Mu Phi Epsilon was founded November 13, 1903 at the Metropolitan College of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio by Dr. Winthrop Sterling, a professor at the school and a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity, and Elizabeth Matthias Fuqua, his 19-year-old assistant, as a way of recognizing the musicianship and scholarship of those eligible. The first chapter, now Alpha chapter, included thirteen women.
Originally chartered as a national music sorority, it changed status in 1936 to become an honor society, and again in 1944 to function as a professional music sorority. Federal regulations (specifically Title IX) in the early 1970s opened all such societies to coeducational membership. In 1977 its official status changed for the final time to a co-ed professional music fraternity.
Today, Mu Phi Epsilon has chapters both nationally and internationally. The fraternity supports achievement in music through the awarding of grants and scholarships, as well as music competitions, concerts, and summer music programs. Much of this work has been supported by the Mu Phi Epsilon Foundation, an organization that has been in existence since 1963, as well as fundraising and donations.
Mu Phi Epsilon maintains communication with its members through The Triangle, the official quarterly journal of the fraternity. Materials appropriate for publication include articles on any phase of music education; scholarly articles reflecting research in the various fields of music; articles on pedagogy, performance, biography, or music therapy; and feature articles centering on the outstanding accomplishments of members. News from chapters and individual members may also be submitted for the "Applause" and "Encore" sections.
In its own words, the fraternity aims for the advancement of music throughout the world and promotes scholarship, musicianship, and friendship, along with encouraging each member's loyalty to their Alma Mater. Beyond that, members of Mu Phi are to provide support for music in the community in whatever way possible. The International Bylaws of Mu Phi Epsilon state that its aim is “the advancement of music in the community, in the nation, and in the world, through the promotion of musicianship, scholarship, and music education, with an emphasis on service through music.”
It is a part of the National Interfraternity Music Council, which includes six other fraternities: Delta Omicron, Kappa Kappa Psi, Phi Beta, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, Sigma Alpha Iota, and Tau Beta Sigma. It also carries affiliations with many other national organizations that provide support for music, notably MENC: The National Association for Music Education.
Membership is limited to music majors and minors, music faculty not already initiated as members in another professional music fraternity, and musicians of achievement who have never joined a professional music fraternity and who desire membership through Special Election of active chapter members. Members are drawn from a diverse range of musical fields, including education, performance, therapy, and technology. Members of Mu Phi Epsilon are not permitted to be involved in the music fraternities and sororities Delta Omicron, Phi Beta, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, or Sigma Alpha Iota, but may join the band fraternities Kappa Kappa Psi or Tau Beta Sigma. They are also free to join a social Greek house.
Those seeking membership must first ensure that they meet the academic requirements for members of Mu Phi Epsilon. Candidates will then go through a process that involves several activities. This process is intended to get candidates better acquainted with the members, as well as to give them the knowledge about the fraternity that all members should know. Activities include, but are not limited to, service projects, fundraising, music making, and other forms of outreach. This process can vary slightly from chapter to chapter based upon local tradition, but the essentials of it remain the same. Once through this process, candidates enjoy full membership in Mu Phi Epsilon as long as they remain in good standing academically and professionally.
Collegiate chapters continued taking their names from the original Alpha Chapter, progressing through the Greek alphabet and then used the prefixes Mu, Phi, Epsilon, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. As of 2005, the prefix Zeta is used for new chapters. International chapters have been Alpha Tau (Philippine Women’s University 1962), Beta Xi (University of the Philippines 1967) and Delta Iota (University of Western Ontario, Canada 1990).
Since 1903, 201 chapters of Mu Phi Epsilon have been installed on college campuses. After graduation or leaving school the collegiate members are encouraged to affiliate with a nearby alumni chapter or with the International Fraternity as an Allied Member.
The administration of Mu Phi Epsilon is made up of three main bodies: The executive board, the foundation, and the district directors. The executive board is made up of eight people, including the President (currently Rosemary Ames), five vice presidents, the executive secretary-treasurer, and the editor of the Triangle. The Foundation is established for the benefit of philanthropic projects suitable to commemorate the aims and purposes of the Fraternity. Finally, the district directors are appointed to oversee the Fraternity Chapters in geographical divisions of the United States. They meet personally with the collegiates and alumni, answer questions, give support and help them work through problems. Currently the collegiate and alumni chapters are divided into twelve Provinces and thirty-three Districts within those Provinces.
Mu Phi Epsilon Fraternity offers a Musicological Research Contest, an Original Composition Contest, the Marian Bowker Davidson Accompanying Award, the Katherine Doepke Creative Programming Award, the Mary Alice Cox Grant for Lifelong Learning, and various awards for its members and chapters. The Mu Phi Epsilon Foundation, established to honor the Fraternity’s founders and other deceased members, funds the philanthropic, scholarship and educational activities of Mu Phi Epsilon. Some of the many scholarships and grants are:
Summer tuition scholarships are offered to members of Mu Phi Epsilon attending music programs at Aspen, Banff Music Centre, Brevard Music Center, Chautauqua Institution, Encore School for Strings, Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, Music Academy of the West, Round Top, and Tanglewood Music Center. Philanthropic gifts are made to community music schools through the Music Outreach Project.
To celebrate the 75h Anniversary of Mu Phi Epsilon the Fraternity and the Foundation cooperated in building and endowing a cottage/studio for a composer-in-residence at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. The first Composer-In-Residence selected was Emma Lou Diemer, Mu Delta. She accepted but later found it necessary to decline the appointment, so Elie Siegmeister was named as the composer to occupy the Chair of Composition at Brevard Music Center. Notable composers to follow include W. Frances McBeth, Elliot DelBorgo, Walter Hartley, Fisher Tull, Don Freund, and many others.