The Kennedy Center will make three awards totalling $7,500 a year to American composers "for meritorious musical compositions" beginning in 1978. The announcement of the major new awards was made yesterday by Roger L. Stevens, chairman of the Center's board, and Martin Feinstein, excutive director of the Center.

The awards will honor Arthur Friedheim, a famous planist who was for years both pupil and secretary to Franz Liszt. The funds for the awards will come from a grant from the Eric Friedheim Foundation, established by the pianist's son. Arthur Friedheim died in 1931.

The prizes will be awarded by a jury chosen by the Music Critics Association. The first year they will be given for large orchestral works, the second year for chamber music, alternating between the two mediums anually thereafter.

The works nust be at least 20 minutes in length. Anyone, including the composer, may make a nomination from works receiving their American premieres between July 1, 1977, and June 30, 1978. Nomination forms and details on the competition are available from the secretary, Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. 20566.

The jury will meet for the first time in mid-July 1978, to choose 10 out of all the works nominated. It will meet again in Sept. 14, 1978, to choose five out of the 10 works for rehearsal and performance for a free concert in the Center, on Sept. 17, At the end of that cencert, the judges will announce the final results. Members of the first jury will be announced shortly.