Debating Music "Appreciation" outside the American Classroom, 1930-1950

By Bennett, Rebecca | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Debating Music "Appreciation" outside the American Classroom, 1930-1950


Bennett, Rebecca, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


Those teaching music to American schoolchildren faced a fissure of sorts during the 1930s and 1940s. On one side of this divide stood Carl Seashore and the music educators who embraced his philosophy. They promoted a sometimes arduous form of music teaching and believed that the results of this tutelage could be quantitatively assessed. On the other side stood music pedagogues influenced by the era's burgeoning learner-centered philosophy, educators who embraced the more individualized and friendly approach advocated by James Mursell and Mabelle Glenn.

This well-known binary paradigm was born just as a middlebrow impulse swept through America. The increasingly popular listening lessons billed as "music appreciation" became not just an aspect of in-school education for children but also a veritable music-appreciation industry targeting adults. It is my contention that the fissure in music education, while certainly reflective of specific pedagogical trends and debates, also related to a more basic dialogue about what it meant to appreciate music.

In this article, I will connect the Seashore-Mursell/Glenn binary to contemporaneous discourse about the meaning of extracurricular music appreciation--discourse that occurred in many musical fields and also affected life across the Atlantic. More importantly, I will demonstrate that this discourse also played out within the pages of music-appreciation literature. This exploration will ultimately show that, while music teachers were certainly grappling with new ideas about learner-centered education, this process was also influenced by and reflective of larger skirmishes about the nature of highbrow achievement that accompanied the middlebrow fervor of the 1930s and 1940s.

Debating Appreciation in Middlebrow America and American Schools

Some comments about terminology must precede the analysis. While the phrase music appreciation was prevalent in several contexts in early twentieth-century America, two uses predominated. On the one hand, schoolteachers often used this descriptor in reference to the era's increasingly popular lessons in listening. On the other hand, the term music appreciation was also applied more generally to music education offered to the adult layperson. While these two understandings are complex, the terrain of early twentieth-century appreciation is even thornier because there was a good deal of overlap between its curricular and extracurricular varieties. Many instructional books, for example, were written by renowned music educators but were nevertheless aimed at both young students and adult laypeople.

Nonetheless, terminology must be adopted to help readers make the distinction. I most often employ the phrase music education to indicate school music teaching (of appreciation, performance, or anything else). The term music teachers will also be used in reference to official music education within the school. The terms appreciation and middlebrow education, meanwhile, will generally be used in discussions of the appreciation industry and its wares. Words such as educational and pedagogical will be utilized more generally.

Discussion of the term middlebrow is also needed. As others have chronicled the history of this term (1) and as its negative connotations burgeoned after the period discussed in this article, here I will unpack its meaning only briefly. The term became widely pejorative during the middle of the twentieth century through the writings of authors such as Russell Lynes and Dwight MacDonald. (2) MacDonald is especially important because he arguably brought criticism of the "midcult" and the "middlebrow" to new heights. Janice Radway has summarized MacDonald's critique of the Book-of-the-Month Club in a manner that astutely captures his overall perspective: " [In 1960] MacDonald railed against the spreading 'tepid ooze of Midcult' and identified the Book-of-the-Month Club and its judges . …

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