American Literature Music of the American Revolution
Billy Coleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0230


Music of the American Revolution produced powerful effects. More than a mere backdrop to revolutionary events or a simple reflection of revolutionary spirit, music forged common cause and division, imbued political sentiments with emotional resonance, infused secular and political ideals with sacred and religious overtones, animated ideas about political allegiance, and conveyed a range of contested and evolving national identities. Music also connected Anglo-American colonists to a wider transatlantic culture, was bound up with projects of empire and settler colonialism, spoke to shifting gender ideals, and helped racialize the soundscape of the Revolution. As a topic that cuts across many disciplines, a definitive treatment of music in the American Revolution remains elusive. In fact, beyond debates occurring within specific disciplinary subfields, studies on different aspects of American Revolutionary music are not often in conversation with each other. However, evaluations of 18th-century American music demand attention not only to sound but also to literary practices, performance cultures, and transatlantic connections. Cumulatively, scholars have begun to challenge unduly nostalgic interpretations of music’s contribution to the Revolution. Yet there is still significant opportunity for future studies to adopt more expansive definitions of revolutionary music to better integrate minority musical experiences and expressions into American Revolutionary history. As such, this bibliography includes citations to works that may lack either a strong musical or Revolutionary-era focus to advance research on this vital subject. For example, scholars of music of the African diaspora and Indigenous First Nations typically do not center their narratives on the American Revolution but awareness of their research is essential to build a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the role of music, songs, and singing in this conflict.

General Overviews

These studies provide an overview of music’s place in American Revolutionary society from a variety of disciplinary and thematic perspectives. Sonneck 1907 is the foundational documentary account of early American concerts, performance practice, and musical activity in colonial British America. Schlesinger 1954 and Covey 1948 offer more analytically engaged arguments about patriot music as a form of propaganda or as the expression of a nascent colonial American spirit, respectively. Camus 1976 and Silverman 1976 build significantly on earlier work and give what are still two of the most authoritative overviews of music in the Revolution. Camus focuses on music in the military while Silverman emphasizes the contribution of music–alongside painting, literature, and theater—to the construction of a new national American identity. Schrader 1980 and Ogasapian 2004 expand on those insights while more recent research like Bechtold 2015 and Goodman 2017 provide new avenues for further research. Bechtold integrates insights from the history of senses, religion, and science to rethink the power of music in the Revolutionary era and Goodman explores how early Americans repurposed European melodies to reassess the significance of the Revolution to American music history. Lohman 2021, an edited collection, offers an extremely useful introduction to the sources, significance, and contemporary uses of music in the Revolutionary era.

  • Bechtold, Rebeccah. “A Revolutionary Soundscape: Musical Reform and the Science of Sound in Early America, 1760-1840.” Journal of the Early Republic 35.3 (2015): 419–450.

    DOI: 10.1353/jer.2015.0045

    The best recent account of the power of music in Revolutionary American society. Draws on early American conceptions of sound, the senses, religion, and science to trace the political impact of music throughout the revolutionary period.

  • Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

    The authoritative study of music’s contribution to martial dimensions of the American Revolutionary War. Camus thoroughly refutes claims that music was not introduced into the United States military until 1834 and places those early American military uses of music in the context of preexisting 18th-century European, British, and colonial traditions.

  • Covey, Cyclone. “Of Music and of America Singing.” In Seeds of Liberty: The Genesis of the American Mind. Edited by Max Savelle, 490–552. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948.

    A dated but wide-ranging and concise contextual overview of music in the American colonial and revolutionary periods.

  • Goodman, Glenda. “Transatlantic Contrafacta, Musical Formats, and the Creation of Political Culture in Revolutionary America.” Journal of the Society for American Music 11.4 (2017): 392–419.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1752196317000359

    An important recent intervention. Goodman traces transatlantic uses of the tune “God Save the King” throughout the Revolutionary era to suggest that the Revolution did not signal a “turning point in American music history.” Close attention is paid to the materiality of political songs and to the multiplicity of meanings produced by melodies like “God Save the King,” which were consumed across many different printed formats and live performance contexts.

  • Lohman, Laura, ed. Researching Secular Music and Dance in the Early United States: Extending the Legacy of Kate Van Winkle Keller. New York: Routledge, 2021.

    A useful starting point for researchers and performers of early American music. Chapters introduce readers to key bibliographical tools, to the interdisciplinary significance of early American music’s social and cultural contexts, and to perspectives on what it means to perform this music today.

  • Ogasapian, John. Music of the Colonial and Revolutionary Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

    A textbook-style introductory overview of music in British America from European contact to 1800. Includes a chapter dedicated to music’s contributions to American society during the Revolutionary War, which stresses the singing school movement, British musical influences, military bands, and popular songs as propaganda for patriots and loyalists alike.

  • Schlesinger, Arthur M. “A Note on Songs as Patriot Propaganda 1765-1776.” The William and Mary Quarterly 11.1 (1954): 78–88.

    DOI: 10.2307/1923150

    A short but influential research note interpreting patriot songs as a form of “musical propaganda.” Beginning in the Stamp Act crisis, Schlesinger points to the increasing output of patriot songs over time, categorizing them into three types: narrative, hortatory, and martial.

  • Schrader, Arthur F. “Songs to Cultivate the Sensations of Freedom.” In Music in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630–1820. Vol. 1, Music in Public Spaces. Edited by Barbara Lambert, 105–156. Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980.

    A detailed survey of notable topical songs and their meanings during the Revolutionary War. Highlights the influence of melody on the reception of these songs, which are framed here as specimens of propaganda—not art or literature. Each song is accompanied by a contextual introduction, visual evidence of its publication at the time, and an adapted modern-day musical score.

  • Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature, and the Theatre in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763–1789. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

    Silverman’s book remains an important compendium for understanding cultural life during the broad era of the American Revolution. It contains three brief but indispensable summaries of “musical life” that span three chronologically separate periods from 1763 to 1789. Together with painting, literature, and theater, Silverman argues for music’s role in the creation of a distinctively American national culture.

  • Sonneck, O. G. Early Concert-Life in America. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1907.

    The foundational account of organized British American public concert activity during the 18th-century. With a focus on four urban centers—Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston—it is still the most comprehensive single volume to document professional musical performances in early America.

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