Music Curriculum

By Ellie Simon


Carleton currently offers instruction in over forty instruments and employs over fifty faculty members. In the 2023-2024 school year, a total of 180 Music courses will be offered, in both applied music (i.e. instrument lessons) and theoretical courses (e.g. The Philosophy of Music). However, music at Carleton has not always been this rich and diverse. Indeed, the early prototype of the Music Department at Carleton offered only three instruments: violin, piano, and cello, as well as voice lessons. So how has the Music Department grown in terms of diversity? Given how vastly more diverse music education has become at Carleton, I thought it would be interesting to do a deeper analysis of the change in music curriculum since the beginning of the college in 1866.

Research Questions

How has the study of music evolved since the opening of the Secombe House Music Hall to the present day? How has Carleton broadened what it offers as music education? Specifically, how has the number of musical instruments offered and the areas of focus in theoretical courses grown over time?


I primarily relied upon the Carleton College Archives for the bulk of my data collection. In conducting my research about the history of musical classes and instruments offered at Carleton, I used keyword searches to narrow down the material I had to look through within the Academic Catalogs. I followed the following steps that pertained to each specific question I had:

  1. To find the change in a total number of instruments offered over time, I worked backward: I started by going to the current (2023) course catalog of musical instruments offered by the music department. I made a list of all of these. Then, I went to the Academic Catalogs and did a keyword search for each individual instrument. I sorted the results by selecting the  “exact phrase, date ascending” sort option. I then found the earliest mention of each instrument and then made sure to confirm that the mention of each instrument was because it was being offered, and not just a mere passing mention. I created a spreadsheet with the results, cataloging when each instrument began to be offered. 
  2. To find the number of world regions and countries represented through music lessons offered, I did Google searches for the country of origin for each musical instrument offered. (Note: I focused on modern forms of the instrument: for example, forms of the “flute” have been around in Mesopotamia for thousands of years, but I focused on the modern flute in order to control for making the results seem more diverse than they were). I then created a timeline of this data, showing the diversification and broadening of Carleton’s music department since 1870. 
  3. The process of gauging large-scale patterns of diversification of coursework in the music department proved to be a bit more subjective. Using the same strategy of looking at the academic year at the end of each decade,  I went to the “courses of instruction” section under the Music major section. I then noted any courses being offered that focused on non-Western, folk, or ethnic music: pretty much anything that lay outside the Western canon. 

Data Analysis

  1. Total number of instruments offered
    • From about 1870 to 1910, courses were only offered in voice, piano, violin, guitar, and cello. In the 1920s, the number of instruments offered doubled as brass instruments became available, and similarly in the 1950s woodwinds came onto the scene. By 1970, the number of instruments offered more than tripled than in 1870. Instruments like sitar, tabla, harpsichord, and banjo were now available for students. From 1990 to 2000, twelve instruments were added, seven of which were Chinese. Today, in 2023, Carleton offers courses of instruction in 46 musical instruments.

Figure 1: Timeline of musical instruments offered at Carleton: 1870-present

  1. World regions represented
    • Naturally, as the number of instruments offered at Carleton began to grow, so too did the number of countries represented by music at Carleton. By 1870, only two countries were represented by music at Carleton: Italy and Spain. That number did not grow much over the next 80 years: only France, Germany, and Greece were added. By 1980, as classes in folk music and jazz became available, the US was added to that list, as well as India. By the 21st century, music from East Asia, Africa, the US, and Europe was represented at Carleton. 
  2. Courses offered
    • In the nascent stages of the Music department at Carleton, the classes offered were limited in scope and variety. In addition to only four applied music courses being offered, academic courses were limited to the study of the European Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. Many student performances were centered around composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Even by the 1980s, theoretical and historical music courses had not diversified very much: the only non-Western course offered was “The Classical Music of North India.” However, by the 1990s, courses available to music students included African Music, Traditions of African-American Music, Music of the Caribbean, and a Jazz History seminar. While the main focus was still on the Western canon of music, this decade did seem to bring about diversification in the music department. The theoretical/historical Music courses available next term (Winter 2024) are Principles of Harmony, Introduction to Conducting, America’s Music, Musicianship I, Jazz Workshop, Music and Humanitarianism, and the Junior/Senior integrative exercises.


What could explain such a sharp increase in the number of instruments offered over time? One explanation might lie in the creation of jazz music in the 1920s and pop music in the 1950s. Many of the instruments featured in jazz—jazz guitar, saxophone, trombone, jazz trumpet—were all offered by the 1950s, which would have given three decades for the genres to solidify themselves in the American zeitgeist before Carleton decided to offer lessons in them. With the rise of popular music, the effect might have been more general: Carleton might have been a microcosm of greater presence of music in the American psyche. This would explain the near doubling of instruments offered at Carleton from the years 1950-1970. However, the rise of jazz and pop on the American horizon may not itself explain such an increase in available applied music courses at Carleton. Rather, the expansion of the college itself over time, and by proxy the music department, with greater funding available for music instructors and instruments, might be a more simple explanation for the phenomenon.

Figure 2. Origin of Musical Instruments offered at Carleton


Overall, musical diversity at Carleton has increased significantly since the college’s beginning. This can be seen through the steady increase over time in the number of musical instruments offered at Carleton, as well as the breadth and variety of theoretical music courses offered. Additionally, the number of world regions represented at Carleton has expanded from solely Europe to include Asia and Afro-Caribbean regions.


All information came from the Carleton College Archives, Digital Collections, and Carletonian Archives.