The idea to create a center for the study, preservation and performance of American music arose in late 1958 when Sister Mary Dominic Ray of Dominican College, San Rafael, California realized how diverse and substantial American musical production had been for over 200 years--and how little was known about this creative achievement. In the fall of 1967, with her continuous research, determination, perseverance, and personal collecting of early American sheet music, recordings, books, and papers from distinguished California musicians, the American Music Research Center became officially recognized by her home institution. Support was simultaneously offered by the Northern District of the California Federation of Music Clubs.

The AMRC's formal opening took place on February 18, 1968. From that time on the AMRC collections grew with the addition of Moravian music scores, Anglo-American comic operas, California mission music, and a variety of 19th century song sheets and recordings. Sister Mary coordinated and promoted many American musical performances. She lectured extensively in the U.S. and England on many American music topics.

Due to Sister Mary’s imminent retirement and Dominican College’s inability to sustain the AMRC at that time, in 1988, Sister Mary contacted several universities about purchasing the entire AMRC so as to preserve it intact. The University of Colorado, with two distinguished scholars of American music already on its faculty, Profs. William Kearns and Karl Kroeger, was interested and was able to secure both administrative support from Deans Robert Fink and James Williams and the financial backing to complete the transfer.

In January 1989, the entire AMRC was packed and shipped to its new home in Boulder, CO. Collections already located at CU were simultaneously added to the AMRC; 18th and 19th century tunebooks, the Ben Gray Lumpkin Folksong Collection, music by prominent Colorado composers Cecil Effinger and Normand Lockwood, and the Alvin Layton silent film scores. 

In 1999, a full-time archivist was assigned to the AMRC to organize collections and create finding aids. The AMRC increased its storage capacity in 2002 with a move from the Waltz Music Library to the Macky Auditorium Building on the CU campus, then moved again in 2013 to the third floor of Norlin Library.