History of Music Education in the United States

History of Music Education in the United States

The formal study of music, regardless of instrument, involves several different aspects. The main areas are theory and practical knowledge. Additional units also include the history of music, analysis of composition and the study of various genres. Music has been taught to students in the United States for a long time. While some students opt to study it in public school, others attend more prestigious and specialized music schools or colleges. Learn more about the history of U.S. music education within this article to see how it has developed over the years.

18th Century

In 1717, the first American school dedicated solely to singing was founded in Boston, Massachusetts. Its main aim was to help students develop skills in reading music and singing in religious celebrations. During the following years, similar schools were opened in other colonies as well. Several authors published textbooks for students with advice on proper singing practices as well as songs suitable for church usage.

19th Century

The Boston Academy of Music was founded in 1832, a far cry from the smaller singing schools of the previous century. The Academy promoted not only singing instruction but also the study of music and related theory. One of the founders, Lowell Mason, wrote and published a text titled, Manual of Instruction, which was largely influenced by the Swiss-based Pestalozzian System of Education. Several teachers outside of the Academy also adopted this text for use in their own classrooms. Mason was then allowed to formally teach music to students at the Hawes School, marking the start of musical education in American public schools. The venture was so successful that the local school committee pushed for music to be included as part of the syllabus. In the years that followed, music education became part of the school curriculum for all ages of students. As it became more and more refined, Boston’s success in musical education made it the standard against which all other school districts looked up to. This also led to the introduction of music instruction for potential teachers at teachers’ colleges, then known as Normal Schools.

20th Century

By the early 1900s, colleges that offered degrees spanning four years included music in their programs. The Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio was the first to offer a full Bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Many advances occurred in the field of musical education during this time. An organization, then known as the Music Supervisor’s National Conference, was started to promote the study and teaching of music. The rise of music taught in high schools also encouraged students to come together to create marching bands and school orchestras or other musical groups. Perhaps one of the most valuable progressions was made when a teacher, Frances Elliott Clark, won the approval to use phonographs and music libraries in schools. Many universities and colleges also started to offer endowments, grants and scholarships to promising music students. Several symposiums were organized through the decades to discuss the methodology and effectiveness of how music was taught.

21st Century

In 2007, a symposium called Tanglewood II was held at Boston University to examine the progress of music education over the last forty years. During this symposium, a declaration was drafted to detail priorities in music education for the next four decades. Music educators from around the world were present to chime in on the value of music and how it is taught to students.

Further Resources

  • U.S. Music Education (PDF) – Read a brief history with a timeline of the development of music education in the United States.
  • Music Education in the 21st Century – An essay on music education examines how and why music education is likely to flourish within the coming decades.
  • Tanglewood II – Find resources, reports, and the results of the Tanglewood II symposium.
  • Music Education in the 1800s – Trace the history of music education in the U.S. from simply church choirs to more formal institutions.
  • History of Music Education Resources – Browse through an in-depth listing of journals, dissertations, museums and much more related to American music education of the past.
  • Music Education from 1838 to 2010 – Follow a condensed timeline to learn about contributions by the Music Supervisor’s National Conference, now known as the Music Educators’ National Conference.
  • The Marching Band Movement – Find out how the rise of organized school bands came about in the United States in the 20th century.
  • Lowell Mason – In his lifetime, Lowell Mason made many important contributions to music education apart from co-founding the Boston Academy of Music.
  • Frances Elliott Clark – Frances Elliott Clark was key in changing the way music was taught to students in classrooms, and became an important figure in music education.
  • Cycles in American Music Education – Over the past centuries, American music education has gone through a number of different movements and trends.
  • Key Points of U.S. Music Education (PDF) – Learn about the development of music education across the nation and through history with a compilation of points and notes.
  • The History of Public School Music in the United States – Read the complete text of a book that traces the progress of music education through each century.


Written by Grace Ann Stanford

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