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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: America’s Changemakers in Song: Celebrating Music In Our Schools Month with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Public music education has a rich history in the United States. From community-based singing schools to the dawn of public music education to the present day: familiar strains of technique, pedagogy, and advocacy sound a consistent refrain through the ages. In March, the National Association for Music Education celebrates Music In Our Schools Month – an opportunity to reflect on music education’s rich heritage and work toward its promising future. What can primary sources reveal about the legacy of music in our schools?

Throughout the nineteenth century, singing schools supported building music skills for community singing in church and home. Communities took pride in music literacy. Students might read this story of an itinerant singing-master’s visit and then reflect on the reasons communities valued such schools.

This 1889 singing-school round builds skills that are still relevant to singers today. When students examine the lyrics (or even better, sing the piece), what can they learn about long-ago students’ experiences in the singing school? What concepts and techniques do students still experience in the modern choral classroom?

Sounds of the singing school, 1889

Sounds of the singing school, 1889

Invite students to examine the piece’s cover. Why might Case have chosen these visual elements – including familiar musical forms, symbols, and terms – and the shape of the pyramid?

The Boston glee book, 1838

Within the cultural context of the singing school, Lowell Mason, George James Webb, and several other Boston musicians founded the Boston Academy of Music in 1833.  Five years later, Mason and Webb published the Boston Glee Book for the express purpose of providing accessible, high-quality repertoire for singing schools.

Mason and Webb successfully advocated for the inclusion of vocal music in the Boston Public Schools curriculum, and in 1837 Lowell Mason became the first U.S. public-school music educator. He later shared his insights in “How Shall I Teach?”, advocating for high-quality music education in terms that ring true across content areas to this day:

It leads the pupil to depend upon his own powers, and keeps him ever in the way of investigation… As an indispensable requisite in all right teaching, it makes every thing pleasant and agreeable to the pupil; and it does this legitimately, by keeping him on the track of research and discovery, thus causing his gratification to be derived from the pursuit and attainment of knowledge.”

The tradition of advocating for public access to high quality music education continues today, through Music In Our Schools Month and the efforts of music educators and community stakeholders nationwide. Music education equips students to work together, express themselves, and even to change the world. In honor of Music In Our Schools Month, several March Teaching with the Library of Congress blog posts will highlight those who’ve changed the nation through music.

How will you continue the tradition of making music education accessible to all students?

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