background in philosophy, art, and music theory.

His unique style has made many consider him to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

Cage put a huge stamp on modern dance as well which was likely because of his many collaborations with his life partner, Merce Cunningham who was a dancer and choreographer.

He considered music to be mostly for fun as opposed to full of specific purposes with many of Cage’s compositions created by chance instead of by design.

Some of his most influential compositions include “4’33”,” Sonatas and Interludes, and Variations III.

John Cage’s 4’33

In the late 1980s, Cage began to slow down with his work and 1987 was the last year that he was highly active.

This is likely because, throughout the 80s, Cage’s health began to decline, and eventually he was diagnosed with sciatica and arteriosclerosis.

He survived through 2 strokes however, he passed away in the hospital the day after the second stroke in 1992, just a few weeks before his 80th birthday.

10. Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Anyone who watched American television in the ‘90s probably remembers the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” commercial.

The dramatic instrumental build-up to that iconic line is the climax of the Rodeo suite, one of Aaron Copland’s most famous compositions.

Copland was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1900 and was the youngest of five first-generation children.

Copland inherited his musicality from his mother, who made sure all five children had music lessons.

Copland took the most interest in composition, writing his first songs at only 8 years old.

Copland studied at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris rather than attending college – to his mother’s delight and father’s chagrin.

In 1925, he returned to New York City to compose full-time.

Supporting himself with Guggenheim Fellowships, he worked hard with mentors, including Boston Symphony Orchestra director Segre Koussevitzky.

One by one, orchestra directors started featuring his music.

Copland went on to compose many famous pieces, including ballets and movie scores.

One of my favorite pieces of his is Appalachian Spring which you can listen to below.

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

He started classical and added jazz elements as this movement gained momentum in the USA.

Along with Rodeo, he described Billy the Kid as one of the most esteemed pieces of his career.

He passed away from Alzheimer’s and respiratory failure in 1990.

11. Clara Edwards

Born in 1880 in Decoria Township, Minnesota, Clara Edwards was a singer and pianist in addition to being a composer.

But, almost every piece that she composed was released using the pen name, Bernard Haigh.

Edwards originally began her career as a singer right out of music school and she found decent success, giving concerts all over the US and Europe.

However, financial necessity required her to switch paths when her husband died and she became a single mother.

The unfortunate event took a toll on her singing career and triggered her to begin composing in the 1920s.

Even though she started her work a lot later than most composers, Edwards composed over 100 works throughout her career.

Some of the most popular include “By The Bend Of The River,” “With The Wind And The Rain In Your Hair,” and “Into The Night.”

Clara Edwards died in her New York City home in 1974. She was 93 years old at the time.

12. James Horner

James Roy Horner was a composer and conductor of film scores best known for combining electronic, choral, and Celtic sounds.

This unique blend stars in the scores of Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Avatar, The Land Before Time, The Legend of Zorro, and so many others.

Even though he passed in 2015, some of his music will be used in future Avatar films.

Horner was born and raised in Los Angeles, California in 1953.

He played the piano and violin from an early age and earned a degree in Music Theory from UCLA while composing through the American Film Institute.

He composed his first score in 1979, The Lady in Red.

He rose to notoriety for his 1982 score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Titanic is his all-time best-selling soundtrack.

Many renowned directors and producers sought out Horner’s talent, including James Cameron, Ron Howard, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.

In his lifetime, Horner won two Academy Awards, six Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and several others.

Horner passed away tragically in 2015.

He was an avid recreational pilot and crashed in a solo flight over the Los Padres National Forest in California.

His death was determined to be an accident.

13. Steve Reich

Steve Reich

Steve Reich is a minimalist American composer born in New York City in 1936.

Reich has been actively composing since the 1960s and has worked on film soundtracks in addition to doing more independent work. He’s also composed music for varying instrumentations throughout his career.

Reich has even released a couple of books based on his creative writing process.

Some of his most commonly heard works include It’s Gonna Rain, Different Trains, Music For 18 Musicians, and Pendulum Music.

Reich remains actively composing to this day although his composing has slowed a little bit with age, having last released an album in 2019 he is still relevant in modern classical music.

14. Charles Ives

Charles Ives

Charles Ives, born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut was one of the original composers to use experimental music techniques and he was also one of the first Americans to become a world-renowned composer.

Some of Ives’ most renowned works include “Variations on America,” “Three Places In New England,” “Central Park In The Dark,” “Concord Sonata,” and “Symphony No. 4.”

Charles Ives had a stroke in 1954 which he didn’t survive and died at the age of 79.

While Ives eventually gained a lot of fame, he remained mostly unknown throughout his career with his music only really beginning to gain traction after his years of work.

Ives didn’t earn any notable awards during his life but received multiple after his death including a Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize. His music seems to continually gain popularity in modern days.

15. Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

Born in 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania Samuel Barber II was a musical prodigy who composed his first piece at the age of 7.

In addition to being a composer, Barber was also a pianist, baritone singer, conductor, and music teacher.

Barber was one of the few composers who received positive attention throughout the entirety of his career and his music remains celebrated in modern days as well.

He composed music for various instrumentations, but he primarily composed for piano and voice.

He also collaborated with his life partner, Gian Carlo Menotti a decent amount, especially when composing operas. 

Barber’s compositions were successful internationally and some of his famous works include “Vanessa”, “Symphony In One Movement,” “Piano Sonata in E Flat Minor,” “Adagio for Strings,” and “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.”

He was well-decorated in awards throughout his career including 2 Pulitzer Prizes, a Rome Prize, a Henry Hadley Medal, and a Gold Medal for Music at the American Academy and Institute of Arts.

He also served as the president of the International Music Council Of UNESCO in an attempt to help other musicians.

Barber stopped composing in 1978, around the same time that he was diagnosed with cancer.

He spent three years in and out of the hospital going through treatment, however, Barber was never able to enter remission and died from the disease in early 1981 at the age of 70.

16. John Adams

John Adams by Deborah O’Grady / CC BY-SA 3.0

John Coolidge Adams, not to be confused with the late American President, is a composer and conductor credited as the leader in contemporary classical music.

He is famous for writing operas such as The Death of Klinghoffer, film scores such as Call Me by Your Name, and many other single pieces.

Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 and began learning clarinet from his father, and composed his first piece at age 10.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, where he was the first student permitted to submit a musical composition as his senior thesis.

His son Samuel is also a well-known American composer.

There has been a history of controversy surrounding the Death of Klinghoffer.

Many, including the Klinghoffer family, find the piece to be anti-Semitic.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra pulled sections of the piece from its lineup after the September 11 attacks in 2011.

Despite the controversy, Adams continues to produce work and earned both a Pulitzer Prize for Music and an Erasmus Prize.

Summing up the Best American Composers

As you can see, there are so many amazing composers from American covering all sorts of genres from classical to jazz music and this list doesn’t even scratch the surface.

We’ll be adding to this list so let us know who you think we’ve missed off.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.