This is a good question, but one that seems reserved only for the most curious. Colonial music is not so much music that was written in America before the Revolution as it is music that was brought here and helped define the people who were to make a new country. It includes ballads, dance tunes, folk songs and parodies, comic opera arias, bugle calls and drum calls, Psalms, minuets and Sonatas. It is music from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, and Africa, played on whatever instruments were handy.
Colonial music was played in the drawing rooms of the wealthy, in the taverns, in church, in the theater, at the military camps, in ball rooms, and at home. Most instruments that we have today were around by the Revolution, when pianos were just coming into popularity; but certainly some were more prevalent than others. Violins, though they were played almost exclusively by men, were by far the most popular instruments. They were played by men of all different classes and they were cheap and easy to come by. Second to violins in popularity were flutes of many different kinds, also played for the most part by men.
The Appalachian Dulcimer, also known as the "mountain",
"lap" or "fretted" dulcimer is a more modern
instrument which was born in the Appalachian mountains with some
ancestral ties to earlier German and Scandinavian instruments,
and the French epinette de Vosges.. In recent years, the Appalachian
dulcimer has undergone a revolution in both construction and playing
There were fifes, recorders (this is a 19th-century name for the
instrument--it was called a common flute or English flute), and
transverse flutes (called then German flutes), but it is doubtful
that there were any pennywhistles, despite their numbers in the
mouths of little tourists at Williamsburg. So what did the women
play? A very tight self-regulation of activity in the name of
maintaining reputation was responsible for a rather narrow choice
for musical women, but those who played were for the most part
quite adept. Many wealthy women played harpsichords on which some
were given instruction. The other instrument of choice was what
we call today an English guitar, a now extinct 10-string version
of a Renaissance cittern with a flat back and a tear-drop shape.
The grandmother of our modern guitar was around also, but not
as popular; it is called today a Baroque guitar, and it was a
small version of a classical guitar with gut strings, frets of
gut tied around the neck, and strung as a modern 12-string without
the bass E strings, so it was also a 10 stringed instrument. It
wasn't until around 1820 that the standard guitar had 6 strings.
Musical theater in the colonies was terrifically popular. Most performed were ballad operas-- compilations of familiar folk tunes with new words strung together by spoken dialogue to tell a comic story. The most famous of these was the Beggar's Opera, compiled in 1728 in London as a reaction to the high Italian Opera that was so popular among the wealthy in that city. Beggar's was performed in the colonies as early as 1750, and with orchestral accompaniment by 1752. Many people today will buy the sheet music and/or CD to, say, Les Mis, so the colonists would bring home broadsheets with the words to Beggars or any of the many other ballad operas, and sing the songs at home.
Music was also critical to the favorite pastime of the colonists--dancing. There was a huge repertory of dance tunes, mostly English and Celtic reels, hornpipes, jigs, and minuets. Dancing was usually accompanied by a single violin, but for special occasions there may have been 4 or 5 musicians. Whatever instruments and players could be gathered was fine for the dancers. We have a reference to a dance being accompanied by a solo french horn, for lack of a more suitable instrument (brass instruments had no valves yet!).
In early America a wonderful variety of types and styles of music
emerged, expressing the full spectrum of colonial life. It is
clear that while our ancestors were musically dependent upon Great
Britain and Europe, for the most part, uniquely American developments
were already felt before 1776. To understand, appreciate, and
translate such rich history behind the pleasing melodies and stories
told through song--that is our professional mission.