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For 100 years, Music Memory classes have taught more than listening

Think you can name that song? Not faster than Austin’s Music Memory students


Music Memory and Mollie Gregory-Tower: Summary

Written by Margaret J. Barker (M.A. English '01)


The students file into the hall wearing t-shirts in their school colors. They huddle in teams and face off against opponents from around the city. "You're going down this year, Bryker Woods!" challenges someone from Lee Elementary. It's the annual citywide finals and the competition is fierce, the rivalries intense.


"Parents, please clear the floor and move to the balcony area," an official voice announces over the P.A. system. "We're ready to begin."


Basketball, baseball, badminton?


No. Beethoven, Brahms, Bach.


This is the Music Memory final competition of the year, and all-star teams from 40 elementary schools are poised to listen to the orchestra on stage and write down their answers. Is that movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5? Could that possibly be a rock version of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"? Who wrote the "William Tell Overture"?


When University of Texas graduate Mollie Gregory-Tower revived the Music Memory program in the Austin Independent School District in the late 1970s, she had no idea that the program would become so popular and spread to 10 states and thousands of schools nationwide.


Music Memory

When Mollie Gregory-Tower (B.Mus '67, M.Ed '79) assumed the role of Elementary Music Coordinator for the Austin [Texas] Independent School District in 1977, little did she know that one of her first requests for a change in the elementary school music curriculum would come from her own father. Malcolm Gregory (BBA '32), then 66 years old, had an impassioned suggestion for her. He told her the story of a program he had enjoyed as a child, which had "changed his life."


In 1922 and 1923, Gregory had participated in Music Memory, a school course that had given him the "lifelong gift of music." Gregory-Tower was surprised; she had never heard her father speak of the program. He explained how it had taught him to appreciate classical music by introducing him to great pieces of music literature, and that he still recalled the melodies more than 50 years after he had first learned them. Gregory-Tower asked her father which works he had studied, and three days later he came back with a list of 19 pieces that he had studied in the 5th and 6th grades--recalled, of course, from memory. Mollie Gregory-Tower was impressed. She promised her father that she would restart the Music Memory program.


The youngest of seven children, Malcolm Gregory was just three years old when his family moved to Austin in 1914. He attended old Wooldridge Elementary School near UT, and through the relatively new Music Memory program he began to appreciate classical music.


"My father had an incredible music teacher," Gregory-Tower recalls, "Katherine Cook. They named a school after her," she says, referring to what is now Cook Elementary. "My father's family didn't have a lot of money. They were too poor to afford a record player or the records which Dad needed to listen to, but Miss Cook let the students listen at her house."


Many of the students in her father's Music Memory class would gather at Cook's house after church on Sundays. They would sit politely on her front porch, and she would point her Victrola out the open front window so that her students could practice listening to the Music Memory selections for free. 


Gregory was so taken by the beautiful music that he won the "Gold Pin" in both 1922 and 1923, a special award contributed by Austin businessmen for the Music Memory students who earned perfect scores on their listening tests.


Gregory went on to earn a full tuition Eagle Scout scholarship at The University of Texas, and though he majored in business, he retained his appreciation of classical music, attending symphony, concert, and opera performances whenever he could. "They sometimes had to travel great distances to hear opera performances," says Gregory-Tower fondly, who inherited her father's love of music. She graduated from UT Austin in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in music education and earned a master's degree in educational administration in 1979.


Gregory-Tower took less than two years after her father's request to establish Austin's new Music Memory program. Music Memory had originally been sponsored in 1918 by the Music Supervisors Association (now NAfME) and was a countrywide competition in the 1920s and 1930s. The original program in Austin, written by a UT music professor, was sponsored by The University and eventually by the University Interscholastic League (UIL) throughout the state.


However, for reasons perhaps related to the wartime recession, the nationwide Music Memory program died out in the 1940s. The first year that Gregory-Tower resurrected the program (1979-80) in Austin, she could only find six music teachers who would volunteer to teach the new listening program in their schools. But Music Memory was such a success that the UIL board immediately reinstated the program statewide in 1981. The program quickly spread to 40 schools in Austin, and then to many hundreds of schools around the state. This too was a phenomenal triumph. The program won the Texas Arts Award in 1981, a rare feat for a program so new.


Soon, Mollie Gregory-Tower's Music Memory program began to gain recognition outside the Lone Star state. In 1987, the American School Board Journal and the Executive Educator sponsored a contest to find "100 Winning Curriculum Ideas in the United States." Music Memory gained national recognition as the winner of the award for the "Most Creative and Replicable Program."


The Music Memory curriculum, a full-year program, is designed to prepare the students for the end-of-year testing and enables them to gain a great familiarity with 16 classical pieces. "We always have something by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven," says Gregory-Tower, "but we also make sure to have something written by female composers and other recognized composers from every major historical period."


As a result, the students listen to, and can recognize, selected renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary pieces, including jazz standards, opera selections, and even some Broadway songs. They hear symphonies played by large orchestras, vocal duets, solos for various instruments, and everything in between. For many students, exposure to historic musical periods gives them a strong background for expanding their current musical tastes.


Gregory-Tower emphasizes that the students are not simply practicing listening skills in the Music Memory classroom. The children also develop attention and concentration skills, the same skills needed in any academic environment. In addition, students often realize that "classical" music is not trapped in the past. "It is any music of high quality," Gregory-Tower says.


The students begin to recognize their beloved melodies in T.V. shows and commercials, in films, in video games, or "somewhere in the background" of their daily lives. Gregory-Tower knows of many former Music Memory students who-- 10, 20, 50 years later--are still excited to recall and name pieces they listened to in elementary school, whenever they happen to hear them again.


The approach to teaching listening has evolved somewhat since Malcolm Gregory's days of "sitting quietly and politely with his hands folded in his lap," Gregory-Tower says. "They were expected to simply sit silently while listening, but now we have learned how to address all the learning modalities."


When students are first introduced to a piece, they are guided through the listening with the help of a "listening map," a teaching tool developed by GregoryTower and several other Austin music teachers to chart the progression of a piece.


The "map" is color-coded to show the form and pictures featured instruments and dominant melodies so that the students can follow along visually and begin to organize what they are hearing.


The idea has caught the attention of many other music lovers. Coordinators of classical radio stations, like KMFA, an Austin classical music station, have been charmed by children's call-in requests for symphonies and other classical works, and they now regularly play the Music Memory pieces several times a week so that the students can practice listening. The stations offer augmented programs as well, such as "Music in Mind" and "Mind Your Music" to enhance their young listeners' practice.


After a full year of study in their music classes, the students (grades 3 through 6) take a classroom listening test. About 75% of them earn perfect scores, which qualifies them for the school-wide test. The school-wide test is more difficult because it relies on remembering second themes and interludes. Students who do well on the school-wide test form six-member Music Memory teams, which compete against other schools in the district competition. In the contest, listeners must identify the composer and the title of the work based on hearing short sections of the pieces, which are performed for them, in some cases, by professional musicians.


Until recently, the Austin ISD competitions took place in UT's Bass Concert Hall (Performing Arts Center) with the Austin Civic Orchestra playing the selections. "Hearing it played live is unlike anything else," Gregory-Tower says. "They've been listening to it on the cassette tapes and CDs and on the radio all year. It's an educational and enlightening experience for them to hear it performed live." In recent years, the contest has been conducted from audio tapes, but GregoryTower hopes it will return to a live format soon.


Today, Music Memory has spread throughout ten states: Texas, Georgia, Indiana, South Dakota, Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida, Nebraska, California, and New York. Tower observes, "The program can be started wherever there is interest."


The program in New York City began when Arthur J. Lohman, a New Yorker, heard his visiting grandson talk excitedly about his involvement in Music Memory back in Austin. The grandfather immediately called up Mollie Tower. "Are you the Music Memory lady?" he asked her. "I want to get that program started in New York City."


Two years later, in 2000, Gregory-Tower found herself on the stage in Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, handing out the awards at the first New York City Music Memory Contest, performed by the Riverside Symphony.


"You have been given a great gift," she told the student contestants. Her father would have been proud.


Music Memory continues to grow and inspire, and Mollie Gregory-Tower hopes that wherever it takes root, it will do for students what it did for her father--instill in them a lifelong love for classical music.





Historic Indianapolis: The First Music Memory Contest


Did Music Memory "save" America?


Journal of Education - 1918

Reference to the first Music Memory Contest held in NYC - for high school students.


Looking About - Dallas - 1920 

High praise given to the 1920 Dallas Music Supervisor - "Each year there is a Music Memory contest such as is nowhere else so far as we learn." High School students studied 50 music selections! 


MENC - 1920 

The association produced a "Book of Proceedings" which was sold to give the details of the Music Memory Contest.


Music in Education - 1921 

Article detailing how the National Federation of Music Clubs was involved with early Music Memory programs.


Music Memory Contest - 1925 

Very specific advice from 1925 about how to select the music and run a Music Memory Contest.

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