Ugh! Why Pink? A Brief History of Music's Academic Color

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Ugh! Why pink? As surely as commencement rolls around every year, this exclamation is heard at universities and colleges throughout the country. From faculty and graduates alike comes the question: "Why was pink chosen as the academic color for music?"1 The answer to the question is not a simple one and can probably never be precise; since, rather than being chosen, as so many academic colors have been over the years, music's color evolved. This evolution of pink as the color symbolical of music in academia is one that musicians should be aware of and take pride in. No longer should musicians pursue the Ph.D. in order to avoid wearing pink in academic processions!

Don't deny it. Some of you out there surely made an aversion to pink part of your decision to pursue the Ph.D. rather than the D.M.A. or D.Mus. Officially, even this ruse no longer excuses the musician from showing his true color (pink, that is). In 1959 (25 years ago!), a committee on academic costumes and ceremonies was appointed by the American Council on Education to review the Academic Costume Code and recommend any necessary changes. The committee recommended that the velvet trimming of all hoods "should be indicative of the subject to which the degree pertains."2 Earlier, the trimming color had always been that of the degree granted; e.g., white for the M.A. in music. All regalia manufactured and worn after the spring of 1960 was to have conformed to the new guidelines. Consequently, a graduate with the Ph.D. in any musical discipline should wear a hood trimmed in pink rather than dark blue. Unfortunately, there are still a large number of universities, manufacturers, and distributors of academic regalia that do not comply with the "new" code.

A uniform code of academic costume dates back to 1895 in the United States.3 American universities, unlike their British counterparts, sought some uniformity in specifications for academic dress. The hood design and faculty color designations adopted then have been in use with little change since. The strength of this uniform code with its limited number of faculty color designations is the ability to recognize at a glance a colleague's major field of study by the color of the velvet trimming the hood. Only in the United States is this even remotely possible; there is no uniformity among universities in the rest of the world. Of course, many of our own academic traditions, in regalia and otherwise, had their roots in England.

As early as the thirteenth century, Cambridge was evidently the first university to use academic regalia. Cambridge was also the first to grant degrees in music. The first documented music degree granted was to Henry Abyngdon in 1463.4 Oxford soon followed, granting degrees in music. It is interesting to note some of the celebrated composers granted music degrees before 1600.5 Without exception they were composers of at least some skill, for the granting of the degrees was usually contingent upon a specified composition from the recipient. Degrees granted at Cambridge after Abyngdon included:

Robert Fayrfax, Mus. Doc. (1501)
Robert Wydow, Mus. Bac. (1502)
Robert Cowper, Mus. Doc. (1507)
Christopher Tye, Mus. Doc. (1545)
Robert White, Mus. Bac. (1561)
John Blitheman, Mus. Bac. (1586)
Edward Johnson, Mus. Bac. (1594)

Once Oxford began giving music degrees, many more were recorded there than at Cambridge. The first was a baccalaureate degree granted to Robert Wydow (incorporated from Cambridge) sometime before 1497. Other important composers earning the distinction during the sixteenth century were:

Robert Fayrfax, Mus. Doc. (1511)
John Gwyneth, Mus. Doc. (1531)
Christopher Tye, Mus. Doc. (1548)
John Merbecke, Mus. Doc. (1550)
John Sheppard, Mus. Doc. (1554)
Nathaniel Giles, Mus. Bac. (1585)
John Bull, Mus. Bac. (1586)
John Mundy, Mus. Bac. (1586)
Thomas Morley, Mus. Bac. (1588)
John Dowland, Mus. Bac. (1588)
Giles Farnaby, Mus. Bac. (1592)
John Bull, Mas. Doc. (1592)
Francis Pilkington, Mus. B. (1595)
Robert Jones, Mus. Bac. (1597)

The list must always remain incomplete. Neither university regularly registered music degrees since they were considered inferior to degrees in theology, law, and medicine and gave the recipient none of the rights and privileges of the other degrees.6

Of the twenty-five colors representing academic disciplines recognized in the intercollegiate Academic Costume Code, music's pink is one of the oldest. During the fifteenth century certain representative colors emerged for the various academic faculties at Oxford and Cambridge. In his book, Scholars on Parade, David Lockmiller gives some general reasons for color selection: "Some of the colors are symbolic, some have historical associations, and others are related to the colors of older academic disciplines."7 The pink color symbolizing music came about as a result of the latter. By the time music degrees were being granted, scarlet was the recognized color for theology and canon law almost universally, and philosophy was symbolized with various shades of blue. Other faculties wore regalia lined with many different colors to represent their various disciplines. In time, some of the secular faculties apparently began to usurp the clerical rights to scarlet; for, the Laudian statutes of 1636 ordered that the silk used in the facings and hoods of Doctors of Civil Law and Doctors of Medicine must be of a color "intermediate" to scarlet. Subsequently, salmon pink was often used as this intermediate color.8 When music joined civil law and medicine as a third secular faculty in the sixteenth century, musicians shared company with the doctors and lawyers, proudly wearing pink in academic processions.9 There is still no uniformity in academic colors in British universities. To this day a hood of scarlet cloth with pink silk lining may represent the Doctor of Medicine, Divinity, or Laws at Cambridge. At Oxford the Doctor of Music is distinguished more by his robe of cream silk with apple blossom embroidery than by the cherry crimson silk linings.

So, why was pink chosen as music's academic color in the United States? David Lockmiller reasoned: "Pink, long used by Oxford for degrees in music, was continued as an appropriate color for that subject."10 But, as we have noted, pink was also used for other disciplines at Oxford. Lockmiller's final conclusion, that some of the color choices in the United States were "undoubtedly arbitrary," must in the end also serve for music. Arbitrary or not, the musician can point with some pride to the fact that music's pink is one of the oldest academic colors in continuous use, having evolved as an intermediate color to the ecclesiastical color of scarlet. And it is perhaps appropriate that music, for whatever reason, has retained this colorful relationship with the church. After all, ecclesiastical and musical history have been intertwined for centuries.


1Of course, there are those non-musicians (usually very macho types) who always wink knowingly when the question is proffered, subscribing as they do to the "sissy" theory of color selectivity.

2"An Academic Costume Code and an Academic Ceremony Guide," in American Universities and Colleges, ed. W. Todd Furniss, 11th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1973), p. 1757.

3The reader is directed to American Universities and Colleges, 11th ed., pp. 1756-1759 for the current code.

4Abyngdon (c. 1420-1497) was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1451 and Master of the Choristers from 1455-1478. He was probably instrumental in the introduction of boys' voices in the singing of polyphonic composition in the Chapel.

5The list of names has been drawn from C.F. Abdy Williams, A Short Historical Account of the Degrees in Music at Oxford and Cambridge (London: Novello, Ewer and Co., 1893).

6Many colleagues will note the continuation of this tradition on some campuses to the present.

7David Lockmiller, Scholars on Parade; Colleges, Universities, Costumes and Degrees (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1969), p. 186.

8The shade of pink has never been standardized in this country. A survey of samples from several manufacturers of academic regalia using the British Colour Council's Dictionary of Colour Standards found colors ranging from baby pink (lightest) to cyclamen pink (darkest) with dawn pink and rose pink falling between. None of the American samples approached the cherry crimson color that is the "pink" of Oxford's silk linings for music.

9N.B.: Musicians did not, however, share the position, prestige, or monetary rewards with their other colleagues in the secular faculty. Sound familiar?

10David Lockmiller, Scholars on Parade, p. 186.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

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