HI Mailbag: Music Memory Contest

Written by on October 14, 2014 in Mailbag - 19 Comments
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Reader’s Question:

I remember participating in a grade school activity back in the 1950s, called the Music Memory Contest.  I haven’t heard of it for many years, so I assume that the program no longer exists.  Can you provide a little history of it?      ~ Edward P., Carmel    

HI’s Answer:

The concept of a Music Memory Contest had its origins in the nineteen-teens in a private home in Westfield, New Jersey.  A music teacher named Charles Milton Tremaine started it as a parlor game with his children.  In 1916, Tremaine described the game to the city’s supervisor of music, who decided to try a version of it in the local schools.  In addition to introducing classical music to young minds, the program also had the unexpected result of fostering cooperation among a wide variety of groups in the community.  Parents, teachers, churches, orchestras, choirs, newspapers, radio stations, and local government all worked together to help promote it.

Word soon spread of the New Jersey program’s success, and other cities were eager to start their own contests.  By the spring of 1921 — when the first Music Memory Contest was held in Indianapolis — more than 500 cities around the country had instituted their own versions of the contest.  In Indiana, where schools fell under the supervision of state government, Music Memory programs were established in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the state.  The contest was overseen by the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, who at that time was Benjamin J. Burris.  Burris would later become President of Ball State Teachers College (now Ball State University).

Benjamin Jackson Burris was Superintendent of the Indiana Separtment of Public Instruction (photo courtesy of Ball State University)

Benjamin Jackson Burris   Superintendent of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction (photo courtesy of Ball State University)

While the exact details varied from locale to locale, the general methods of carrying out the plan were similar.  The lists of musical works were selected in the fall of each school year, and the number of pieces the children were expected to learn was relative to their ages.  The younger grades were responsible for learning the fewest, the middle grades a few more, the junior high grades still more, and the upper grades all of the selections.  The students would familiarize themselves with the music during a listening period that lasted eight to twelve weeks during the winter months.  Time was devoted to listening to the music and discussing the composers during the school day, as well as in after-school and weekend sessions.

List of music to be in the Music Memory Contest for the 1921-1922 school year  (Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of newspapers.com)

List of music in the Music Memory Contest for the 1921-1922 school year   (Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of newspapers.com)

In the early years of the Music Memory Contest phenomenon, the radio was the primary study resource during the listening period, although the phonograph, piano, and live performers also contributed to the students’ education.  At the end of the listening period, tests were given within each school.  Random segments of the musical pieces were played, and the students had to identify the music and their composers by writing their answers on a test page.  The high scorers from each school then advanced to a city-wide competition, which was followed by a statewide competition.

Popular 1921 Crosley radio that might have been used by students learning their Music Memory Contest pieces  (photo courtesy of Bulverde Home Theater Co.)

Popular 1921 Crosley radio like those used for the Music Memory Contest   (photo courtesy of Bulverde Home Theater Co.)

The first seven Indianapolis Music Memory Contest finals were held in the Shortridge High School auditorium, Caleb Mills Hall.   At that time, Shortridge was located in downtown Indianapolis, in the 500 block of North Pennsylvania Street.  Today that city block is the site of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building.

Shortridge High School, then located in the 500 block of North Pennsylvania Street, was the site of the early Music Memory Contest finals     (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Shortridge High School, then in the 500 block of North Pennsylvania Street, was the site of early Music Memory Contests   (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Winners of the 1924 Indiana Music Memory Contest  (scan of Indianapolis News article courtesy of newspapers.com)

Winners of the 1924 Indiana Music Memory Contest (scan of Indianapolis News article courtesy of newspapers.com)

Beginning in 1928, the Music Memory Contest finals were held in the new Caleb Mills Hall in the new Shortridge High School building at 3401 North Meridian Street.  After the founding of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1930, the Music Memory contestants had the pleasure of hearing the pieces played live by the ISO.

From 1928 to the early 1950s, the Music Memory Contest Finals were held in Caleb Mills Hall of Shortridge High School  (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

From 1928 until the early 1950s, the Music Memory Contest Finals were held in Caleb Mills Hall at Shortridge High School     (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Beginning in 1930, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played the selections at the Music Memory Contest finals  (image courtesy of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

From 1930 to 1974, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played the musical selections at the Music Memory Contest finals      (image courtesy of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

The Indianapolis News listed the pieces chosen for the 1925 Music Memory Contest   (scan courtesy of newspaper.com)

The Indianapolis News listed pieces chosen for the 1925 Music Memory Contest (scan courtesy of newspapers.com)

In the 1950s, funding for a statewide Music Memory Contest apparently dried up, as the program was discontinued in most parts of Indiana.  However, the program did continue in Indianapolis area schools under the sponsorship of The Indianapolis Star and WIRE Radio (and later, WIAN Radio).  As the number of students earning perfect scores on the tests within their respective schools grew, a larger venue was required for the city-wide competition.  The finals were then held in the 10,000-seat Cadle Tabernacle on North New Jersey Street, directly east of City Hall.  You can read about Cadle Tabernacle in a 2012 Historic Indianapolis article here.  Today the 200 block of Alabama is the site of the Firehouse Square Condominiums.

Cadle Tabernacle was the site of the Music Memory Contest finals during the 1950s  (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Cadle Tabernacle in the 200 block of North New Jersey Street was the location of the Music Memory Contest during the 1950s   (W. H. Bass Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

IPS School 66 students prepare for the 1954 Music Memory Contest  (Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library)

IPS School 66 second graders prepare for the 1954 Music Memory Contest, which was on Saturday, March 27   (Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of Indianapolis Public Library)            CLICK TO ENLARGE

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(1957 Indianapolis Star news clipping courtesy of newspapers.com)

(1957 Indianapolis Star news clipping courtesy of newspapers.com)

In the early years of the Music Memory Contest, gold and silver pins were awarded to the first and second place individual winners, and trophies were awarded to winning teams’ schools.  In the later years of the Music Memory Contest, participants were awarded certficates like the one shown below.

Example of the certificates issued to Music Memory Contest participants in the 1950s  (scan from the collection of Sharon Butsch Freeland)

Example of the kind of certificate that was issued to participants of the Music Memory Contest in the 1950s and 1960s         (scan from the personal collection of Sharon Butsch Freeland)

In the 1960s, the Music Memory Contest finals moved first to the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum and then to Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.  The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra continued to provide the music for the competition.

The Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds was the location of the Music Memory Contest in the early 1960s (photo courtesy of populous.com)

The Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds was the location of the Music Memory Contest finals in the early 1960s   (photo courtesy of populous.com)

Clowes Memorial Hall was the site of Music Memory Contest finals in its latter years (image courtesy of ArtSmart Indiana)

Clowes Memorial Hall was the site of Music Memory Contest finals in its later years     (image courtesy of ArtSmart Indiana)

Although the Music Memory Contest was a staple in the curriculum of Indianapolis schools for more than half a century,  it was discontinued in 1974, presumably for a lack of funding or a change in the educational priorities of the State’s Department of Public Instruction.  Many who participated in the Music Memory Contest — in particular IPS alumni — will remember the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra during the final years that the Music Memory Contest existed.  Violinist Izler Solomon (1910-1987) led the ISO from 1956 to 1976.

Izler Solomon the the usic director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1956 to 1976  (photo courtesy of wikipedia.com)

Maestro Izler Solomon led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1956 to 1976    (photo courtesy of wikipedia.com)

 

The last Music Memory Contest in Indianapolis was held in 1974 (Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of the Indiana State Library)

The last Music Memory Contest in Indianapolis was held in Spring of 1974     (The Indianapolis Star scan courtesy of the Indiana State Library)   CLICK TO ENLARGE

Most people who grew up with the Music Memory Contest as a part of their grade school or high school activities have very positive memories of the experience.  They are grateful to have learned about classical music and classical composers at a young age.  Many concede that they would probably never have been exposed to the genre, had it not been for the Music Memory Contest.  Many also lament the lack of art and music in the classroom today.

 

If you have a question about Indianapolis history, please send it to historicindianapolis(at)yahoo(dot)com, with “HI Mailbag” in the subject line.  We will do our best to answer it.  Sponsors and Subscribers are given preference for extensive research on specific properties or specific families featured in HI Mailbag articles. ~ Sharon

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About the Author

Sharon Butsch Freeland is a freelance researcher, writer, proofreader, and editor. She's a proud alumna of Shortridge High School and MacMurray College and over the years has also taken courses at Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University, University of Colorado, Colorado Academy of Art, and the Indianapolis Art Center. She's been the executive director of a nonprofit association, a newspaper columnist, a residential real estate broker, and a political campaign staff member. Fascinated by Indianapolis history from an early age, Sharon's passion for bygone eras became even more compelling when she discovered that her ancestors had settled in Indiana in 1828. Since learning that she's a seventh generation Hoosier, many details about both the State of Indiana and the City of Indianapolis have taken on new meaning for her. Sharon enjoys helping others get excited about the history of Indianapolis, as well as the histories of their own families.

19 Comments on "HI Mailbag: Music Memory Contest"

  1. Kevin J. Brewer October 14, 2014 at 6:12 am · Reply

    I participated in the Music Memory Contest from probably 2nd grade until 8th grade (1968) at School 62 and did quite well, going on to be in Marching Band and Techoir at Arsenal Tech.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 10:31 pm · Reply

      I think the Music Memory Contest probably inspired many children to play musical instruments and sing in choirs when they were older.

  2. Laura Bade-Limbach October 14, 2014 at 9:08 am · Reply

    I too participated in the Music Memory Contest at IPS School 67 during the years of 1959 until graduating from 8th grade in 1968. Our finals were always held at the Coliseum until the explosion in 1963. It then was moved to the newly completed Clowes Memorial Hall. I still have my certificates and enjoy Classical music to this day. How I wish this wonderful appreciation of the Classics was still in existence today.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 10:39 pm · Reply

      I agree that today’s students are missing out by not having classical music or classical composers as part of their educational experience.

  3. Virginia October 14, 2014 at 9:40 am · Reply

    I often think of the music memory contests. I loved it! I did very well with this contest.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 10:43 pm · Reply

      I remember that it felt really good to be able to recognize the names of the musical works and their composers with ease.

  4. Steven Logan October 14, 2014 at 10:00 am · Reply

    Sharon, I too, have one of those blue certificates, along with a yellow one from the same time period. Mrs. Groff at School 84 was very enthusiastic about the students becoming acquainted with the classics. As I grew older, and heard familiar snippets of melodies in popular songs, and background music for cartoons and movies, I eventually realized that most of these snippets were abstractions from many of the Music Memory catalog. And to this day, when one of these abstractions is heard, I remember hearing them first in Music Memory class, even though I might not able to recall the actual composition or composer, I do recall the original melody.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 10:45 pm · Reply

      It is amazing how many classical works have been “borrowed” for commercial purposes.

  5. Diane Roberts Joslin October 14, 2014 at 12:04 pm · Reply

    Sharon, I love your article and the research that went into it! My first exposure to classical music was at the grade school level at Christian Park School #82 – I remember listening to the pieces on records first and then being bussed over to Howe High School to hear the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra! What a thrill that was to see their performance! I listen to and support my local classical music station (KNPR Las Vegas), and whenever I hear one of those pieces from over 50 years ago, it puts a smile on this old face!:)

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 10:48 pm · Reply

      Glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, it was a thrill to hear the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra when we were growing up. That’s great that you support your classical radio station.

  6. Janie Hensley October 15, 2014 at 4:11 pm · Reply

    Sharon, I have very fond memories of those contests. I still have several of the certificates I got for perfect scores.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 11:05 pm · Reply

      I saved my certificates too, which is how I was able to provide a sample of one in the article. It seemed to get easier each year, as we got better at really listening to the music.

  7. Russ Williams October 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm · Reply

    Sharon, thanks for doing the sleuthing to find the 1954 article and picture of the PS #66 team that I was on along with 4 of my classmates. I remember participating in at least 3 of these contests over the years. My participation might be the reason that today classical music is among my favorites. Keep up your great work. I always enjoy reading your articles. They almost always bring back fond memories of being raised in Indianapolis.

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland October 17, 2014 at 11:00 pm · Reply

      It was such fun finding an article in which I knew some of the people. How cool that you were in the newspaper at such a tender young age! I have no doubt that our exposure to classic music at a young age has enriched all of our lives.

  8. Barbara Green March 2, 2015 at 10:55 pm · Reply

    I went to Clowes Hall for Music Memory contest. I remember it very well. I was going to School # 26. 1969. First time I had ever been. Missed one song.

  9. Cecelia (Beeler) Granger November 10, 2015 at 1:08 am · Reply

    I grew up in Indianapolis, and attended the old P.S. 66 on E. 38th until my family moved east to Fountaintown (Shelby Co.) in May 1961. I know I participated in the Music Memory Contest at least one year in the Coliseum. My family never had the money to purchase an instrument or music lessons of any kind, but I credit the early exposure to classical music with a life long love of all types of music, especially classical. Somewhere I still have a blue certificate like the one you posted—that early love later resulted in my playing in my high school concert band/orchestra, and singing in choirs and various groups. All great memories which germinated from that early exposure to the classics.

  10. Virginia Swift Singer November 10, 2015 at 9:47 am · Reply

    I always loved the music memory participation and I was very good at it. One of the very few things I was good at in school. The contest did contribute to my love of classical music today. I was so saddened to hear that they stopped this sometime in the 70s.

  11. Paula Scott-Frantz May 11, 2016 at 9:06 am · Reply

    I also loved Music Memory, and I remember winner gold plaques and certificates.
    Thank you for these great pics.

  12. Kathryn Fuller December 6, 2016 at 6:35 pm · Reply

    I came across this web site while doing a bit of research on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. I have very fond memories of the Music Memory Contest, especially listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 when I was in, I think, 7th grade at School 80 in Broad Ripple. But I might have the wrong year.; maybe it was when I was in the 6th grade at School 86. ..

    I was very fortunate in that we had classical music in our house, but for many children the contest provided their only exposure to classical music. It was a wonderful opportunity for those children, and it’s too bad that the program was discontinued.

    Great to read about this on my computer in London! Thanks for doing this research, Sharon.

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