The son of immigrant parents from Poland and Lithuania, Copland was exposed to concert music up through the Impressionists at an early age while growing up in New York. (One of his teachers prevented him from glancing at Charles Ives' Concord Sonata so he wouldn't be "contaminated" by it.) He studied harmony, counterpoint, and sonata form at the Boy's High School, and saved enough money to take off for Paris at the age of 20. There he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, teacher of a generation of American composers. In Europe, he met avant-garde composers, began to be interested in jazz, and decided to create a uniquely American sound in his works. This ideal began to be realized in his pieces of the 1930s and 1940s which include the ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1943-1944), and the orchestral scores Music for Radio (Prairie Journal) (1937), An Outdoor Overture (1938), Quiet City (1939), Lincoln Portrait (1942), and the famous Fanfare for the Common Man (1942).
During this time, Copland also created original and innovative scores for several films: Serlin's The City (1939), the incredible score for L. Milestone's Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), Milestone's North Star (aka Armored Attack ), The Cummington Story (1945), Milestone's The Red Pony (1948), Wyler's The Heiress (1948), and Garfein's Something Wild (1961).
The American West atmosphere of the television miniseries The Chisholms (1979) was greatly enhanced by quotes from the Copland ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo. The TV series Action in the Afternoon (1953) quotes from the Billy the Kid Ballet Suite which fits the Montana location of one of its stars, the singing cowboy Jack Valentine who played himself in the show. Other television series which borrowed music from Copland were The World of Nick Adams (1957) and The Seven Lively Arts (1957).
Other films using Copland's music include Fiesta (1947), A Place in the Sun (1951), the animated short Abstronic which is set to the Hoedown from Rodeo, Bang Bang (1973), James Toback's Love and Money (1982), the Spike Lee drama He Got Game (1998), and West Side (2000). The composer himself appears in A Place of Dreams: Carnegie Hall at 100 (1991) and as an honoree at The Kennedy Center Honors (TV broadcast, 1979).