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Published: August 11, 2011


In education, a wide-ranging course of study, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through elementary school and college and into university graduate school. Music studies begin with simple training of the ear and voice, continue through training in the use of various instruments and techniques of musical composition and ultimately move into advanced theory and composition and musical performance.
The roots of American musical education were planted in the first medieval English universities, which included the teaching of music as an integral part of theological education. As these institutions became secularized, instruction in music, along with dancing and singing, grew less technical and eventually constituted part of a broader sphere of instruction in “manners” for the highborn. The serious study of music left the classroom and was relegated to private tutors. In early Puritan America, music and other forms of joyful expression were seen as sinful. In any case, the exigencies of life in the American colonies left little time for the study of anything but the most practical subjects. When permitted, music instruction in “common schools” and churches was limited to the learning and singing of hymns “to sweeten [the] severer studies.” Even after the secularization of many schools, it became little more than a recreational respite from more serious instruction. Students who sought more serious instruction either turned to private tutors or apprenticed themselves out.
In 1833, LOWELL MASON founded the first formal music school in America, the Boston Academy of Music, which offered vocal and instrumental instruction. At the time, Mason also tried to introduce musical instruction into Boston’s public schools. A year later, he devised a system of musical instruction for children based on Pestalozzian (see PESTALOZZI, JOHANN HEINRICH) methods, and in 1838 he began using his system to teach music in Boston public schools. By the end of that school year, he had been appointed superintendent of music and had introduced music instruction in the entire Boston public school system—the first such school music program in the United States. The program, which emphasized singing and reading of musical notation, was subsequently adopted by schools across the United States and became a standard part of the elementary school curriculum.
Considered by most Americans a form of recreation rather than an area worthy of serious study, music was seldom introduced into secondary school curricula until after World War II. Like artistic expression, serious musical study was seen by most Americans as reserved for a gifted elite, while music appreciation was seen as a benefit for the wealthy few who could afford to attend concerts and opera. As they had in earlier times, serious students of music—even students of popular music—had to rely largely on private tutoring for instruction. With the spread of economic prosperity after World War II, schools across the United States used their expanded budgets to introduce students to more music and art, but they were not given the same priority as science and other more “practical” technology programs. Even academically advanced private schools relegated most music instruction to extracurricular activities.
As school budgets contracted during periodic recessions in the last half of the 20th century, music and art programs were the first to be cut from the public school curriculum. Where formal music instruction remains a part of the curriculum, it is generally designed to develop basic skills in listening and nonprofessional performing (singing), to teach the history and theory of music, and to impart an understanding of different musical forms (classical, jazz, blues) and the role of music in different cultures. Formal musical education usually begins in kindergarten with singing and clapping and tapping to rhythms. First grade students continue daily group singing, accompanied by student playing of percussion instruments. Also taught in first grade are basic music theory, the staff, notations, rhythms, pitch, volume, timbre and the ties of music to mathematics and physics. Students also begin composing their own simple melodies and take lessons on musical instruments such as recorders.
Second and third grade musical education teaches mastery of rhythmic and tonal elements of music and music notation, playing instruments and singing from sheet music, composition and the ability to identify names and sounds of orchestral instruments. Group singing progresses to more advanced works. Schools with outstanding music education arrange field trips to concerts, operas and ballets or arrange live recitals at school. Fourth graders advance to choral singing, private instrumental lessons and development of musical literacy. Band, chamber music or orchestra instruction begins in fifth grade, and sixth graders are expected to develop sight reading skills while continuing their work in group ensembles.
Most middle school music programs concentrate on the study of the history of music, the biographies of major composers and music appreciation, allowing serious individual performers to continue their studies privately. As in high school, middle school choral and other group singing, as well as instrumental ensemble playing, is generally considered an extracurricular activity for which schools provide faculty supervisors who can often offer skilled instruction. At the high school level, music instruction, when required, is limited to a half-year or one-year survey of the history of music, along with music appreciation programs. Instruction for performing musicians is available only through private lessons, for which the student must pay, or through extracurricular activities. Depending on the school’s budget and its physical plant, these may include a school chorus or glee club, singing groups such as octets and quartets, a school orchestra, a school marching band, small chamber music, jazz or rock-and-roll groups and theater groups that stage musical productions. Although some specialized “magnet” high schools for the performing arts offer broad programs of musical education for secondary school students, such schools are open only to gifted students who must audition successfully to gain admission.
Only at college is a broad range of musical education available to the general student body, regardless of individual talent or previous musical education—usually in many areas, including theory, composition, performance, history and music appreciation. In addition to standard undergraduate courses, advanced instruction in each of these areas is available at many graduate schools and at specialized music institutes.