There are many sites dedicated to educating students about famous composers! I encourage you to explore and find more information than what I provide below. If you find a site you especially enjoy and learn from, please share it with me, I'd love to include it on this site! Check these out!

At the beginning of each period, I will take about 10 minutes to discuss a composer; some biographical information and a listening task, then we listen to a composition.  After about six weeks, we change composers.  During the course of a year, we will discuss four different historical people, so that after three years of music class, the students have been exposed to these twelve composers (Click on a name to jump right to the person you want to read about):

ArmstrongBach, BeethovenDebussyEllingtonHaydn, Ives, JoplinMozart,  ProkofievStravinsky,  and Tchaikovsky

Louis Armstrong

  • Born in 1901 New Orleans, Died 1971 in New York City

  • Poor in his childhood; he helped out his family by playing coronet and singing on the streets

  • "King" Joe Oliver helped Louis get started and they played together in Chicago.

  • Became a goodwill ambassador for the USA.

  • His version of "Hello, Dolly" knocked the Beatles from the #1 spot in 1964!

  • Nicknames:  Satchel Mouth/ Satchmo, Pops.


  • Chimes Blues
  • Potato Head Blues
  • Heebie Jeebies
  • Ain't Misbehavin'

This clip is a fun version of "Oh When the Saints Go Marchin' in" with Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye.  See if you can recognize the names of the composers that they say!

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Johann Sebastien Bach

  •  Born in 1685, Germany, Died 1750

  • Best organist of his time - master of improvisation.

  • Wrote a new choral piece every Sunday for three years, that means over 215 cantatas!

  • People came from all around to see Bach's "flying feet" and hear the latest composition.

  • Four of his twenty children also became well known musicians.


  • Suite no.2 in b minor "Badinerie
  • Cantata no.80 "Ein Feste Burg"
  • Fugue in c minor from The Well Tempered Clavier
  • Suite no.3 in D "Gigue"
  • Toccata in d minor 

To hear the organ playing the spooky Toccata and Fugue in d minor, click here.

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Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany

  • Began working as an organist when only 11 and a half years old (6th grade)!

  • Played and taught piano, composed and conducted.

  • Began losing his hearing in his late twenties.

  • First composer to make a good living without a patron.

  • Compositions were considered very difficult and revolutionary.

  • Died in 1827 (57 years old).


  •  Symphony no. 5
  • Symphony no. 9 "Ode to Joy"
  • Fur Elise
  • Piano Sonata Op.27 no.2 "Moonlight"
  • Piano Sonata Op.13 "Pathetique"
  • Violin Concerto in D major Op.61





To hear some of Beethoven's famous Fifth Symphony, click here.

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

  • Born 1899, Washington DC- Died 1974.
  • Began piano at age 7, quit to play baseball (until he was a teenager).
  • Refused college art scholarship for music.
  • Cotton Club in NYC - first as soloist, then as band leader.
  • Now 300+ CDs with his compositions. 
  • Take the "A Train
  • East St. Louis Toodle-oo (with Bubber Miley)
  • It don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got that Swing)
  • The Nutcracker Suite:  Overture and Dance of the Floreadores
  • Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue
  • Tenderly


Here is an example of Duke and his Orchestra playing
It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing


Joseph Haydn

  • Born 1732, Austria.

  • Died 1809 (age 77).

  • Worked for 30 years with the Esterhazy family.

  • Conducted 2 operas and 2 concerts each week!

  • Nicknamed "Papa Haydn", "Father of the Symphony".


Start at 12:30 for the beginning of the symphony, or 20:20 for the second movement surprise! 

  • Symphony no. 45 "Farewell"
  • Symphony no. 101 "The Clock"
  • Quartet no.30 in E flat Op.33 no.2 "The Joke" 

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Scott Joplin

  • Born in Texas 1868, Died NYC 1917.
  • "Father of Ragtime".
  • Maple Leaf Rag: His most famous piece, was the first sheet music to sell more than one million copies.
  • Won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, 59 years after his death, for his opera "Treemonisha".
  • Burned many of his piano "rags" because he wanted to be remembered as an opera composer.
  • Maple Leaf Rag (1899)
  • The Entertainer (1902)
  • Treemonisha (opera)
  • The Favorite (1904)
  • Solace (A Mexican Serenade) (1909)
  • Stoptime Rag (1910) 
Although we don't have any video of Scott Joplin playing the piano, here is audio of his playing Maple Leaf Rag as recorded on a piano roll.
To listen (and watch) someone play The Entertainer, click here.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Began composing at the age of 4.

  • Toured Europe to play for royalty at 6 and so, learned 15 languages!

  • Constant travel and work made him very ill.

  • Created entire symphonies in his head perfectly.

  • All together, wrote 202 hours of music - that's 8 and a half straight days! 


  • Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  • Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat Major, third movement
  • Magic Flute opera
  • Horn Concerto no.4
  • Requiem Mass 
Magic Flute opera clips:
Papageno/Papagena duet
Queen of the Night aria
Sarastro: O Isis and Osiris

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Charles Ives

  • Born in 1874, Connecticut. 

  • Died 1954, New York City.

  • Influenced by father's band music, church hymns, ragtime, classical music and folk songs!

  • Studied music at Yale University, but became an insurance salesman.

  • Privately printed some music because publishers kept "fixing" his "mistakes".

  • Gave away his Pulitzer Prize money.

  • Symphony no.2, Fifth movement
  • The Gong on the Hook and Ladder (Fireman's Parade)
  • Holidays Symphony, Fourth of July
  • The Unanswered Question
  • Concord Sonata
  • Variations on "America" 
To hear the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music's orchestra playing The Unanswered Question, click here.

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Sergei Prokofiev

  •  Born 1891 in Ukraine, Died 1953 in Moscow.
  • Began piano lessons by age 4.
  • First piano composition at 5, opera at 9, symphony at 13!
  • Music called "barbaric"; piano playing "violent".
  • At first, conductors were threatened if they played his music, now one of the most frequently played composers.
  • Peter and the Wolf
  • Romeo and Juliet (ballet music)
  • Symphony no.1 aka Classical
  • Piano Sonata no.7
  • Piano Concerto no.3 

To see a clip of the Romeo and Juliet ballet, click the link below.

Igor Stravinsky

  • Born 1882, Russia, Died 1971, USA
  • Began studying music when 9, piano.
  • At parents request, Igor went to law school (but still studied music on the side).
  • Joined the Ballet Russes with Diaghilev; wrote his most famous music.
  • Known for the unpredictable!
  • The Firebird ballet, 1910
  • Petrushka ballet, 1911
  • The Rite of Spring ballet, 1913
  • Symphony of Psalms
  • Pulcinella Suite
  • The Rake's Progress opera, 1951 
Here is a rare video of Stravinsky at the age of 82 conducting part of his Firebird Suite.

For all my piano players, listen to Alexis Weissenberg play a piano arrangement of Petrushka.

Here is the opening scene of Petrushka, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.

Peter Tchaikovsky

  • Born 1840, Votkinsk, Russia; Died 1893.
  • Studied to be a lawyer.
  • Taught music classes at Moscow Conservatory while composing (12 yrs).
  • Sensitive, often depressed person.
  • Mme. VonMeck gave him money, so he wouldn't have to teach, only compose.
  • Music expresses his personal feelings, contains Russian folk traditions. 
  •  Three ballets:
  1. Nutcracker
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Swan Lake
  • Piano Concerto no.1
  • Symphony no.6 "Pathetique"
  • 1812 Overture

Click on the link to hear the famous ending from his 1812 Overture.  No cannons fire, but there are some fireworks!

Claude Debussy

  • Born 1862, near Paris; Died 1918
  • Began piano at 8, but wanted to be a painter.
  • Attended the Paris Conservatory (age 10).
  • Leader in a new music style:  Impressionism.
  • Used a special scale called "whole tone".
deb pic 

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