Women Composers

Composers from USA

John Adams

February 15, 1947 -

Modern Period

John Adams was born on Feb 15, 1947 in Massachusetts. He was heavily influenced as a child by the New English music scene and grew up playing the clarinet. He earned two music degrees from Harvard during the 1970s. After reading the book Silence by John Cage he began dabbling in electronic music composition. Today his style is often electronic and considered minimalist or post-minimalist by many, with sparse instrumentation and a lot of repetition. Two of his most famous works are Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), composed for those lost on 9/11.


Louis W. Ballard

July 08, 1931 - February 09, 2007

Modern Period

Born in Oklahoma, Ballard was a member of the Quapaw nation of Native Americans and his compositions were influenced by both Western (or Euro-American) and Native American musical worlds. When his parents divorced, his time with his grandmother included membership with the War Dance Society of Quapaw and other traditional activities, but she also got a piano for him to learn Western music and singing.

He earned undergraduate degrees in music and music education and an advanced degree in composition. He did post-graduate composition studies before joining the Institute of American Indian Arts. He composed constantly, including two Native American themed ballets. Along with continuing to compose, he became a world-recognized music educator and was honored for his contributions to the Native American community with a Cherokee Medal of Honor.


Samuel Barber

March 09, 1910 - January 23, 1981

Modern Period

Samuel Barber was born in Pennsylvania on March 9, 1910. His family and extended family were very musical and Barber started composing at age 7. At 14 he entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study piano, voice, and composition. He served in the Army Air Corps during WWII, where he was commissioned to write the Symphony Dedicated to the Air Forces in 1943. Supposedly, Barber destroyed all parts of the score in 1964. Barber enjoyed composing for vocal pieces, and used his own voice for a few pieces. His opera Vanessa (1958) won a Pulitzer Prize. Among his orchestral works are Adagio for Strings (1938), Violin Concerto (1939), and an Overture to The School for Scandal (1931). He died in 1981 in New York City.


Amy Beach

September 05, 1867 - December 27, 1944

Late Romantic Period

Amy Beach was the first American woman to find success as a composer. She was born Amy Cheney in New Hampshire, and later moved to Boston, where she became well known as a pianist and composer. Amy could play by ear any music she heard, and at the age of four, she composed her first piano pieces in her head. Her mother actually taught her to play the piano when she was six, and at seven she gave her first public performance.

After her marriage to Dr. Henry Beach, she turned her focus to composing, and only gave recitals once a year. Beach was first known for her art songs, but then received national and international attention for her larger works, including a symphony, violin sonata and piano quintet. Many of her works have returned to the concert stage, and hundreds have been recorded.


Leonard Bernstein

August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990

Modern Period

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and grew up in the Boston area. His father sold wigs and beauty supplies, and wanted his oldest son to take over the business. But after Leonard -- or Lenny, as all his friends called him -- composed the class song for his high school graduation, he went on to Harvard and majored in music.

Leonard Bernstein got his big break when he was the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. At the last minute, he stepped in to conduct a concert in Carnegie Hall that was broadcast live over the radio all across America. The audience loved him, and the event made front page headlines in the newspaper.

When Bernstein was eventually named music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was the first American to become permanent conductor of a major American orchestra. Leonard Bernstein used television, which was brand new at the time, to bring classical music to a very wide audience through his "Young People's Concerts."

Bernstein also loved to compose musical theater. His musicals include "On The Town," "Wonderful Town," and "West Side Story."


John Cage

September 05, 1912 - August 12, 1992

Modern Period

John Cage is among the most famous of 20th century composers. While his earliest compositions were written in a traditional style, he quickly moved on to create unique kinds of works. One of his first inventions was the "prepared piano," which is an instrument modified so that it can produce new, percussive sounds.

John Cage wanted music to escape from any sort of control and, in some cases, to express the idea of zero thought. He therefore created purposeless music based on the throw of some dice, a star chart, or some other such random device so that his personal preferences were not part of the compositional process. He called this method indeterminacy. One such work, Imaginary Landscape No. 4, includes 12 radio sets, each of which is tuned to a different station. Every performance is therefore unique.

4'33", one of Cage's most famous pieces, is ''performed'' by a pianist who sits unmoving in front of a keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds. The members of the audience are expected during this time to listen to the sounds that occur around them.

Cage was always experimenting. He was one of the first musicians to create electronic music, using tape and making musical collages that combine many different sounds. Some of his compositions allow the performer to choose the order in which the sections of the piece are played as well as the number of musicians. Still others are ''action'' pieces that involve the audience and ''happenings'' that are simultaneous but uncoordinated. HPSCHD, which consists of seven harpsichord solos created from computer-generated sounds, also uses lights, films and slides, making performances of this work multimedia events.

A true innovator, Cage wanted to break down the barriers between art and living, to make audiences aware that they are surrounded by sounds and that everything they do is actually music. He was very influential in the 20th century musical world and in his later years was honored with many formal awards and recognitions.


Raven Chacon

September 05, 1912 -

Modern Period

Born in the Navajo Nation, Chacon is a chamber music composer, a performer of experimental noise music, and an installation artist. He performs as solo artist with various ensembles and is a member of the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity.

Along with his experimental works, which often incorporate native instruments, Chacon is an educator, serving as composer-in-residence with the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP), teaching string quartet composition to American Indian high school students. He has served on the Music and Native American Studies faculties at the University of New Mexico and as a visiting artist in the New Media Art & Performance program at Long Island University.


Aaron Copland

November 14, 1900 - December 02, 1990

Modern Period

Aaron Copland is one of the most famous American composers of all time. Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, and went to France as a teenager to study music with Nadia Boulanger, who helped Copland create his own style.

Copland wrote music with a very "American" sound. Some of his most famous pieces are his ballets -- Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Billy the Kid and Rodeo are about the Wild West. Copland also wrote music for movies -- Of Mice and Men and Our Town, among others.

One of Copland's best known compostions is Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland wrote it after the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra asked several composers to write fanfares during World War II. Copland's music has become a great part of American history.


Brent Michael Davids

June 04, 1959 -

Modern Period

A member of the Stockbridge Munsee Community, a Native American tribe, Davids is a composer and flautist from Madison, Wisconsin. He has composed music for the National Symphony Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, and the vocal group Chanticleer. In 2015, his opera ''Purchase of Manhattan'' debuted. He's also written music for films and for flute and flute quartets. To encourage more Native American composers, he started Native American Composer Apprentice Program in Arizona and the Composer Apprentice National Outreach Endeavor in Minnesota. He also opened a recording studio on the studio on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin.


Reena Esmail

February 11, 1983 -

Modern Period

Reena Esmail works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music, to bring communities together through the creation of equitable musical spaces. Esmail holds degrees from The Juilliard School (BM'05) and the Yale School of Music (MM'11, MMA'14, DMA'18). Esmail's work has been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, Richmond Symphony, Town Music Seattle, Albany Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Girls Choir, the Elora Festival, Juilliard 415 and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Upcoming seasons include new work for Seattle Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Amherst College Choir and Orchestra, Santa Fe Pro Musica, and Conspirare. In addition, Esmail is Artistic Director of Shastra, a non-profit organization that promotes cross-cultural music connecting musical traditions of India and the West.


Stephen Foster

July 04, 1826 - January 13, 1864

Modern Period

Born on the Fourth of July, it is ironic that Stephen Foster would later become the first professional American songwriter. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, Foster did not enjoy school but preferred to spend his time learning music. As a young adult, Foster spent several years living in Cincinnati, working as a bookkeeper for his brother's steamboat company. He later would return to Pittsburgh to marry Jane MacDowell and launch his professional career as a songwriter.

Foster is known for his minstrel tunes including "Oh! Susanna," ''Camptown Races,'' ''Old Folks at Home,'' and ''My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!'' He also wrote famous parlor songs including ''Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,'' ''Gentle Annie,'' and ''Beautiful Dreamer.'' Many of these songs are known for their sentimentality, a trait that has struck a chord with nostalgic America ever since.

To learn more about Stephen Foster and his music, check out Naomi Lewin's radio program Stephen Collins Foster: America's Bard.


Gabriela Lena Frank

September 26, 1972 -

Modern Period

Gabriela Lena Frank is a concert pianist and award-winning composer who has written works for major artists including Yo-Yo Ma, as well as some of the world's best chamber groups and orchestras. Her mother was from Peruvian/Chinese descent and her father from Lithuanian/Jewish descent. This multi-cultural heritage has influenced many of her compositions. She also finds inspiration in the works of Bela Bartok and Alberto Ginastera, as well as Latin-American folklore.


George Gershwin

September 26, 1898 - July 11, 1937

Modern Period

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York. He taught himself to play the piano at a friend's house by following how the keys moved on a player piano. When the Gershwins finally got their own piano, George surprised everyone by sitting down and playing the songs he had learned by himself.

George liked to compose both classical and popular music, and found a unique way to combine the two. He composed his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, in 1924, the same year he also had a hit show on Broadway. Gershwin also wrote the opera Porgy and Bess. He is considered one of the greatest American composers.


Philip Glass

January 31, 1937 -

Modern Period

Philip Glass discovered music in his father's radio repair shop. In addition to servicing radios, Ben Glass carried a line of records. When some didn't sell he took them home to play them for his three children, trying to discover why the customers didn't like them. Thus, as a youngster, Glass became familiar with works by Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich and others. He also learned how to play the flute.

At 19, Glass graduated from the University of Chicago with a major in mathematics and philosophy. (He skipped the last two years of high school.) He wanted to be come a composer, however, so he moved to New York City and attended the Juilliard School there. He also studied in Paris.

Glass took some time to find his own style. His early works were known as "minimalist" because they repeated and varied a very small number of basic musical ideas. However, this period was short-lived as Glass became very interested in Indian music and started writing in a very different manner. His later compositions include several operas, symphonies and film scores. He has collaborated with a variety of artists, including writers, dancers and other musicians.


Ferde Grofe

March 27, 1892 - April 03, 1972

Modern Period

Ferde Grofe was an American composer born in New York City, 1892. His parents were very musical and taught 'Ferdie' to play violin and piano. After his father's death in 1899, his mother took him to Germany to study composition, piano, and viola. Grofe learned several music instruments throughout his life, but his favorite was piano. He worked as an arranger as well as a composer. His most famous arrangement is of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It was Grofe's arrangement that brought Gershwin's piece to the fame it carries today. He also wrote for American films. His most famous composition is Grand Canyon Suite (1931). Grofe died in California in 1972.


Joy Harjo

May 09, 1951 -

Modern Period

Joy Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a three-time U.S. Poet Laureate who has published 14 books of poetry, several plays and children's books. She is also a musician who has written, performed, and released five albums of her original music. She has taught poetry and serves as the director of For Girls Becoming, an art mentorship program for young Mvskoke women.


Jennifer Higdon

December 31, 1962 -

Modern Period

Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York. She originally studied flute at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, but then went to the University of Pennsylvania for degrees in composition. She has studied composition with George Crumb and Ned Rorem, and conducting with Robert Spano. Now, she teaches composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her works have been recorded on over two-dozen CDs. In 2004, her CD Concerto for Orchestra / City Scape, recorded by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, won a Grammy Award. Her composition, blue cathedral is one of the most performed orchestra works by a living composer.


Moses Hogan

March 13, 1957 - February 11, 2003

Modern Period

Moses Hogan was an American pianist, conductor, and arranger. Most known for his work with African-American spirituals, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Juilliard School of Music.


Charles Ives

October 20, 1874 - May 19, 1954

Modern Period

Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut just nine years after the end of the Civil War. All the members of the Ives family were successful business people, except for Charlie's father George. George Ives was a band director and music teacher who loved to experiment with sound. Those experiments had a big influence on the music that Charlie wrote when he grew up.

As a kid, Charlie was already an excellent musician. He got his first paying job as an organist when he was only 14. But that doesn't mean he didn't do regular kid stuff, too. Charlie loved sports, especially baseball and football.

Charles Ives did not become a professional composer. Instead, he was a highly successful businessman in the early days of life insurance. But Ives spent all his evenings and weekends doing what he really loved, namely composing. Ives never tried to please anyone else with his music -- he did exactly what he liked. As a result, and because of his father's influence, Ives wrote music that was totally different from anyone else's. In fact, his music was way ahead of its time.


Scott Joplin

January 01, 1867 - April 01, 1917

Modern Period

Today, birthdays are very carefully recorded, but no one knows for sure exactly when Scott Joplin was born. According to the United States census taken in July of 1870, Scott Joplin was two years old. And no one is sure where Joplin was born, either -- it was probably in northeast Texas.

Scott Joplin's father was born into slavery in North Carolina; his mother was a freeborn woman from Kentucky. Both his parents were musical. When his parents separated, Scott's mother supported the family by cleaning houses, and he was allowed to use the piano in one of those houses. He taught himself to play.

As a teenager, Joplin started traveling. In Missouri, he played piano in saloons; for the 1893 World's Fair, he headed to Chicago, and played cornet in a band. After spending some time in college, Joplin moved on to St. Louis, the hotbed of ragtime music. Eventually, he wound up in New York City.

Scott Joplin wrote some songs and stage works, but he's best known as one of the greatest composers of piano rags. In 1976 -- almost 60 years after Scott Joplin died -- his opera Treemonisha was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.


Libby Larsen

December 24, 1950 -

Modern Period

American composer Libby Larsen was born in Delaware, but now lives in Minnesota. She has written songs, chamber music, symphonies, and operas for both children and grown-ups. She is a strong advocate for music education and for women in music. In 1973, she founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now called the American Composers Forum, to link composers to communities and develop more opportunities for new music. She has received many awards for her work, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a 1994 Grammy Award for the recording that includes her song cycle Sonnets from the Portuguese.


Morten Lauridsen

February 27, 1943 -

Modern Period

A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2007 and a long-time professor at the USC Thornton School of Music, Morten Lauridsen worked as a Forest Service firefighter and lookout near Mt. St. Helens prior to his decision to study composition at USC. When not teaching, Lauridsen spends his summers on Waldron Island off the coast of Washington state in the San Juan Archipelago. He enjoys a simple life there in his home that is a converted general store purchased in 1975. At that time, he brought a $50 piano with him over in a boat. It was on this piano that he has written some of his masterpieces! Lauridsen loves the sea and the serenity that he gets during his time on Waldron Island. It's these moments of quiet contemplation that provide what he needs to write the beautiful, peaceful music that so many of his listeners enjoy.

Lauridsen is quite diverse in his approach to composition. While some of his works are more traditional with references to Gregorian chant or Renaissance music, other pieces sound more contemporary and have atonal elements. He loves setting texts to music and especially enjoys writing cycles on universal themes.


Lili'uokalani

September 02, 1838 - November 11, 1917

Romantic Period

Lili'uokalani was the last monarch of Hawaii before the island became a territory, and later a state of the United States of America. She was known for writing songs in her spare time and composed 160 during her lifetime.


Missy Mazzoli

October 27, 1980 -

Modern Period

Missy Mazzoli is a successful composer whose music has been performed by many major artists including the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, Emanuel Ax, the New York City Opera, the LA Philharmonic, and many more. She recently founded Luna Lab, a mentorship program for young female composers. Missy is also a performer. She plays piano and often performs with Victoire, a band she founded in 2008 that focuses on performing her works.


R. Carlos Nakai

April 16, 1946 -

Modern Period

Acclaimed as the world's premier performer of the Native American Flute, R. Carlos Nakai is of Navajo-Ute heritage and has released more than 50 albums and performed around the world. While keeping his music based in the traditional Native American flute, his compositions have expanded to include new age, jazz, and classical influences. He studied at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University and is a member of the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame.


Jim Pepper

June 18, 1941 - February 10, 1992

Modern Period

Jim Pepper was a multi-talented musician: a jazz saxophonist, composer, singer, and former member of one of the early jazz fusion groups of the 1960's, The Free Spirits. Pepper's heritage was Kaw and Creek Native Americans, so often incorporated native musical influences in his jazz compositions. "Witchi Tai To" was his most popular composition and was covered by a variety of jazz artists. He contributed sax to many jazz recordings, and after his death, was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame.


Florence Price

April 09, 1887 - June 03, 1953

Modern Period

Florence Price is most known as the first African American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. She studied with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory and later wrote radio jingles and popular songs in addition to her more serious compositions.


Caroline Shaw

August 01, 1982 -

Modern Period

Caroline Shaw is a vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer who is known for being the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. She frequently receives commissions from the world's greatest musicians and ensembles including the Dover Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.


John Philip Sousa

November 06, 1854 - March 06, 1932

Romantic Period

American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa was born in Washington D.C. He was the son of Portuguese and German immigrants. His father played trombone in the United States Marine Band, and the younger Sousa was always interested in bands. When he was 13, he nearly ran off to join a circus band. His father found out about the plan, and stuck him in the Marine Band instead.

In addition to playing band instruments, Sousa played violin, and that's how he met his wife. She was a singer, and he was playing in the orchestra of the theater where she worked. Sousa was also a theater composer -- he wrote 15 operettas.

Eventually, John Philip Sousa went back to bands. He spent 12 years as conductor of the Marine Band, and then left to start a concert band of his own. The Sousa Band toured all over the world, playing to sold-out houses.

John Philip Sousa literally continued conducting up until his death. He died suddenly after leading a band rehearsal. The final piece he conducted at the rehearsal was "The Stars and Stripes Forever."


William Grant Still

May 11, 1895 - December 03, 1978

Modern Period

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two school teachers. But when he was very little, William's father died, so he and his mother went to live with her mother in Little Rock, Arkansas.

William grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. And he also grew up hearing her sing spirituals that she learned as a child. Later on, those stories and spirituals found their way into his music.

When William was nine, his mother remarried. His stepfather loved music, too. He bought a phonograph, with which he introduced William to all kinds of music he'd never heard before, including opera. William took violin lessons when he was young, and then taught himself to play the cello, clarinet, oboe and French horn.

Still went to Wilberforce University in Ohio to study medicine, but that didn't last long. Still began his music career in Columbus, Ohio. Then, the great blues performer W.C. Handy invited him to come to Memphis play with his band, and to do musical arrangements for them. That's when the blues started finding their way into Still's compositions.

William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. And he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. But Still earned his living writing background music for radio and television -- shows like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and The Three Stooges. In addition to symphonies, Still's classical compositions include chamber music, operas, and ballets.


Ellen Taafe Zwilich

April 30, 1939 -

Modern Period

Ellen Taafe Zwilich was the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music. She has written many impressive works, commissioned and performed by the world's top ensembles. She received her education from Juilliard and currently holds a professorship at Florida State University.


Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate

July 25, 1968 -

Modern Period


Randall Thompson

April 21, 1899 - July 09, 1984

Modern Period

Randall Thompson was an American composer known primarily for his choral music. Most people are familiar with his Alleluia, written in just four days in 1940. Thompson studied at Harvard, where he worked with composer Edward Burlingame Hill. Besides composing, Thompson is also known for his work as an educator. He did a study on college-level music education in America. He also served as the head of the Curtis Institute, and held professorships at Wellesley, the University of California in Berkeley, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Princeton, and Harvard.


Joan Tower

September 06, 1938 -

Modern Period

Joan Tower is an American composer, pianist and conductor. She was born in New Rochelle, New York, but spent her childhood in South America where she fell in love with rhythm and percussion instruments. Tower has never written for voices, just instruments, and many of her compositions were created with particular performers in mind. She has won many awards and commissions, served as composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and taught at Bard College.


Gwyneth Walker

March 22, 1947 -

Modern Period

American composer Gwyneth Walker is known for collaborating with musicians and combining music with readings, acting, and movement.

A proud resident of New England, Walker was born in Connecticut, lived on a dairy farm in Vermont for almost 30 years, and now divides her time between the two states. She received the 2000 ''Lifetime Achievement Award'' from the Vermont Arts Council and 2018 2018 "Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award" from Choral Arts New England.

Widely performed throughout the United States, Walker's compositions include works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice.


Eric Whitacre

February 02, 1970 -

Modern Period

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer and conductor based out of Los Angeles, California where he is current Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He came to his passion for classical music relatively late, after singing Mozart's Requiem while a student at the University of Nevada. He went on to study with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the prestigious Julliard School of Music. Whitacre writes orchestral works but is most known for his music composed for vocal ensemble. He has received commissions from some of the world's top ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chanticleer, and The King's Singers.


John Williams

February 08, 1932 -

Modern Period

As a composer for film, television and the concert stage, John Williams has written some of the most recognizable and well-known music across the globe including the film scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, ET, Superman: The Movie, The BFG, and Jurassic Park.

Williams has also composed symphonies and concertos for a variety of instruments including flute, violin, tuba and harp, as well as themes for the Olympics and NBC's presentation of NFL Football.

He was the 19th music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra and is now its Laureate Conductor. Included in his long list of awards is the National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award given by the government of the United States.


James Kimo Williams

January 08, 1950 -

Modern Period


Olly Wilson Jr

January 08, 1950 -

Modern Period


Julia Wolfe

December 18, 1958 -

Modern Period

Julia Wolfe's music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them.

In addition to receiving the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (for her oratorio Anthracite Fields), Wolfe was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, received the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in Music, and was named Musical America's 2019 Composer of the Year. She is co-founder/co-artistic director of New York's legendary music collective Bang on a Can, and she is Artistic Director of NYU Steinhardt Music Composition.


David Yeagley

September 05, 1951 - March 11, 2014

Modern Period

Yeagley was a Comanche, composer, concert pianist, and conservative activist who was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and was educated at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory, Emory University, University of Hartford, and the University of Arizona. He was the first American Indian ever admitted to the Yale Divinity School.


Women Composers

Composers from USA

John Adams

February 15, 1947 -

Modern Period

John Adams was born on Feb 15, 1947 in Massachusetts. He was heavily influenced as a child by the New English music scene and grew up playing the clarinet. He earned two music degrees from Harvard during the 1970s. After reading the book Silence by John Cage he began dabbling in electronic music composition. Today his style is often electronic and considered minimalist or post-minimalist by many, with sparse instrumentation and a lot of repetition. Two of his most famous works are Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), composed for those lost on 9/11.


Louis W. Ballard

July 08, 1931 - February 09, 2007

Modern Period

Born in Oklahoma, Ballard was a member of the Quapaw nation of Native Americans and his compositions were influenced by both Western (or Euro-American) and Native American musical worlds. When his parents divorced, his time with his grandmother included membership with the War Dance Society of Quapaw and other traditional activities, but she also got a piano for him to learn Western music and singing.

He earned undergraduate degrees in music and music education and an advanced degree in composition. He did post-graduate composition studies before joining the Institute of American Indian Arts. He composed constantly, including two Native American themed ballets. Along with continuing to compose, he became a world-recognized music educator and was honored for his contributions to the Native American community with a Cherokee Medal of Honor.


Samuel Barber

March 09, 1910 - January 23, 1981

Modern Period

Samuel Barber was born in Pennsylvania on March 9, 1910. His family and extended family were very musical and Barber started composing at age 7. At 14 he entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study piano, voice, and composition. He served in the Army Air Corps during WWII, where he was commissioned to write the Symphony Dedicated to the Air Forces in 1943. Supposedly, Barber destroyed all parts of the score in 1964. Barber enjoyed composing for vocal pieces, and used his own voice for a few pieces. His opera Vanessa (1958) won a Pulitzer Prize. Among his orchestral works are Adagio for Strings (1938), Violin Concerto (1939), and an Overture to The School for Scandal (1931). He died in 1981 in New York City.


Amy Beach

September 05, 1867 - December 27, 1944

Late Romantic Period

Amy Beach was the first American woman to find success as a composer. She was born Amy Cheney in New Hampshire, and later moved to Boston, where she became well known as a pianist and composer. Amy could play by ear any music she heard, and at the age of four, she composed her first piano pieces in her head. Her mother actually taught her to play the piano when she was six, and at seven she gave her first public performance.

After her marriage to Dr. Henry Beach, she turned her focus to composing, and only gave recitals once a year. Beach was first known for her art songs, but then received national and international attention for her larger works, including a symphony, violin sonata and piano quintet. Many of her works have returned to the concert stage, and hundreds have been recorded.


Leonard Bernstein

August 25, 1918 - October 14, 1990

Modern Period

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and grew up in the Boston area. His father sold wigs and beauty supplies, and wanted his oldest son to take over the business. But after Leonard -- or Lenny, as all his friends called him -- composed the class song for his high school graduation, he went on to Harvard and majored in music.

Leonard Bernstein got his big break when he was the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. At the last minute, he stepped in to conduct a concert in Carnegie Hall that was broadcast live over the radio all across America. The audience loved him, and the event made front page headlines in the newspaper.

When Bernstein was eventually named music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was the first American to become permanent conductor of a major American orchestra. Leonard Bernstein used television, which was brand new at the time, to bring classical music to a very wide audience through his "Young People's Concerts."

Bernstein also loved to compose musical theater. His musicals include "On The Town," "Wonderful Town," and "West Side Story."


John Cage

September 05, 1912 - August 12, 1992

Modern Period

John Cage is among the most famous of 20th century composers. While his earliest compositions were written in a traditional style, he quickly moved on to create unique kinds of works. One of his first inventions was the "prepared piano," which is an instrument modified so that it can produce new, percussive sounds.

John Cage wanted music to escape from any sort of control and, in some cases, to express the idea of zero thought. He therefore created purposeless music based on the throw of some dice, a star chart, or some other such random device so that his personal preferences were not part of the compositional process. He called this method indeterminacy. One such work, Imaginary Landscape No. 4, includes 12 radio sets, each of which is tuned to a different station. Every performance is therefore unique.

4'33", one of Cage's most famous pieces, is ''performed'' by a pianist who sits unmoving in front of a keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds. The members of the audience are expected during this time to listen to the sounds that occur around them.

Cage was always experimenting. He was one of the first musicians to create electronic music, using tape and making musical collages that combine many different sounds. Some of his compositions allow the performer to choose the order in which the sections of the piece are played as well as the number of musicians. Still others are ''action'' pieces that involve the audience and ''happenings'' that are simultaneous but uncoordinated. HPSCHD, which consists of seven harpsichord solos created from computer-generated sounds, also uses lights, films and slides, making performances of this work multimedia events.

A true innovator, Cage wanted to break down the barriers between art and living, to make audiences aware that they are surrounded by sounds and that everything they do is actually music. He was very influential in the 20th century musical world and in his later years was honored with many formal awards and recognitions.


Raven Chacon

September 05, 1912 -

Modern Period

Born in the Navajo Nation, Chacon is a chamber music composer, a performer of experimental noise music, and an installation artist. He performs as solo artist with various ensembles and is a member of the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity.

Along with his experimental works, which often incorporate native instruments, Chacon is an educator, serving as composer-in-residence with the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP), teaching string quartet composition to American Indian high school students. He has served on the Music and Native American Studies faculties at the University of New Mexico and as a visiting artist in the New Media Art & Performance program at Long Island University.


Aaron Copland

November 14, 1900 - December 02, 1990

Modern Period

Aaron Copland is one of the most famous American composers of all time. Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, and went to France as a teenager to study music with Nadia Boulanger, who helped Copland create his own style.

Copland wrote music with a very "American" sound. Some of his most famous pieces are his ballets -- Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Billy the Kid and Rodeo are about the Wild West. Copland also wrote music for movies -- Of Mice and Men and Our Town, among others.

One of Copland's best known compostions is Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland wrote it after the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra asked several composers to write fanfares during World War II. Copland's music has become a great part of American history.


Brent Michael Davids

June 04, 1959 -

Modern Period

A member of the Stockbridge Munsee Community, a Native American tribe, Davids is a composer and flautist from Madison, Wisconsin. He has composed music for the National Symphony Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, and the vocal group Chanticleer. In 2015, his opera ''Purchase of Manhattan'' debuted. He's also written music for films and for flute and flute quartets. To encourage more Native American composers, he started Native American Composer Apprentice Program in Arizona and the Composer Apprentice National Outreach Endeavor in Minnesota. He also opened a recording studio on the studio on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin.


Reena Esmail

February 11, 1983 -

Modern Period

Reena Esmail works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music, to bring communities together through the creation of equitable musical spaces. Esmail holds degrees from The Juilliard School (BM'05) and the Yale School of Music (MM'11, MMA'14, DMA'18). Esmail's work has been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, Richmond Symphony, Town Music Seattle, Albany Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Girls Choir, the Elora Festival, Juilliard 415 and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Upcoming seasons include new work for Seattle Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Amherst College Choir and Orchestra, Santa Fe Pro Musica, and Conspirare. In addition, Esmail is Artistic Director of Shastra, a non-profit organization that promotes cross-cultural music connecting musical traditions of India and the West.


Stephen Foster

July 04, 1826 - January 13, 1864

Modern Period

Born on the Fourth of July, it is ironic that Stephen Foster would later become the first professional American songwriter. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, Foster did not enjoy school but preferred to spend his time learning music. As a young adult, Foster spent several years living in Cincinnati, working as a bookkeeper for his brother's steamboat company. He later would return to Pittsburgh to marry Jane MacDowell and launch his professional career as a songwriter.

Foster is known for his minstrel tunes including "Oh! Susanna," ''Camptown Races,'' ''Old Folks at Home,'' and ''My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!'' He also wrote famous parlor songs including ''Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,'' ''Gentle Annie,'' and ''Beautiful Dreamer.'' Many of these songs are known for their sentimentality, a trait that has struck a chord with nostalgic America ever since.

To learn more about Stephen Foster and his music, check out Naomi Lewin's radio program Stephen Collins Foster: America's Bard.


Gabriela Lena Frank

September 26, 1972 -

Modern Period

Gabriela Lena Frank is a concert pianist and award-winning composer who has written works for major artists including Yo-Yo Ma, as well as some of the world's best chamber groups and orchestras. Her mother was from Peruvian/Chinese descent and her father from Lithuanian/Jewish descent. This multi-cultural heritage has influenced many of her compositions. She also finds inspiration in the works of Bela Bartok and Alberto Ginastera, as well as Latin-American folklore.


George Gershwin

September 26, 1898 - July 11, 1937

Modern Period

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York. He taught himself to play the piano at a friend's house by following how the keys moved on a player piano. When the Gershwins finally got their own piano, George surprised everyone by sitting down and playing the songs he had learned by himself.

George liked to compose both classical and popular music, and found a unique way to combine the two. He composed his most famous work, Rhapsody in Blue, in 1924, the same year he also had a hit show on Broadway. Gershwin also wrote the opera Porgy and Bess. He is considered one of the greatest American composers.


Philip Glass

January 31, 1937 -

Modern Period

Philip Glass discovered music in his father's radio repair shop. In addition to servicing radios, Ben Glass carried a line of records. When some didn't sell he took them home to play them for his three children, trying to discover why the customers didn't like them. Thus, as a youngster, Glass became familiar with works by Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich and others. He also learned how to play the flute.

At 19, Glass graduated from the University of Chicago with a major in mathematics and philosophy. (He skipped the last two years of high school.) He wanted to be come a composer, however, so he moved to New York City and attended the Juilliard School there. He also studied in Paris.

Glass took some time to find his own style. His early works were known as "minimalist" because they repeated and varied a very small number of basic musical ideas. However, this period was short-lived as Glass became very interested in Indian music and started writing in a very different manner. His later compositions include several operas, symphonies and film scores. He has collaborated with a variety of artists, including writers, dancers and other musicians.


Ferde Grofe

March 27, 1892 - April 03, 1972

Modern Period

Ferde Grofe was an American composer born in New York City, 1892. His parents were very musical and taught 'Ferdie' to play violin and piano. After his father's death in 1899, his mother took him to Germany to study composition, piano, and viola. Grofe learned several music instruments throughout his life, but his favorite was piano. He worked as an arranger as well as a composer. His most famous arrangement is of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It was Grofe's arrangement that brought Gershwin's piece to the fame it carries today. He also wrote for American films. His most famous composition is Grand Canyon Suite (1931). Grofe died in California in 1972.


Joy Harjo

May 09, 1951 -

Modern Period

Joy Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a three-time U.S. Poet Laureate who has published 14 books of poetry, several plays and children's books. She is also a musician who has written, performed, and released five albums of her original music. She has taught poetry and serves as the director of For Girls Becoming, an art mentorship program for young Mvskoke women.


Jennifer Higdon

December 31, 1962 -

Modern Period

Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York. She originally studied flute at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, but then went to the University of Pennsylvania for degrees in composition. She has studied composition with George Crumb and Ned Rorem, and conducting with Robert Spano. Now, she teaches composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her works have been recorded on over two-dozen CDs. In 2004, her CD Concerto for Orchestra / City Scape, recorded by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, won a Grammy Award. Her composition, blue cathedral is one of the most performed orchestra works by a living composer.


Moses Hogan

March 13, 1957 - February 11, 2003

Modern Period

Moses Hogan was an American pianist, conductor, and arranger. Most known for his work with African-American spirituals, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Juilliard School of Music.


Charles Ives

October 20, 1874 - May 19, 1954

Modern Period

Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut just nine years after the end of the Civil War. All the members of the Ives family were successful business people, except for Charlie's father George. George Ives was a band director and music teacher who loved to experiment with sound. Those experiments had a big influence on the music that Charlie wrote when he grew up.

As a kid, Charlie was already an excellent musician. He got his first paying job as an organist when he was only 14. But that doesn't mean he didn't do regular kid stuff, too. Charlie loved sports, especially baseball and football.

Charles Ives did not become a professional composer. Instead, he was a highly successful businessman in the early days of life insurance. But Ives spent all his evenings and weekends doing what he really loved, namely composing. Ives never tried to please anyone else with his music -- he did exactly what he liked. As a result, and because of his father's influence, Ives wrote music that was totally different from anyone else's. In fact, his music was way ahead of its time.


Scott Joplin

January 01, 1867 - April 01, 1917

Modern Period

Today, birthdays are very carefully recorded, but no one knows for sure exactly when Scott Joplin was born. According to the United States census taken in July of 1870, Scott Joplin was two years old. And no one is sure where Joplin was born, either -- it was probably in northeast Texas.

Scott Joplin's father was born into slavery in North Carolina; his mother was a freeborn woman from Kentucky. Both his parents were musical. When his parents separated, Scott's mother supported the family by cleaning houses, and he was allowed to use the piano in one of those houses. He taught himself to play.

As a teenager, Joplin started traveling. In Missouri, he played piano in saloons; for the 1893 World's Fair, he headed to Chicago, and played cornet in a band. After spending some time in college, Joplin moved on to St. Louis, the hotbed of ragtime music. Eventually, he wound up in New York City.

Scott Joplin wrote some songs and stage works, but he's best known as one of the greatest composers of piano rags. In 1976 -- almost 60 years after Scott Joplin died -- his opera Treemonisha was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.


Libby Larsen

December 24, 1950 -

Modern Period

American composer Libby Larsen was born in Delaware, but now lives in Minnesota. She has written songs, chamber music, symphonies, and operas for both children and grown-ups. She is a strong advocate for music education and for women in music. In 1973, she founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now called the American Composers Forum, to link composers to communities and develop more opportunities for new music. She has received many awards for her work, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a 1994 Grammy Award for the recording that includes her song cycle Sonnets from the Portuguese.


Morten Lauridsen

February 27, 1943 -

Modern Period

A recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2007 and a long-time professor at the USC Thornton School of Music, Morten Lauridsen worked as a Forest Service firefighter and lookout near Mt. St. Helens prior to his decision to study composition at USC. When not teaching, Lauridsen spends his summers on Waldron Island off the coast of Washington state in the San Juan Archipelago. He enjoys a simple life there in his home that is a converted general store purchased in 1975. At that time, he brought a $50 piano with him over in a boat. It was on this piano that he has written some of his masterpieces! Lauridsen loves the sea and the serenity that he gets during his time on Waldron Island. It's these moments of quiet contemplation that provide what he needs to write the beautiful, peaceful music that so many of his listeners enjoy.

Lauridsen is quite diverse in his approach to composition. While some of his works are more traditional with references to Gregorian chant or Renaissance music, other pieces sound more contemporary and have atonal elements. He loves setting texts to music and especially enjoys writing cycles on universal themes.


Lili'uokalani

September 02, 1838 - November 11, 1917

Romantic Period

Lili'uokalani was the last monarch of Hawaii before the island became a territory, and later a state of the United States of America. She was known for writing songs in her spare time and composed 160 during her lifetime.


Missy Mazzoli

October 27, 1980 -

Modern Period

Missy Mazzoli is a successful composer whose music has been performed by many major artists including the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, Emanuel Ax, the New York City Opera, the LA Philharmonic, and many more. She recently founded Luna Lab, a mentorship program for young female composers. Missy is also a performer. She plays piano and often performs with Victoire, a band she founded in 2008 that focuses on performing her works.


R. Carlos Nakai

April 16, 1946 -

Modern Period

Acclaimed as the world's premier performer of the Native American Flute, R. Carlos Nakai is of Navajo-Ute heritage and has released more than 50 albums and performed around the world. While keeping his music based in the traditional Native American flute, his compositions have expanded to include new age, jazz, and classical influences. He studied at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University and is a member of the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame.


Jim Pepper

June 18, 1941 - February 10, 1992

Modern Period

Jim Pepper was a multi-talented musician: a jazz saxophonist, composer, singer, and former member of one of the early jazz fusion groups of the 1960's, The Free Spirits. Pepper's heritage was Kaw and Creek Native Americans, so often incorporated native musical influences in his jazz compositions. "Witchi Tai To" was his most popular composition and was covered by a variety of jazz artists. He contributed sax to many jazz recordings, and after his death, was inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame.


Florence Price

April 09, 1887 - June 03, 1953

Modern Period

Florence Price is most known as the first African American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. She studied with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory and later wrote radio jingles and popular songs in addition to her more serious compositions.


Caroline Shaw

August 01, 1982 -

Modern Period

Caroline Shaw is a vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer who is known for being the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. She frequently receives commissions from the world's greatest musicians and ensembles including the Dover Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.


John Philip Sousa

November 06, 1854 - March 06, 1932

Romantic Period

American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa was born in Washington D.C. He was the son of Portuguese and German immigrants. His father played trombone in the United States Marine Band, and the younger Sousa was always interested in bands. When he was 13, he nearly ran off to join a circus band. His father found out about the plan, and stuck him in the Marine Band instead.

In addition to playing band instruments, Sousa played violin, and that's how he met his wife. She was a singer, and he was playing in the orchestra of the theater where she worked. Sousa was also a theater composer -- he wrote 15 operettas.

Eventually, John Philip Sousa went back to bands. He spent 12 years as conductor of the Marine Band, and then left to start a concert band of his own. The Sousa Band toured all over the world, playing to sold-out houses.

John Philip Sousa literally continued conducting up until his death. He died suddenly after leading a band rehearsal. The final piece he conducted at the rehearsal was "The Stars and Stripes Forever."


William Grant Still

May 11, 1895 - December 03, 1978

Modern Period

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two school teachers. But when he was very little, William's father died, so he and his mother went to live with her mother in Little Rock, Arkansas.

William grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. And he also grew up hearing her sing spirituals that she learned as a child. Later on, those stories and spirituals found their way into his music.

When William was nine, his mother remarried. His stepfather loved music, too. He bought a phonograph, with which he introduced William to all kinds of music he'd never heard before, including opera. William took violin lessons when he was young, and then taught himself to play the cello, clarinet, oboe and French horn.

Still went to Wilberforce University in Ohio to study medicine, but that didn't last long. Still began his music career in Columbus, Ohio. Then, the great blues performer W.C. Handy invited him to come to Memphis play with his band, and to do musical arrangements for them. That's when the blues started finding their way into Still's compositions.

William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. And he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. But Still earned his living writing background music for radio and television -- shows like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and The Three Stooges. In addition to symphonies, Still's classical compositions include chamber music, operas, and ballets.


Ellen Taafe Zwilich

April 30, 1939 -

Modern Period

Ellen Taafe Zwilich was the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music. She has written many impressive works, commissioned and performed by the world's top ensembles. She received her education from Juilliard and currently holds a professorship at Florida State University.


Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate

July 25, 1968 -

Modern Period


Randall Thompson

April 21, 1899 - July 09, 1984

Modern Period

Randall Thompson was an American composer known primarily for his choral music. Most people are familiar with his Alleluia, written in just four days in 1940. Thompson studied at Harvard, where he worked with composer Edward Burlingame Hill. Besides composing, Thompson is also known for his work as an educator. He did a study on college-level music education in America. He also served as the head of the Curtis Institute, and held professorships at Wellesley, the University of California in Berkeley, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Princeton, and Harvard.


Joan Tower

September 06, 1938 -

Modern Period

Joan Tower is an American composer, pianist and conductor. She was born in New Rochelle, New York, but spent her childhood in South America where she fell in love with rhythm and percussion instruments. Tower has never written for voices, just instruments, and many of her compositions were created with particular performers in mind. She has won many awards and commissions, served as composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and taught at Bard College.


Gwyneth Walker

March 22, 1947 -

Modern Period

American composer Gwyneth Walker is known for collaborating with musicians and combining music with readings, acting, and movement.

A proud resident of New England, Walker was born in Connecticut, lived on a dairy farm in Vermont for almost 30 years, and now divides her time between the two states. She received the 2000 ''Lifetime Achievement Award'' from the Vermont Arts Council and 2018 2018 "Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award" from Choral Arts New England.

Widely performed throughout the United States, Walker's compositions include works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice.


Eric Whitacre

February 02, 1970 -

Modern Period

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer and conductor based out of Los Angeles, California where he is current Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He came to his passion for classical music relatively late, after singing Mozart's Requiem while a student at the University of Nevada. He went on to study with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the prestigious Julliard School of Music. Whitacre writes orchestral works but is most known for his music composed for vocal ensemble. He has received commissions from some of the world's top ensembles including the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chanticleer, and The King's Singers.


John Williams

February 08, 1932 -

Modern Period

As a composer for film, television and the concert stage, John Williams has written some of the most recognizable and well-known music across the globe including the film scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, ET, Superman: The Movie, The BFG, and Jurassic Park.

Williams has also composed symphonies and concertos for a variety of instruments including flute, violin, tuba and harp, as well as themes for the Olympics and NBC's presentation of NFL Football.

He was the 19th music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra and is now its Laureate Conductor. Included in his long list of awards is the National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award given by the government of the United States.


James Kimo Williams

January 08, 1950 -

Modern Period


Olly Wilson Jr

January 08, 1950 -

Modern Period


Julia Wolfe

December 18, 1958 -

Modern Period

Julia Wolfe's music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them.

In addition to receiving the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (for her oratorio Anthracite Fields), Wolfe was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, received the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in Music, and was named Musical America's 2019 Composer of the Year. She is co-founder/co-artistic director of New York's legendary music collective Bang on a Can, and she is Artistic Director of NYU Steinhardt Music Composition.


David Yeagley

September 05, 1951 - March 11, 2014

Modern Period

Yeagley was a Comanche, composer, concert pianist, and conservative activist who was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and was educated at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory, Emory University, University of Hartford, and the University of Arizona. He was the first American Indian ever admitted to the Yale Divinity School.


 

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