In 1930, the Great Depression was just digging
in. As businesses closed and people lost their homes,
the future of public education looked grim as well.
But in that year, high school music teacher Alexander
M. Harley was challenged by his principal-who had just
name him chairman of the music department-to turn Maine
Township High School into a music center
for the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. Harley did this
by forming vocal and instrumental ensembles that performed
in the community without charge. As the depression deepened,
townspeople clamored to close the school for several
years to save taxes; however, Harleys free concerts
were credited with not only publicizing the value of
music but with keeping the school from closing.
Because he wanted to recognize the student
who had given so generously of their time and talents
by performing gratis for schools, churches and civic
clubs, Harley searched for a national honor society
for students that excelled in musical achievements at
the high school level. Although the National Honor Society
honor academic achievement, the Quill and School award
journalistic effort, and the Forensic League highlights
success in debating, Harley found no such organization
devoted to music. Finally in 1936, he drew up a simple
constitution and bylaws for his new group, Maine Music
Masters, dignifying it as an honor society that required
its members to display academic scholarship, musical
achievement, and service to school, church, and community.
To symbolize all the values of this new
honor society, Harley had a key emblem designed with
a five-line music staff-each line representing the five
points of selection (music, scholarship, character,
leadership, and service). A lyre and scroll superimposed
on the staff represented proficiency and service in
the field of music. Above, a triplet figure in the shape
of an M stood for the initials of Maine
After 16 years of growth at Maine, Harley's
honor society was noticed. Superintendent of Schools
Harry D. Anderson visited the school in 1951, attending
the very successful fall induction ceremony along with
several hundred parents and friends. The next day, Anderson
asked Harley to share his organization with Illinois
and the rest of the nation. A member of MENC, Harley
went to MENC Executive Secretary Clifford V. Buttelman
and offered himself and his wife advisors to a national
MENC-sponsored honor society based on Maine Music Masters.
Buttelman welcomed the concept, but at that time, MENC
could not support it financially. Harley decided to
incorporate his honor society as a nonprofit educational
organization on January 3, 1952, with the approval of
the Maine school board and administration. He changed
its name to Modern Music Masters.
Einar J. Anderson, director of the Maine
Township Adult Evening School, joined the Harleys as
the third incorporating member, and helped to fund the
venture for the first three years. At early meetings,
held at the Harley home, they discussed the possibilities
of extending the idea to the national level. Though
several teachers agreed to form chapters in other schools,
resistance among the students at Maine came as a surprise.
As Robert D. Kuite, band director and co-advisor of
the society at Maine in 1951, recalled, everything
was ready to roll except for one thing-the kids did
not like the idea of spreading Music Masters. They jealously
guarded their membership. When student in a newly
formed chapter at Argo High asked to be inducted, Harley
took a team from Maine to help with the ceremony. After
doing this with other nearby schools, his team saw the
great value of Modern Music Masters for other schools
and communities, and the Maine students rallied around
By the end of 1952, after the May issue
of School Musician Director and Teacher the Spring issue
of Lyons Band News had carried feature articles on the
Modern Music Masters, 34 chapters in 21 states applied
for charters. Membership was open to all students who
met the requirements. In 1954, the name Tri-M first
came into usage. And for the first time, Tri-M materials
were printed-rather than handwritten or mimeographed-although
the central office remained in the Harleys basement
office until 1979.
At a convention in St. Louis marking the
50th anniversary of MENC, Executive Secretary Vanett
Lawler featured Tri-M on the regular convention program,
Since then, Tri-M has been featured at many state, regional,
and national conferences. Chapters have been chartered
in public, private, and parochial schools in all 50
states and in countries such as Canada, Chile, China,
Egypt, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines,
South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
Honorary Tri-M members include Arthur Fiedler, Howard
Hanson, Bobby McFerrin, Sir Georg Solti, Shinichi Suzuki,
Fred Waring, and Meredith Wilson.
Over the years, Tri-M chapters, as well
as individual members, have been recognized for their
achievements through the Tri- M Music Honor Society
Awards Program. Outstanding chapters compete for National
Chapter of the Year Award scholarships and State Chapter
of the Year recognition annually. The Tri-M Leadership
Award (est. 1954), formerly known as the Top-Notcher
Award and renamed in 2002, is presented to Tri-M members
who show exceptional contribution to their chapter.
The Master Musician Award (est. 1971) is presented to
Tri-M members exhibiting exceptional musical ability.
The Honor Ensemble Achievement Award (est. 1989) is
presented to Tri-M members representing their school
in state, division, or national honor ensembles. And
the Tri-M Outstanding Service Award (est. 2003) is presented
to Tri-M members offering exceptional service to their
community and chapter.
In 1983, the executive boards of Tri-M
and MENC both voted to approve a proposal that Tri-M
become affiliated with MENC.
As of August 1,1983, the Tri-M Music Honor
Society became a program of MENC, and, in the words
of Alexander Harley, After 31 years of seeking
this affiliation, my dreams have finally been realized.
Tri-M has found its destiny!
Tri-M Quick History
- Alexander Harley and his wife Frances founded
the Maine Music Masters at Maine Township High School
in Park Ridge, IL.
- Maine Music Masters became incorporated and
was renamed Modern Music Masters.
- The first individual member award, known as
the Top-Notcher Award, was presented. This award was
renamed the Tri-M Leadership Award in 2002.
- First Master Musician Award was presented.
- Modern Music Masters became a program of MENC:
The National Association for Music Education and was
officially renamed the Tri-M Music Honor Society.
- The first year Tri-M was recognized by the
National Association of Secondary School Principals
(NASSP) as an approved program.
- The first State Conference Achievement Award
was presented to Tri-M members accepted to All-State
Honor Ensembles. This award was renamed the Honor Ensemble
Achievement Award in 2003.
- State Chapter of the Year recognition was
given in addition to the National Chapter of the Year.
- The Top-Notcher Award was renamed the Tri-M
- The State Conference Achievement Award was
renamed the Honor Ensemble Achievement Award and was
expanded to recognize Tri-M member participation in
state, division, and national honor ensembles.
- The first Tri-M Outstanding Service Award
Up One Level
In This Section
Tri-M Music Honor Society Chair
tri-m @ ksmea.org