The Development of Music Education in an Ever-changing Society

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To understand the complexities sewn within the development, and ensuing transition, towards a musically enriched school system, one must first be able to identify the point upon which the appearance of music education in the school system first emerged. In order to fully comprehend this, we must first be able to locate its emergence within the proper context and time period, because by doing so, we have a better ability to appreciate the weight music has held toward the development of other American institutions outside the school system. In this light, I seek to question the point at which music education appeared as a method of schooling and the ways advocates have reasoned for music education’s change over time. To answer this question, the following paper will begin with a break-down of the time period surrounding it’s involvement in the school system, followed by a discussion of it’s involvement in the common school era, and finally with a reflection of its emergence into the school system. Within this exploration, I will be able to unveil the deeply rooted significance music holds as a symbol and expression of democratic ideals and the ways the curriculum always seems to evolve to facilitate and mirror the needs of society.

Background To The Rise of a Musically Enriched Education

Music, as an aid to educational development, was first introduced during the Progressive era of early 1900s, an after-effect of the common-school movement, introduced around the mid-1800s. Prior to this, musicianship was used as a means of entertainment among the genteel class and as a public demonstration of elite stature. However, upon the realization that music could be used as a tool to promote social reform within the poorer classes (and could thereby be used to ameliorate the economic status of the country as a whole), the purpose of music became transformed. Instead of its original purpose as a representation of elite’s priority and a form of their entertainment, music became a tool for promoting social, political, and economic reform, and as such, reflected the ideologies behind the turn of the century’s Progressive movement.

The Progressive Movement of the early 1900’s was a time period centered on American evolution and advancement.  Within this period of reform, many “shared in common the view that government at every level must be actively involved in these reforms”(West, et al.). This included the school system, and eventually resulted in the creation of a music-mandate in the curriculum. Before I dive into the details behind the Progressive Movement’s impact on music as a form of education, it is important to touch upon the transformations occurring in the urban and rural districts during the same time.

The cities of the early 1900s, areas usually comprised of social settlements (“centers for neighborhood social services and social reform activities”(Abrams)), which were built around music, as an aid to the poor and unskilled. It was believed among the majority of the upper-middle-class, that musical appreciation within the working class could be a powerful means of reform for them, and was one that could cause “social uplift and amelioration”(Lee, 307). This viewpoint continued following the adoption of musical instruction in rural areas nearer the 1920s, a transition that allowed the inclusion of the majority of American public, and most importantly, school children at the time. This inclusion of the masses reflected many of the democratic ideologies intrinsic to the Progressive era’s push for widespread class inclusion. By incorporating musical instruction (something I will touch on again later) into the curriculum of rural schools, this movement of progression was able to reach a broader audience. And subsequently, changed the approach to schooling, and in the eyes of many reformers both then and today, changed it for the better.

With the implementation and availability of music education, to more of the “common” folk in American society, music, as a tool of empowerment, became even more prevalent, and reflected the ideology of many Progressive Era reformers. Following this transition, music became a symbol that embodied democratic ideologies through it’s encouragement of the idea that everyone could appreciate and participate in music (and that it was not restricted to only the more elite social classes); something that created a further distinction between our conception of American versus European culture.  American reformers of this time believed that “a democratic revolution in music signaled the beginning of the disintegration of the genteel ideal in music, an ideal that had seen European cultural models as best for Americans. (Lee, 308). Music education, by in large, was crucial to not only the evolution of America’s social and economic structure, but allowed us to politically distance ourselves from the European, monarchial culture, furthering our pride in a democratic America.

At the same time that this adoption of music among the rural community was broadening, there was also a heavy migration from rural areas to cities, a consequence of the greater economic opportunities made available from the rise of factory work and considerable need for skilled laborers and arms manufacturing at the peak of the First World War. As a result, many elite-class members worried that their cities would become filled with the uneducated and unskilled people of the countryside, and what’s more, the rural economy those migrants left, will begin to deteriorate from lack of available workers. This worry among the elite class, yet ameliorated interest, surrounding rural life can be seen through President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 creation of the Country Life Commission, a group created to monitor economic rural life, especially within institutions like the church and the school. It was believed that music would play a fundamental role in uplifting and reinvigorating the rural masses.

Even though, following the end of World War I, many migrants returned back to their respective rural communities, the influence of music in those places never subsided. What was once a national method of reform, created to uplift the economic downfall of rural communities, transcended into those same rural areas becoming “fertile ground for music teaching”(Lee, 318). Upon the addition of rural involvement with musicianship, music was able to progress into a form of schooling and education.

The Significance of the Common School Era

Nearing the turn of the century, the common school reform era took full flight. It’s emergence around 1860 marked a key transition to a new approach of school-wide instruction, which stressed the significance that universal schooling and mass public education has on unifying American culture. This method of schooling not only elevated the level of instruction (as a result of the movement’s mandate for “systematic examinations and minimum training requirements for teachers”(Rury, 75)), but also caused a separation between schooling and religion, a distinction yet to be enforced within the school system. Prior to the common school era, school and religion were tremendously intertwined. This inevitably influenced the type of instruction the students were given, as it was something flooded with religious bias. Not surprisingly, intolerance and bigotry ran rapid amongst American society. It was believed that this type of hatred, a result from “religious sectarianism and cultural conflict, posed a big challenge to the future of American institutions, especially the principle of democratically elected government”(Rury, 75). The school system was viewed as both the cause and potential end to this problem, and was believed as “the solution to a host of social problems, and as a tool of economic and political development”(Rury, 74), as I had mentioned earlier.

A new-found emphasis on musical education arose upon the “common schooling” era, where offerings of music activity, like “listening lessons, instrumental performing groups, musical history, and theory – began to appear in isolated places near the turn of the century. These offerings were extracurricular at first, but later evolved into curricular subjects” (Mark, 256). This change reflected a shift in the discourse and the overall perception of the purpose of education within American society.  Not only did this shift reflect a greater appreciation for artistic ability on a vocational level, but also mirrored the notion that “democracy depended on universal [and one standard level of] education” (Marks, 141) for all children.

Music’s Progression and Involvement In The School Curriculum 

The transition of music into the school system before the turn of the century, began with a focus on vocal music education, where “music educators made four-part choral singing the music activity for high schools…it included one hour of music study four days each week in addition to the usual one hour per week of required choral music. That would have put the music program on par with other disciplines in the high school curriculum”(Gary, 256). However, it wasn’t until later that the focus on choral-based classes transitioned to incorporate instrumental classes as well. What’s more, this introduction to instrumental classes coincided with a shift in the approach of teaching music, where the traditional individualized-method of instruction converted into a form of class-based instruction. In this way, “group instruction for singing was the norm, and it fit easily into the structure of the American common schools; it was as yet unknown for instrumental music, however.”(Gary, 266). Instead, instrumental music teaching was previously “done on an individual basis, as had been the usual practice for centuries. The regular faculty of the public schools was hired initially to teach vocal music. Music theory and appreciation were added at the turn of the century”(Gary, 266). This appreciation, however, became more and more diluted approaching mid-century America. The following quote best summarizes the transition from music’s prominence around the turn of the century to its latter general dismissal among school boards towards the mid-twentieth century.

“Music had been an integral part of the school curriculum during the progressive education era. When progressive education ceased to be an organized movement in the 1950s, however, music, like the other curricular disciplines, lost a philosophical basis of support. Progressive education was not replaced by a new comprehensive philosophy, and so all of the disciplines found themselves with curricula partially suited to progressive education, whose philosophy was under question. Without the guidance of a comprehensive philosophy for American education, there was no new direction indicated for curriculum planners. Music education remained static, as did other disciplines”(Gary, 352).

In respect to the static nature the music curriculum now found itself in, music educators began to revolutionize their methods of instruction in an effort to mimic the modern nature of new social reforms.  As a result, the 1960s and 1970s proved to be a fundamental time for radical changes within music education. One most notable shift within these changes was the implementation of comprehensive musicianship.

Comprehensive musicianship was first introduced around 1965 in an effort to radicalize and reinvigorate the music curriculum within the American education system. This development, founded based off an incorporation of “music history and theory”(Gary, 361), has had a tremendous impact on elementary and secondary schools. Not only has it by allowed children with the necessary background information to be able to devise insight into the meaning and context of their songs and performances, but also has given way to a new era of music education that appreciates a broader understanding of music and its relation to its society. Comprehensive musicianship was also incorporated into collegiate curriculums as well, but this process was much more gradual. However, despite its more protracted implementation, comprehensive musicianship gave way to many of the collegiate music courses we are so familiar with today. In fact, Trinity College’s own music curriculum began in 1977, and today reflects much of the historical and theological content that was so embedded within comprehensive musicianship from its introduction in elementary schools in 1965.

The emergence of musical education in terms of a necessity to uphold the progressive and common school values of the early 1900s, evolved to accommodate the new philosophical movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Despite the inevitable variability within these different social reform movements of the past century and a half, music education has continued to reflect the ideologies of each of its respective eras. In this way, we can understand music’s role as being a facilitator for societal mobility and progression, the reason for its change over time.


Works Cited:

Abrams, Laura S. “Social Settlements.” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. The Gale Group, Inc, 2008. Web. 22 April. 2014.

Keene, James A. A History of Music Education in the United States. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1982. Print.

Lee, William R. “Music Education and Rural Reform, 1900-1925.” Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 306-326.

Mark, Michael L., and Charles L. Gary. A History of American Music Education. New York: Schirmer, 1992. Print.

Rury, John L. “Excerpt On The Common School Reform Movement (1830s-60s).” Education and Social Change: Contours in the History of American Schooling. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2009. 74-80. Print.

West, Thomas G., and William A. Schambra. “The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics.” The Heritage Foundation. 18 July 2007. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.

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Madison Starr

Madison Starr is a student at Trinity College (Class of 2016) studying French and American Studies

One thought on “The Development of Music Education in an Ever-changing Society”

  1. The essay poses an interesting question about when and how music education appeared in the curriculum (US public schooling is implied here), and more importantly, how advocates argued on its behalf over time. But a richer introduction would have spelled out a clearer thesis that answers this question and frames the rest of the content for the reader. This very brief first paragraph hints that music education is connected to symbolism and democratic ideals that have evolved over time, but readers need better guideposts at the beginning of your essay to understand your broad claims.

    The end of the second paragraph (under “background”) contains an interesting argument that music ed shifted from promoting elite entertainment to social & economic reforms in the Progressive era, which you later describe as a split between genteel European versus a more popular American culture. Raising that argument into the introduction would help clarify your thesis.

    The body of the essay argues that group vocal music instruction, and then instrumental, grew with the Progressive movement until the 1950s. The secondary sources are satisfactory here, but a more persuasive essay would have included richer examples from school districts that actually did this. I had difficulty following the argument about post-1950s “static” and “radical change” periods in music ed, and whether these were connected to broader changes in society, as you introduction suggested. Overall, this was an interesting topic to explore that makes me think more broadly about how to look at changes in school curriculum.

    Small but important point: learn when to write it’s (contraction of it is) versus its (similar to his or hers)

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