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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.