The National Academy of Santa Cecilia is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world. It was founded by the papal bull, Ratione congruit, issued by Sixtus V in 1585, which invoked two saints prominent in Western musical history: Gregory the Great, for whom the Gregorian chant is named, and Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

It was founded as a “congregation” — a religious guild, so to speak — and over the centuries, has grown from a forum for local musicians and composers to an internationally acclaimed academy. During the first century of existence, the Congregation was the workshop of a number of prominent musicians and composers of the day, including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The institution in that period was often in rivalry with the other important musical organization of Papal Rome of the day, the Sistine Choir. Rivalry centred around the rights to control access to the musical profession, to train musicians, and to publish music.

The early 1700s are considered to have been a particularly glorious time for the Academy. Among names associated with the organization during that period are Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, and Niccolò Jommelli. In 1716, Pope Innocent XI decreed that all musicians practising their profession in Rome were required to become members of the Congregation. The Academy suspended operations during the revolutionary period of the Napoleonic Wars but opened regularly again in 1822 a few years after the Restoration brought about by the Congress of Vienna. The years between that reopening and the end of the Papal States in 1870 were ones of great change. The organization opened its membership to hitherto excluded categories, such as dancers, poets, music historians, musical instrument makers, and music publishers. In 1838, the Congregation of Santa Cecilia was officially proclaimed an Academy and then a Papal Academy. The list of active and honorary members of the Academy during that period is formidable and includes Cherubini, Mercadante, Donizetti, Rossini, Paganini, Auber, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Gounod, and Meyerbeer. Among the crowned heads of Europe who were honorary members was Queen Victoria.

After the unification of Italy, the Academy reestablished itself with the formation of a permanent symphony orchestra and choir, beginning in 1895. The most recent innovation has been the cataloguing of centuries of musical documents — including an important collection of traditional music in the ethnomusicological archives — and their preservation and eventual display through a multimedia data base open to the public.

The Academy also maintains a musical instrument museum.