History of Music Education

Compiled by Kathleen McKeage

@900 BC

  • Greeks believed education is important in promoting productive members of society

System includes 3 parts: primary, secondary and tertiary schooling

  • Education emphasizes 2 areas: music (for the soul) and gymnastics (for the body
  • The term music (museo) in Greek has many meanings. It may indicate music, poetry, dance, mathematics or all of the above.
  • The Doctrine of Ethos (Aristotle and Plato, among others), music directly effects character. The right kind of music creates the right kind of individual.

@500 BC

Pythagoras Greek mathematician who used music relationships as models for mathematical principals. Pythagorians believed the secrets of the physical and spiritual universe could be explained through mathematics and music. (the Music of the Spheres) Music is not an art, it is utilitarian (functional).


Warrior state Sparta trains its young men in athletics and music. The point of training to prepare its soldiers. Music is important to "develop loyalty to the state and was a natural accompaniment to the activities of war (Mark & Charles, p. 10)"

400-500 BC

Music in Athens becomes more complex. Professional musicians take over, and the role of music in education of amateurs diminishes.


PLATO Music and gymnastics must be balanced in the education of a young man. Too much music makes him effeminate and neurotic and too much gymnastics makes him uncivilized, violent and ignorant (Grout & Palisca, p. 6). Advocates the Dorian and Phrygian modes to produce courage and temperance.


ARISTOTLE Education should have four parts: reading and writing (grammatica), gymnastics, music and drawing. Of these music was the most important. The ultimate goal of life was leisure which "offers not only pleasure but happiness and the very joy of living (Wheelright)." The other disciplines had extrinsic value only. "Evidently, then, there is a kind of education (music) in which our sons should be trained not because it is useful or necessary for a specific purpose but because it is liberal (proper) and noble (Weiss & Taruskin, p. 9)." Aristotle also wrote about the role of music performance and contests, stating, "Must they (students) learn to sing themselves and play instruments? Music education must include actual performing." He calls for limits in the amount of performance required of students. " We reject as education a training in performance which is professional and competitive. He that takes part in such performances does not do so in order to improve his own character, but to give pleasure to listeners, and a vulgar pleasure at that (Weiss & Taruskin, p. 11)."


The Roman aristocracy viewed politics and law as the most appropriate professions, therefore music was eliminated from education, unless is was used as part of the study of mathematics. Musicians were considered artisans (craftsman) and often came from the slave population.


  • During the Middle Ages, the Church controlled much of the education of young people, either in monasteries, convents or church schools.
  • Music was considered one of the 7 liberal (free) arts and was an accepted part of education. It was part of the quadrivium, the upper tier of the 7 disciplines along with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.
  • Following the Greek (Pythagorian) philosophy, music was considered either an art (Musica Sonora) or a mathematical model (Musica discaplina) the study of which "held the possibility of revealing to the scholar the secrets of physical reality (Mark & Charles, p.19)." Later universities separated music teaching between the theoretical and performance.


BOETHIUS Author of De Institutione Musica (Fundamentals of Music) in which he restated the works of Pythagoras and his followers. He divided the study of music into three parts. The highest level (musica mundana) charted the mathematical relationships between the planets, the seasons and the elements. See musica disciplina, above. The study of musica humana would reveal the secrets of the body and soul. Musica instrumentalis was the study of vocal and instrumental music and was considered the least important form of musical study.


ODO OF CLUNY Choirmaster who invented a notation system using letters (A-G) to name the notes. Claimed to be able to teach sight singing to boys and "other simple persons (Mark & Charles, p. 23)."


GUIDO d’ AREZZO Choirmaster and educator who devised a set of syllables to enable sight singing. (He is considered the father of ear training.) These were based on a hymn tune set to music in which each line begins on a successively higher pitch. The syllables were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la, with a 1/2 step always between mi and fa. Guido also devised the Guidonian Hand which aided in solfege drill. (Grout, 57) Guido maintained that the theoretical study of music was more important than performance. "There is a great deal of difference between musicians and singers. The latter perform, while the former know that which music consists of. For he who executes what he does not know is termed a beast (Mark & Charles, p. 24)."

The Renaissance


  • Renaissance scholars turned back to the classic cultures of Greece and Rome. Music was dropped from the universities as a course of study.
  • Composers and performers were schooled as craftsmen through apprenticeships and church choirs
  • The rise of the middle class and the invention of printing caused a need for private music education in the home.


DESIDARIUS ERASMUS Developed a humanistic approach to education which combined study of the classics with moral development. "Education is the essential condition of real wisdom." (Mark & Charles, p. 28)


MARTIN LUTHER Instigated the Protestant Reformation which diluted the power of the Catholic Church. He and his followers proposed a system of public education which would fill the void left by the diminished role of church schools and universities. A composer himself, Luther suggested that children be taught music by musicians. Also, he described the positive power of music. "Let this noble, wholesome and cheerful creation of God be commended to you. By it you may escape shameful desires and bad company. . . Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings (Mark & Charles, p. 29)."


JOHN CALVIN French reformer who fostered the ‘Calvinist ‘movement. His religion featured predestination and an emphasis on simplicity in the worship service. Hymns were to be simple and unaccompanied. His followers were called Puritans.


JOHN COMENIUS Bohemian born minister and educational reformer. He included the sequential teaching of music (singing) in his proposed curriculum. "Music is especially natural to us....I maintain that complaint and wailing are our first music, from which it is impossible to restrain infants. It (music) contributes to their health, for as long as other exercise and amusements are wanting, by this very means their chests and other internal organs relieve themselves of their superfluities (Mark & Charles, p. 31)."


The beginnings of the conservatory system of training musicians. In Italy these institutions were originally orphanages for girls and provided training for professional choristers and instrumentalists.


  • The Northern colonies establish towns and schools. Public education is an early goal.
  • The Southern colonies are more rural with no major towns. Education is limited to the wealthy and is done by private tutors, including music and dance. Wrote John Little of Richmond, VA, " It is better to place education under church influence than under that of the State. . . The government, cannot, itself, educate the communities; it can only act by a cloud of irresponsible and ignorant school masters (Mark & Charles, p.56)."


Pilgrims arrive in North America.


Puritans (Calvinists) arrive in North America. The music of the worship service was limited to simple, unaccompanied psalmody. Puritans believe in rudimentary public education and hire the first schoolmaster in 1635.


Bay Psalm Book is the first book of any kind printed in North America. This version of existing hymns was somewhat simpler than existing editions.


Massachusetts school law of 1642 requires parents to educate their children to minimal standards.


Massachusetts School Law of 1648 required townships of fifty families or more to hire a school master to teach elementary reading and writing. (see Contemporary Music, p. 4)


Harvard College is founded by the Puritans. Music, while not a regular part of the curriculum, was an accepted part of the students lives.

Singing Schools

1720’s to 1850’s

  • Church goers in New England during the 17th and early 18th centuries tended to be musically illiterate.
  • Choirs were notoriously bad both in North America and England. In England Doctor Burney wrote, " The greatest blessing to lovers of music in a parish church is to have an organ sufficiently powerful to render the voices of the clerk and those who join in his outcry wholle inaudible (Mark & Charles, p. 64)."
  • The practice of "lining out" (very similar to call and response) was commonly employed in which deacons would sing the line and then it would be repeated by the congregation, sometimes with comic results. Lining out was considered the ‘Old Way’ of teaching singing and was favored by more traditional communities (Calvinists) who valued the words over the melody.
  • Choir masters suggested teaching singers to read notes (this was later known as the ‘New Way’) as a way of improving the quality of the choirs.
  • Singing schools were developed which featured itinerant choir masters (very close to German kappellmeisters) who visited towns, set up evening lessons and taught the locals how to read music and proper singing.
  • Singing schools were considered social events for the younger members. Wrote one Yale student, " I am almost sick of the world and were it not for the hopes of going to the singing-meeting tonight and indulging myself in some of the carnal delights of the flesh, such as kissing, squeezing etc., I should willingly leave it now (Mark & Charles, p. 74)."


JOHN TUFTS Composed An Introduction to the Singing of Psalms, designed to teach proper singing. The book contained 20 tunes, used fasola notation and also included an appendix which described the elements of music.


THOMAS WALTER Published The Ground Rules of Singing Explained or An Introduction to the Art of Singing by Note. Fitted to the meanest (lowest) Capacities. In the introduction to his ‘new way’ method, Walter wrote," Once the tunes were sung according to the rules of music but are now miserable tortured, and twisted, and quavered into an horrible medley of confused and disorderly noises. Our tunes are . . . .left to the mercy of every unskillful throat to chop or alter, twist and change (Birge, p. 69)."


Benjamin Franklin proposes an academy in Philadelphia. The curriculum for this private, secondary institution included the liberal arts.


The Paris Conservatoire Nationale de Musique is founded.


The Easy Instructor Published in 1798, this tune book included shaped note notation as an alternative to fasola, or regular notation


WILLIAM BILLINGS Trained as a tanner (later employed as a hogreeve, or town hog-catcher), Billings was a largely self-taught composer, singing master and author of many tune books and texts on music fundamentals. Probably the best known and most prolific of the singing masters.


The Boston Handel and Haydn Society is formed.


Thomas Jefferson proposed a system of public education that was free of religious constraints. In 1779 he proposed dividing his home state of Virginia into sections which would be responsible for provided free elementary education and a subsidized secondary school system. His proposal was rejected.


JOHANN PESTALOZZI Swiss education reformer. His common sense, child centered approach rejected rote learning and strict discipline. His ideas inspired Mason and other American educators.


Horace Mann fully supported the notion of public school education (common schools) for all citizens. He was a member of the Massachusetts school board, the first such group to accept music education as a part of the school curriculum.


WILLIAM WOODBRIDGE American education reformer who traveled to Europe where he was introduced to Pestalozzian theory as it was applied to music education. The concepts were:

1) teach sounds before signs, 2) make the child an active rather than passive listener 3) teach one thing at a time 4) children must master each step before moving to the next 5) theory follows practice 6) analyze and practice the elements of articulate sound in order to apply them to music 7)have the names of the notes correspond to those of instrumental music.


LOWELL MASON Born in Massachusetts, Mason was from a musical family (his grandfather had been a singing master). Mason attended singing schools, studied fundamentals of music and composition with several German ex-patriots and was proficient on a number of instruments.


Boston Academy of Music founded, in large part by Woodbridge. The academy was to produce music educators who would teach vocal music in the public schools. Mason was hired as a professor.


The Manual of the Boston Academy of Music by Mason is published. Mason attempted to tie his teaching methods to Pestalozzian theories. In 1957 it was discovered that Mason has simply translated (plagiarized?) an existing method without proper attribution.


Boston Academy of Music holds it 3rd summer convention for music educators looking to improve their teaching skills. At this convention a set of 9 resolutions are adopted dealing with the state of choirs, the role of choir directors and the need for improved teaching methods. Among the resolutions are:

2) RESOLVED That, in order to diffuse a knowledge of music through the community, it is necessary to teach it to our youth; and that it is desirable and practible, to introduce it into all our schools, as a branch of elementary education.

6) RESOLVED That in pursuit our labors as teachers and choristers we will strive to avoid as far as in us lies, (or) any thing like individual rivalry (Mark & Charles, p. 131)


A proposal is made to the Boston School Committee that vocal music be added to the school curriculum.


Another proposal is made to the Boston School Committee which includes three rationales for including music in the curriculum. Music is deemed to be important on an intellectual, moral and physical level.

"And now try music physically. A fact has been suggested by my profession (a physician) that the exercise of the organs of the breast by singing contributes very much to defend them from those diseases to which the climate and other causes expose them. . . . .He informs me that he had known several persons strongly disposed to consumption restored to health by the exercise of the lungs in singing. (Mark & Charles, p. 43)."

The proposal is that vocal music will be added to 4 schools and that the director will be under the guidance of the Boston Academy of Music and will be paid by the Boston School Committee.


Lowell Mason is hired to teach music at one Boston school, under the direction of the Boston School committee and is paid no salary.


After a performance by Mason’s school choir, the Boston schools adopt vocal music education as part of the curriculum. Mason was hired as supervisor of music and it is his job to define curriculum, hire and pay teachers. By 1844 Mason had hired 10 teachers.


Mason was attacked by a rival choirmaster, H.W. Day, who accused Mason of sectarianism and financial mismanagement. Mason paid his own teachers. He was paid $130 by the district for each teacher. The individual teachers received $80, $20 went for piano rental and Mason kept the rest.


Mason was fired by the Boston Schools.


Mason was rehired by the Boston Schools and remained there until 1851.


As more schools (New York, Baltimore, Washington, DC etc) adopt music programs, Charles Aiken was hired by the Cincinnati, OH schools. He was a prolific composer and teacher, who published his compositions for high school groups. His advice to his son, a choirmaster in Hamilton, OH, "If you find that the Hamiltonians don’t appreciate that class of music don’t give any more concerts. ‘Cast not your pearls before swine’ is good doctrine (Mark & Charles, p. 153)."


  • The materials used during the early stages of music education tended to be insipid. The folk music of early America was "considered to lack gentility" and Americans were not considered culturally adept enough to be taught the great music of the European tradition.
  • After the Civil War, trained bandsmen returned to their home communities. Although instrumental music was not a part of the public school programs, these bandsmen created local professional and semi-professional bands. (Thomas and Sousa are examples)
  • Music educators followed a scientific method of teaching. Thomas Lathrop, Superintendent of the Buffalo schools wrote, "Music instruction should be systematized and become a part of the graded course, both teacher and students being held to a strict account for the amount of their work in this as other studies, by term and annual examinations (Mark & Charles, p.166)."


George Loomis publishes a 3-volume graded music series which features notation on a single line (after Guido d’ Arezzo)


Luther Mason wrote a 5 volume graded series published by the Ginn Brothers. The series included standard notation, emphasized rote before note singing (after the Pestalozzians) and incorporated large charts for group reading.


Benjamin Jepson, who lost an ear to a sharpshooter during the civil war, published a 3 book series entitled, The Elementary Music Reader. His book included songs, but also solfege and dictation exercises. During the early part of his career, Jepson traveled between schools with a wagon loaded charts written on 1200 feet of canvas.


MTNA holds its first meeting


NEA is formed.


The Normal Music Course was first published by Silver, Burdett. Written by Hosea Holt and John Tufts, this course emphasized sight singing. The publisher, Silver, Burdett began training courses during the summer for teachers who wished to use their basal method. Ginn soon followed and these summer courses were popular until music education became a function of teacher training.


A survey commissioned by the US Bureau of Education asks school districts nation-wide, " Is music taught? In what grades? By a special teacher, Number of hours per week. . . . Are there stated music examinations? Is notation required (Mark & Charles, p. 199)?"


University of Wyoming is founded


The NEA commissions a survey as above.


First music degree is granted at UW.


Philip Cady Hayden called for a NEA conference in Keokuk, IA devoted to music educators. Coincidentally, Hayden was promoting a journal for music educators and was looking for subscribers. This first meeting involved a host night concert performed by local school children and a series of banquets.


The Music Supervisors National Conference is formed out of the original NEA gathering of 1907.


  • Instrumental music was spurred on the by popularity of professional touring bands and orchestras (Sousa, Thomas ) Prior to the turn of the century, instrumental instruction was primarily taught privately. Group instruction methods made it possible instrumental music to be taught in school. Trained bandsmen returning from WWI were hired as music educators.

Prior to the early teens, music education was based on the premise that all children could be taught to sing, therefore music education was universal. Their child centered education movement, founded by John Dewey, caused the following:

  • Electives became more popular in high school curricula
  • The rise of instrumental music gave students more choice. Bands were considered a welcome part of the music program because they gave boys something to do during the "awkward years."
  • Music educators began teaching to a minority of students.


Austin Harding becomes the director of marching bands at the University of Illinois. Harding started his own department because he did not want traditional music departments to infringe on his budget or decisions. He was one of the first to form letters and words. He wrote," The value of the marching band to music education in general lies in its advertising power (Mark & Charles, p. 270)."


A tournament of bands was held in Chicago. One of the first contests for bands, this event was sponsored by Conn instruments. Some participants complained about the choice of a lone judge for the contest.


MSNC changes its name to MENC




Young Composers Project/Contemporary Music Project


Yale Seminar


Juilliard Repertory Project


Manhattanville Music Curriculum Program


Tanglewood Symposium


The School Music Program: Descriptions and Standards


Goals 2000


National Standards


Birge, Edward Bailey. (1938). History of public school music. (new ed.). Washington, DC: Music Educators National Conference.

Grout, Donald Jay & Palisca, Claude. (1996). A history of western music (5th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Mark, Michael & Gary, Charles. (1992). A history of American music education. New York: Schirmer Books.

Weiss, Piero & Taruskin, Richard. (1984). Music in the Western World: A history in documents. New York: Schirmer Books.