Music for Living: The Thought and Philosophy of Karl W. Gehrkens

By Munkittrick, David | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Music for Living: The Thought and Philosophy of Karl W. Gehrkens


Munkittrick, David, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


"Behind every great movement there is always an idea--a philosophy of life." (1) Karl Gehrkens was at the forefront of the music education movement in the early twentieth century, and he helped shape the movement in the image of his own philosophy of life. (2) Indeed, he devoted his life to music education. He fathered the nation's first four-year music education degree program at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, authored over a dozen books, and served as president of both the Music Educators National Conference and the Music Teachers National Association.

While there is at least one biography of Gehrkens's life, he is often simply mentioned in passing in discussions of music education in the early twentieth century. Little research has been done into Gehrkens's intellectual development and output. (3) This article offers a brief account of Gehrkens's life as a music educator with a focus on the motivating philosophies behind his work. (4) Gehrkens left a legacy of accomplishments, but it is his underlying philosophy that truly marks his life. His slogan, "Music for Every Child, Every Child for Music," coined in 1922, is often quoted, but it does not fully capture the core of Gehrkens's thought. His writing is permeated with the idea of music as an essential ingredient of life and of the world. Today's music education curricula are indebted to his work, but it is his philosophy of music in life--the idea behind the movement--that needs to be remembered in this age of slashed budgets and cancelled music programs. In short, Gehrkens believed and proclaimed that music brought people together and brought beauty into life. He believed in music for living.

A Life of Music

Gehrkens was born in 1882 on Kelleys Island, an island in Lake Erie about four miles from the northern Ohio coast. There was a piano in the house, and Gehrkens showed an early interest in music by harmonizing tunes he knew. His family was devoutly religious, and he heard students from the Oberlin Theological Seminary preach at his local church. The Gehrkens often entertained the visiting Oberlin students at their home, and Karl became intrigued by their descriptions of Oberlin as a place where both music and the liberal arts could be studied. Gehrkens enrolled at Oberlin in 1900. He spent his first year at the Oberlin Academy, a preparatory school operated by the college, to get the number of credits required to apply to the college as a freshman. Although there was no music education program, Gehrkens always took at least one music class each semester and exhausted the courses offered by the newly established education department.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1905, Gehrkens married Ruth Bedford, also an Oberlin graduate. He taught algebra and German at Oberlin High School, directed the school choir, and taught piano lessons. In 1907, the Oberlin Conservatory invited him to head the school music department as a teacher of public school music. At twenty-five years old, Gehrkens wrote, "Now for the first time I had the chance to coordinate and integrate all these experiences--my music, my philosophy, psychology, and education; my experience as choral conductor and piano teacher; my love of children, and my keen interest in helping people to live a more satisfying life." (5)

While Gehrkens's career mirrored the rapid expansion of music education at the time, he was also a leader of the movement. (6) At the conservatory, Gehrkens inherited a fledgling school music program with fifteen students, but by the time he retired in 1942, there were two hundred fifty music education majors. (7) In 1922, Gehrkens assumed the presidency of the Music Supervisors National Conference and coined the phrase "Music for Every Child, Every Child for Music," which the Conference took as its slogan. This is a testament not only to the immense amount of time and effort that Gehrkens gave to the program but also to his underlying belief in the power and importance of music education in everyday life. …

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