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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   

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 

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 

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            CLICK TO ENLARGE

(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         (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: 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        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.

 

32 responses to “HI Mailbag: Music Memory Contest”

  1. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    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.

  2. Laura Bade-Limbach says:

    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.

  3. Virginia says:

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

  4. Steven Logan says:

    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.

  5. Diane Roberts Joslin says:

    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!:)

  6. Janie Hensley says:

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

  7. Russ Williams says:

    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.

  8. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

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

  9. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

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

  10. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

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

  11. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

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

  12. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    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.

  13. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    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.

  14. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    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.

  15. Barbara Green says:

    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.

  16. Cecelia (Beeler) Granger says:

    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.

  17. Virginia Swift Singer says:

    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.

  18. Paula Scott-Frantz says:

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

  19. Kathryn Fuller says:

    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.

  20. Marsha Jameson says:

    I’m surprised to see this after so many years. I attended PS 23 that no longer exists. I competed and received a perfect score. I absolutely loved (and still do) the music and intended to order some music. Thanks for this article.

  21. Gary Ford says:

    This is a very nice article. It is amazing what we can find on the web these days!

    I participated in the Music Memory Contest when I was in the second grade at Fall Creek Elementary School (1954-1955 school year). I remember going to hear the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for the contest finals, but I don’t remember where. If pressed, I might have guessed the Circle Theater on Monument Circle.

    When I started listening to classical music on the radio in the 1970s, I would occasionally discover a piece that seemed remarkably familiar for some reason. Eventually it dawned on me that it was a piece from that contest. Some that I remember are “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns, “Triumphal March” from Aida by Verdi, and Schubert’s Symphony #8.

    Hearing the Verdi on the radio today is what prompted me to do a Google search to see if anyone else remembered this contest.

  22. Dick Jenkins says:

    At Our Lady of Lourdes elementary in Irvington, we participated in both the Music Memory Contest and the Songfest, which has been a topic of discussion recently on Facebook. I enjoyed both programs, and i believe they both fostered my love of music, both classical and popular.

  23. Bill Mullenholz says:

    I was in the 1958 Music Memory Contest representing Little Flower School (as a first grader) with classmate John Krauss. I am not sure if it was the actual finals, but it was held in the Tech High School gymnasium, which was completely full on that sunny, spring day so long ago. I didn’t do so well but Johnny did and was eventually the drum major/orchestra leader at Cathedral High School, class of 1969.

  24. Anonymous says:

    5

  25. SCott Wagner says:

    I participated in and got a local award for the Music Memory Contest at Brook Park Elementary around 1964 or 65 (I think) I would have to look up the certificate. Unfortunately my dad got transferred to the Columbus Ohio Western Electric Work’s in 1967. Columbus Public Schools and nothing like this program, and I really missed the quality of Indy Schools.

  26. Pam pratt says:

    I remember participating in Music Memory as a youngster in the Madison Schools of Phoenix, Arizona. I think it began in my 4th grade year (1962-63) at Madison Simis and perhaps continued at Madison #1 School, where I transferred as a 6th grader when the boundaries changed. I loved it!

    When we passed the test, we went on a field trip to the brand-new Grady Gammage Auditorium on the ASU campus to hear a live orchestra play all the pieces we had studied all year. That was a huge treat for me.

    My mother was a private piano teacher, so I heard her play wonderful pieces all the time, but the Music Memory program really kickstarted my love for classical music, which continues to this day.

    Thank you for this history! I still have my certificates, too!

  27. John Weinhardt says:

    When I was in 7th & 8th grades (1962 -64), they gave LP’s as awards. I still have those records. One was Pictures at an Exhibition bt Mousoursky. I have been a lifelong fan of classical music, probavly because of early exposure in Indianapolis public schools.

  28. Angela leigh says:

    Hi,
    I have fond memories of learning all that music in 1970 at Fall Creek Elementary. My diploma says I got a perfect score as a student selected to compete, but I have no memory of going to any large hall! I only remember sitting in the cafeteria taking the elimination test.
    Would you like a scan of my certificate before I toss it??

  29. Jim Bennett says:

    Ms. Freeland.
    I hope you can help me with something. Was when I was in junior high school from 1957 through 1961 we have “assembly” programs. We were treated to some great concerts. One of my friends remember is that program by a concert pianist while another friend remembers a program presented by a concert violinist. I am myself remember a program which was presented by a man who I would call a professional whistler. Do you have any idea who provided these programs, and how we can learn who these artist were who performed for us?
    Thank you.

  30. Gloria Eley says:

    The music memory contest was an experience I shall never forget. As a student at IPS School 23, in the 1960s I took the contest seriously, listening to each symphonic number carefully. I am Africian American, and if it was not for the music memory contest, I would not had been exposed to symphony music. The highlight of the contestants going to Clowes Hall at Butler University to take the final test, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mr. Solomon, playing a portion of each symphonic piece, then the contestants would write down the name of each piece. The city bus (now IndyGo), would pick us up from schools. A couple of weeks later, the contestants with high scores would get a symphonic album from RCA. It is from this experience I learned to respect symphonic music. My brother, Marcus, majored in symphonic clarinet at Indiana University,Bloomington, School of Music (he got Bachelor and Master degrees from IU). It would be nice if today’s children could learn to appreciate classical music via internet in music classes.

  31. Gloria Eley says:

    It was fun.

  32. Lee England says:

    I was pretty young when the music memory program was discontinued. I have good memories of listening to the music and working to memorize the pieces and composers.
    I have a room in my home that has pictures and my piano and guitar and musical instruments for my grandchildren. It used to be our living room. I have recently renamed it as my music memory room. I have to get busy and find my certificates; I would like to at least find one to hang up and put in a place of prominence in my home!
    I apologize that I have not read all the prior responses here… I will after I find my certificate(s)!
    I wish to thank Mrs. Diane Hall for her inspiration to me. She was my music teacher in elementary school from first grade until fifth grade. She was the reason I took piano lessons. I’m not a great piano player… But I’m making my own music memories.

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