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The History of Music Education You Probably Didn’t Know About

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Today, music education is generally supported by educators and communities as a key component of school curriculums across the country. While the positive impact of music is well documented, you might be surprised to know that these benefits were not the reason music education was originally incorporated into the American curriculum. In the 1930s, ideas about assimilation and a fascination with the "American melting pot" helped shape the public policies that guided schools as they assisted in absorbing new immigrants.

Oppression and deprivation in Eastern and Northern Europe drove millions of people to seek a better life in the United States. In the 1890s, this resulted in a dramatic rise of German, Swedish and Norwegian immigrants relocating to America. Americans, whose families had been in the United States for generations, viewed the wave of immigrants as a threat to what they perceived as American culture. As a result, many laws were passed by Congress attempting to “halt the dilution of American culture.” Here's where music education comes in. Music educators played a key role in implementing assimilationist policies by attempting to teach children about European classical music. This was a powerful tool in helping children shed their parents' ethnic identities as they became “Americanized”.

Although this is definitely not uplifting news about the origin of music education, the introduction of music education provided an opportunity for music educators to impact the school curriculum. So, decades later in the 1960s, when new policies supporting multicultural education were initiated, music educators had a new opportunity to fulfill the needs of their country by utilizing their already established role in American education. Music educators in the 1960s could celebrate the diversity of American culture, in contrast to the elitist assimilation of earlier times. This shift in ideology was largely due to the civil rights movement going on at the time. People slowly became more sensitive to the needs and rights of students of different backgrounds and began to incorporate music of many cultures into the curriculum.

In 1967, a group of about fifty music teachers, musicians, and academics met at what was called the Tanglewood Symposium seeking to address the role of music education in American society. The group created the Tanglewood Declaration and declared in Article Two: “Music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures belongs in the curriculum. The musical repertory should be expanded to involve... American folk music, and the music of other cultures…” (Report of Tanglewood Symposium). After the symposium, the Music Educators National Conference ((MENC) the organization that helped create the Tanglewood Symposium) began assisting teachers in learning more about the music of various national cultures through publications, workshops, and conferences. Today, NEMC is called the National Association for Music Education (NAfmE) which proclaims that it is beneficial "for students in every school setting to study a wide variety of musical styles, cultures, and genres" (NAfmE).

Multicultural music education is now a lauded and accepted aspect of education in our nation’s schools. The great benefits of broadening and diversifying students’ education are among the many reasons why music education is so important.

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