Confronting Racism and Sexism

Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory

Historically, American music theory officially recognizes five (and only five) foreign languages to fulfill PhD requirements: Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and German. Thus competency in these languages has been required in U.S. graduate music theory programs. In top-down fashion, all remaining languages are othered such that, if a student wants to use a different language to satisfy the language requirement, some kind of dispensation must be granted—I was given such a dispensation for Russian as a grad student at Yale in the 1990s—so as to keep the structure of the five official languages intact. The requirement to be able to translate into English two or more of these core, which is to say white, languages is a racist policy born of the racist idea that white persons are superior to POC. Music theory’s white racial frame believes that the only foreign music theoretical works worth studying were written in these five languages. It should go without saying that there are music theoretical works worth studying written in foreign languages other than these five, and that they are representative of other longstanding rich music theory traditions, both inside and outside of the European continent. This language requirement is sometimes obfuscated by underscoring the ability to “translate into idiomatic English.” But this ability need not be tested by translation; writing idiomatic English is already a requirement for U.S. graduate programs. It is also sometimes obfuscated by removing the descriptors, “German” for instance, from in front of “language requirement,” such that, in theory, any foreign language will count toward this requirement. But the five original languages will still be privileged because they are already deeply embedded in existing structures, so this is obfuscating and not an antiracist policy solution. In How To Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi says, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination” (19). The antiracist policy solution to this particular racist policy is to require languages with one new caveat: any language—including sign language and computer languages, for instance—is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation. This would represent antiracist discrimination. If too difficult to implement, the obvious compromise is to eliminate foreign-language requirements altogether, as U.S. institutions are doing generally. To be clear, I believe that knowledge of a foreign language is emancipating—I myself know four to varying degrees of fluency. I simply wish to point out that, in its current form, the foreign-language requirement in music theory graduate programs is a racist policy based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC.

PhD programs in music theory routinely require some or all of the following six seminars: two History of Music Theory, two Schenkerian (sometimes called “Tonal”) Analysis, and two Post-tonal Analysis. Commonly, in these six seminars, every single music theorist studied—from Aristoxenus (d. 335 B.C.E.) to Milton Babbitt (d. 2011 C.E.)—is a white male. These seminar requirements represent both racist policies and sexist policies. Seminars featuring 100% white-male music theorists create hostile environments for POC and nonmales and, especially, nonmales of color. Such exclusionist seminars give rise to negative psychological and emotional environments for POC and nonmales, and intimidate and undermine their self-esteem and dignity. Making such seminars optional, instead of required, is an antiracist and antisexist step in the right direction, since incoming students, supremely talented and often already versed in music theory matters, would be free to chart their own paths in consultation with faculty. Such seminars are optional at Ph.D. music theory programs at, for instance, Columbia University, University of Minnesota, and Ohio State University. Currently, these commonly required graduate seminars are based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC, and the sexist idea that males are superior to nonmales. To claim race/gender neutrality and say that race and gender have nothing to do with it is silly. Expanding these existing graduate seminars that focus solely on white-male music theorists to include nonmale theorists and theorists of color, as well as nonwestern music-theoretical traditions, would greatly enrich graduate music theory study. Such expansion would support the antiracist idea that all racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences, as well as the antisexist idea that all genders are equals in all their apparent differences.

These all-white all-male seminars highlight the intersection of race and gender in music theory. In recent scholarship I’ve underscored Heinrich Schenker’s importance to music theory and how his racism negatively affects our field from a critical-race perspective. Here’s what Schenker wrote about women:

Despite their mutual dependency—in terms of necessity of existence, they remain equal!—the man ranks above the woman, the producer is superior to the merchant or the laborer, the head prevails over the foot, the coachman is more than the wheel of the wagon he steers, the genius means more than the people who represent merely the soil from which he springs. But how is the dilettante to grasp that he does have value inasmuch as he is a receptacle for art, but never more than just this—thus his is a function of only minor relevance. (Counterpoint, 2001, xix)

“The man ranks above the woman,” says Schenker, whose strident sexism remains underexplored in music theory. In our field the white-male frame whitewashes sexism much the same way it whitewashes racism. In order for nonmales to be successful in music theory they must adhere to and prop up music theory’s male frame in the same way that POC must adhere to and prop up the white frame. Promoting whiteness and maleness, while maintaining the dual myths of race and gender neutrality, is key to one’s success in music theory. Surely W.E.B. DuBois realized this about race in 1934 when he wrote, in Black Reconstruction, “We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race, and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie” (725).

Racism and sexism are not the only things to get whitewashed in music theory. Our white-male frame whitewashes antisemitism as well. In “How Can We Stop the Rise of Antisemitism,” Eric Ward, in conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous, says that “antisemitism is the beating heart of white nationalism,” the thread that holds worldwide white supremacy together. They speak compellingly about how antisemitism threatens the very core of democracy and freedom. We in music theory should have the same type of conversation since many of music theory’s important figures were highly antisemitic, something the field rarely acknowledges. Though there are surely significant differences between American anti-black racism and European antisemitism, there are also notable similarities. Indeed, American race law influenced and inspired Nazi lawyers and legislators, especially as they crafted their notorious Nuremberg Laws, whose main intent was to deny full citizenship to Jews and determine what bloodlines constitute Jewishness. James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law begins with a chilling quote in which Nazi judge and jurist Roland Freisler, in a June 1934 meeting meant to begin drafting those laws, cites American race law: “This [American] jurisprudence would suit us perfectly, with a single exception. Over there they have in mind, practically speaking, only coloreds and half-coloreds, which includes mestizos and mulattoes; but the Jews, who are also of interest to us, are not reckoned among the coloreds” (1). Clearly, Nazi (and European) antisemitism is closer to American anti-black racism than most Americans would care to admit. Nearly a decade before Freisler’s meeting, in Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler himself praised the U.S.—and its anti-black, anti-indigenous racism—as “the one state” that is making good progress “by excluding certain races” from the rights of full citizenship. And insofar as Nazi lunacy primarily targeted Jews and Jewishness, it makes perfect sense to examine antisemitism in music theory in the same vein as anti-black/anti-POC racism, which is one of the main goals of my critical-race work. There’s Richard Wagner of course, but what of the antisemitism of Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern? Or of less-famous figures like Mily Balakirev, Percy Grainger, John Powell, and Alexander Serov? More important, how did pervasive European nineteenth- and twentieth-century antisemitism affect the work of music theory’s main figures, its music theorists, and what traces of antisemitism remain in their works that are foundational to our field? Such widespread antisemitism led Heinrich Schenker, who was Jewish himself, to write in his diary in 1923, “the Jews top the list as Germany’s enemies.” Like racism and sexism, the fraught topic of music theory’s antisemitism deserves our attention. Antisemitism in music theory remains underexplored, and music theory should confront antisemitism with the same seriousness and fortitude that it should confront racism and sexism.

Since its inception in the late 1980s SMT’s Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) has done notable work in order to highlight women’s issues in music theory. But it has done so at the expense of POC and, especially, nonmales of color. I say “nonmale” here and elsewhere to mean those who do not identify as cisgender men, a large group including but not limited to cisgender women, and transgender and gender-nonconforming persons. (This said, I hope to address music theory’s unflagging cisnormativity in future work; full disclosure: I myself am a cisgender man.) For the heart-wrenching story of how white females often chose whiteness over femaleness in the struggle for women’s rights in the U.S., see Elizabeth McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. It’s worth noting that, as this struggle wore on, white-male power structures in the U.S. exerted enormous pressure on white females to choose whiteness over femaleness, which they ultimately did in large numbers. With respect to white women, McRae writes of a “political language [that] minimized racial identity and replaced it with a particular gender identity, prioritizing motherhood while burying how whiteness shaped their understanding of [such language]” (14). To a significant extent, the CSW, which has never been chaired by a POC, has not understood how whiteness has shaped its language and actions as well. Since music theory’s white racial frame essentially recognizes only whiteness as worthy of music-theoretical attention, especially in the classroom, it stands to reason that the CSW has worked entirely within that framework in highlighting women’s issues. In How To Be an Antiracist, Kendi calls this “gender racism”:

Racist (and sexist) power distinguishes race-genders, racial (or gender) groups at the intersection of race and gender. Women are a gender. Black people are a race. When we identify Black women, we are identifying a race-gender. A sexist policy produces inequities between women and men. A racist policy produces inequities between racial groups. When a policy produces inequities between race-genders, it is gendered racism, or gender racism for short. (188)

Both the field of music theory and the CSW have practiced gender racism with respect to nonmales of color.

Kimberlé Crenshaw deals extensively with how women of color get marginalized inside and outside of white frameworks such as the CSW. In 1989, in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality,” a term that is generally misunderstood and misused today. She says:

With Black women as the starting point, it becomes more apparent how dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis. I want to suggest further that this single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group. (140)

The “single categorical axis” of music theory’s white racial frame is whiteness, an axis along which femaleness in music theory defines itself and through which groups such as the CSW “limit inquiry” to a white female experience, thereby exhibiting gender racism. By deconstructing whiteness and maleness in music theory we can begin to examine race-gender intersectionality from its proper vantage point, that of nonmale nonwhites and nonwhite nonmales. The CSW, for all the significant work it has done, has rarely seen gender issues from a racial, which is to say antiracist, perspective. And, as Kendi says, “To truly be antiracist is to be feminist. To truly be feminist is to be antiracist” (189).

By Philip Ewell

Hello. My name in Phil Ewell and this is my blog. I am an activist for racial, gender, and social justice in the field of music theory. Everyone in my field knows that it is unremittingly white and male, but once I began to understand how whiteness and maleness work in tandem to suppress nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, I began to do the academic work in order to expose this unjust side of music theory so that we might deconstruct our white-male structures. Thus I now consider myself an activist in the field, one who advocates for change by exposing how whiteness and maleness suppress marginalized voices, and by pressing for the necessary changes so that all voices can be heard in music theory.

13 replies on “Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory”

Transgender men are men.

[re: the allegory of “nonmale” instrumentalized in this essay: “I say “nonmale” here and elsewhere to mean those who do not identify as cisgender men, a large group including but not limited to cisgender and transgender women, transgender men, as well as persons of various nonbinary genders. (This said, I hope to address music theory’s unflagging cisnormativity in future work; full disclosure: I myself am a cisgender man.)”]


excellent point. I’ve struggled to find the proper terminology here. could you identify yourself and help me with this? I’d be very appreciative. thanks, phil


Hi Philip, I just started to read your blog. I’m teaching history of (mostly) West-European music theory. If I would like to add other voices to my lessons, where can I find these voices? Is there a list (or something) of female, and/or POC authors/thinkers in this field? It would really help me to broaden my horizon. Thanks, Patrick


Reblogged this on A Black Writer in Berlin and commented:
I had already written a few things about racism and music, specifically the so-called “J-Word” (Jazz) and why the name is inappropriate, in my view. From what I’ve heard of Herr Schencker, he sounds like a nasty piece of work: racist, woman-hating, nigger-baiting anti-Semitic old fogy (and a self-hating Jew), and I’m glad I didn’t waste my time trying to study “music theory” while learning how to compose music.

Fortunately, neither did Duke Ellington. I am NOT going to compare what I’ve attempted to do musically to Duke Ellington, but suffice it to say that he refused to enter any musical academy because he was far more keen on creating a New Afro-American (or in the language of the time, Negro) music rather than regurgitating tried-and-true Western styles. Some critics (I can’t remember them off the top of my head–this thing is being written likewise) took Ellington to task for his supposed inability to write sufficiently coherent longer works (such as Black, Brown and Beige). This is a matter of opinion. Duke’s Tone Parallel to Harlem is a monumental work whose length is well above the standard three or four minute jazz ditty. There are plenty of changes in tempo and to my ear, it is perfectly coherent. (As long as one stays away from Luther Henderson’s train-wreck of an arrangement of “Harlem.”)

I have a soft spot for Ellington’s longer pieces. To me they are more laudatory (even if some of them, such as the early “Creole Rhapsody,” are somewhat shaky and flimsy in spots) than the classical works of William Levi Dawson, Florence Price, Edmond Dede and William Grant Still. Ellington, in eschewing so-called “classical” music theory (and all the fascist snobbery inherent in it) set out to create his own forms and set his own musical values. This is not to shit on the late Florence Price or Grant Still, but their monumental achievements were done within a European (specifically, German) framework. The same holds true for Aaron Copeland. Wonderful music, but it is American music filtered through the sieve of Austria.


Fantastic post and I think this also includes the LGBTQI alphabet city. I have been told many times, that I make gay music and its not compatible with a general audience. I am a POC and gay and I have had other POCs look down on me because I am gay. Its really sad because I whole heartly support POC music and non-traditional styles, but I don’t feel I have a place in the larger music community. I play my music, but I don’t socialize cause I don’t want my mouth to betray me by telling my sexual orientation. Not that it affects the beats I play in any way (maybe more melodic, haha).

Liked by 1 person

Thanks Eric. You make some good points here. It’s important, IMO, to realize how LGTBQ+ and BIPOC are natural allies in the fight for justice, and that we should be working together at all costs. White frameworks love to pit marginalized groups against each other, of course, since that takes the focus off of whiteness, which has been one of whiteness’s main goals for centuries now in the U.S.


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