The Evolution, Independence, and Stigmatization of Carleton’s Music Program

By Hannah Preisser

The Evolution of the Music Program at Carleton

During the early years of the music program at Carleton, the unit responsible for instruction in music was known as the Department of Music (1872-1890), the School of Music (1890-1912), and the Conservatory of Music (1912-1924), before regaining its department title in 1924. Throughout this time, the program didn’t change much, with the exception of the conservatory faculty being considered part of a separate body and students being granted a degree of bachelor of music, and the program often assumed a degree of separateness. In 1880, it was the first department with its own building–the Seccombe Music Hall; for some years, the “director” title was used, opposed to that of “chairman;” and separate diplomas were awarded designating the recipients as graduates of the School of Music. 

In 1870, during the first official year of classes, prior to the official start of the music program, “instrumental and vocal music” were offered as well as the use of a piano for one hour each day. In comparison, by 1880, when the Seccombe Music Hall was first in use, in addition to piano use and instrumental lessons, instruction included that in piano forte, cabinet organ, chorus singing, notation, and cultivation of the voice (wherein the focus laid on management of breath, development of tone and articulation, and singing selections from the best composers), and a “Hayden Chorus” had been organized for the special study of choral works.

Fig 1. Music student grade card from the early 1900s; classes at the time included lessons in voice, piano, organ, and violin, as well as music I-IV and ear training. As one can see, the course offerings developed since the 1880s but touched on similar subjects.

The Relationship between the Music Program and the Rest of the School

The music program was not completely separate from the rest of the school, however. Non-music students could take music courses as well as independent lessons in instruments such as piano as electives, and music students, under the Conservatory, were required to take academic courses in college to complete their degree of music. The cross-over of the music program with other departments is reflected in their class numbers; in the 1905-05 school year, for example, sixty-four students took courses in the music program, but only twenty-six took musical courses alone. Three hundred and forty-five students were enrolled in total, meaning almost one-fifth of students took some sort of musical class, further emphasizing the significance and scope of the music department. 

That being said, regardless, the far majority of students did not engage in the music arts. During the late 1890s into 1900, music courses were only offered junior year and were not often taken. A larger number of students took piano lessons, but not in another instrument/discipline, and often only took lessons freshman year. However, students often didn’t take a full four years of college during this time, so the amount of students taking music may be lower than it would have been otherwise, had most students taken a full four years. Music was also very important at many events, such as literary society debates, and music students from the Carleton often played as a form of entertainment. As well, while women alone stayed on campus during Carleton’s early years, music students were not separated from their peers in housing, and scrapbooks of music and non-music students suggest that both engaged in similar activities and types of entertainment. 

Fig 2. Literary societies even had their own musical quartettes as well as musical directors (Agol 1890).

The Stigmatization of Music Study

The prevalent slight separation between the music program and the rest of the school may have originated from a stigmatization that existed towards the music program at the time. In one 1882 Carletonian article, an anonymous writer expressed that, among Carleton and similar institutions, there is a prevailing misconception that “the study of music has almost nothing to do with real intellectual culture, that it contributes little or nothing to the development of the mind, and therefore should receive a very secondary consideration in comparison with regular college work.” According to this writer, the college authorities are largely responsible for this stigmatization, musical curriculum not being seen as equally important. In their words, students interested in the musical arts are pressured to either give up other coursework or do extra work, leading many to give up the course of study altogether.

This stigmatization may additionally relate to the gendered dynamics of the music department at Carleton. The music department was largely female, as were the music professors. According to the Visions of Research in Music Education, music became a “feminized” profession by the end of the 19th century. This was a common theme in both the United States and Britain, wherein music was also seen as greatly effeminate activity, and “Music teaching in the late-nineteenth century: a professional occupation?” from The Music Profession in Britain, 1780-1920: New Perspectives on Status and Identity, goes as far as to suggest that one could put blame on female students and teachers for “England’s apparent musical poverty.”


The standing of the music program remained largely the same during its initial years, despite outward changes in appearance. On the other hand, the program expanded from instrumental and vocal lessons and piano rentals to a variety of full-blown courses, such as cabinet organ and notation, and introduced a chorus extracurricular, all by 1880. The program, however, was slightly independent from the rest of the college, possibly due to the stigmatization of music studies with music being seen as a less intellectual or more effeminate course of study. Regardless, music and non-music students took non-music and music classes, respectively, and these two groups were not socially isolated from each other. The music program and its students also played a big role in providing entertainment on campus.


Please note that all research pertaining to the Carleton music program was conducted using the online and physical Carleton archives.


Academic Catalogs Series. Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Carletonia, 2(3). (1882, September 1). Carletonian Archive. Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Eaklor, V. L. (2021). The Gendered Origins of the American Musician. Visions of Research in Music Education, 16(5), Article 6.

Golding, R. (2018). Music teaching in the late-nineteenth century: a professional occupation? In: Golding R. (Ed.), The Music Profession in Britain, 1780-1920: New Perspectives on Status and Identity. Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain (pp. 128-148). Routledge,

Headley, L. A., & Jarchow, M. E. (1966). Carleton: The First Century. Carleton College.  Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Law, G. A. (Ed). (1890). Agol 1890. Heatwole’s Steam Printing House. Algol Yearbook. Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Leonard, D. L. (1904). The History of Carleton College: It’s Origin and Growth, Environment and Builders. Carleton College.  Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Scrapbooks and Photograph Albums, Carleton College. Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

Series C: Transcripts, 1898 – 1911. Collection 11: Student Transcripts, 1867–. Carleton College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.