Confronting Racism and Sexism

Music Theory’s Quantitative and Qualitative Whiteness

Since 1986 the Society for Music Theory (SMT) has given “Outstanding Publication Awards,” to recognize “significant contributions to music theory, analysis, or history of theory.” In the thirty-four years since SMT began giving awards, 152 authors/editors have been recognized. Only three, Kofi Agawu (1994), Catherine Losada (2016), and Su-Yin Mak (2008), were persons of color (POC). Thus 98.0% of SMT publication-award recipients have been white. Similarly, only two topics on music that is not part of the white racial frame—Marc Perlman on Javanese Gamelan (2005) and Martin Scherzinger on the Shona mbira song “Nyamaropa” (2002)—have been recognized with an SMT Outstanding Publication Award. Considering these five awards outside of music theory’s white frame, the last such award happened in 2016. Thus for the most recent four years only whiteness has received an Outstanding Publication Award from SMT—no POC have been recognized, either as recipients or as subjects of the publications in question.

Music theory publications are governed almost entirely by white persons, which contributes to a racial imbalance in published material. SMT has four official publications: Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online, SMT-V, and the SMT Newsletter. On SMT’s website there are 66 persons listed as members of the editorial staffs/boards for these four publications. Only three—Daphne Tan (Spectrum), René Rusch (MTO), and Kara Yoo Leaman (SMT-V)—are POC. SMT’s current publication-committee makeup is similarly skewed in terms of race. SMT’s Publication Committee has thirteen members with no POC and its Publication Awards Committee has eight members with one POC (Noriko Manabe). Thus 95.1% (63/66) of SMT’s publications are governed by whites and 95.2% (20/21) of the two relevant committees are governed by whites. Not a single indigenous, black, or Latinx person—three groups that account for roughly 30% of the U.S. population—is a member of SMT’s music theory journals’ governing structures. Music Analysis, the main journal of the United Kingdom’s Society for Music Analysis, has even fewer POC. Of 39 persons on their Editorial Board and Advisory Panel, not a single POC is listed. Finally, my own situation indicates how music theory journals keep POC at arm’s length. I, an African American, have over thirty publications in five countries in two languages and I’ve never been asked to serve on an editorial/advisory board by a U.S. academic music publication. (I’ve never even been asked to serve on a conference program committee, regional or national.) By contrast, I serve on one such board in Ireland (Global Hiphop) and two in Russia (musicology). Though admittedly anecdotal, my situation shows just how loath American music theory is to recognize POC and their publication achievements, even when they are almost all firmly part of its white racial frame as my publications generally are.

In publishing music-theoretical peer-reviewed research and granting outstanding publication awards, the myth of race neutrality has led to the mistaken presumption of fairness, objectivity, and merit. If only the written work and nothing else is judged, the thinking goes, that which is rewarded is most deserving of recognition. These presumptions have given the white racial frame solace over the years in thinking that it is being “not racist.” But the statistics I cite above tell a different story. In “No Small Matters: Reimagining the Use of Research Evidence From A Racial Justice Perspective,” David E. Kirkland unpacks how white framing has used research evidence to promote whiteness while suppressing blackness:

Objectivity as fair, even-handed, and neutral replicates the false assumptions inherent to objectivity as real and attainable. That is, neutrality is a political act that implies some even or fair treatment of a subject or a thing. This equality defies equity, because treating all things the same in human science is a corruption that omits the fundamental reality of human difference. Fairness is not objective, neutral, or even-handed. Objectivity is none of these things either. By understanding how these assumptions operate, we see that we have masked the use of research evidence in cheap robes to position it in a place of authority as opposed to a place of utility. This authoritative positioning has worked throughout history to reinforce the master scripts of racial hierarchy as opposed to rewriting those scripts. So often throughout history, research evidence has been used to enforce master narratives of White supremacy and anti-Black racism while also conditioning us to believe that this social order is, in fact, legitimate. To not have to acknowledge the use of research evidence in the maintenance of White supremacy and anti-Black racism is itself an act of White supremacy and anti-Black racism.

We in music theory have not acknowledged how we use our research evidence to maintain and promote whiteness in the field. Nor have we acknowledged how we use our research evidence to maintain and promote maleness. The lack of this acknowledgement is “an act of White supremacy and anti-Black racism.” It is also an act of patriarchy and sexism.

Publications and publication awards are crucial in gaining employment in the professoriate, as well as in being successful in the process for tenure and promotion, a process that relies heavily on such publication recognition. The lack of recognition of music theorists of color is one reason that, among associate/full professors in music theory, only about 6% are POC, while c. 40% of the U.S. population are POC. With virtually no POC representation in music theory power structures, it is unlikely that anything will change soon. While many of the white persons who govern music theory publications and awards agree that there should be more POC in these structures, they are generally against the one sure method of increasing the number of POC: required benchmarks for the number of POC in music theory’s structures, that is, forcing the inclusion of POC at all levels of structure and recognition, a topic to which I’ll return in “Music Theory’s Future.” Recently, in “The Emancipation of Music in Higher Education,” Eileen Hayes, president of the College Music Society, suggested that all CMS committees have at least one POC member, so such required inclusion is already part of the conversation. These benchmarks should apply to Outstanding Publication Awards for POC as well. The idea of insisting that theorists of color be recognized with Outstanding Publication Awards will cause alarm for music theory’s white frame, but the only scenario in which this alarm is justified is one in which race-neutral policies are in effect, which they have never been; as Kendi writes in How To Be an Antiracist, “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups” (18). (Similarly, there is no such thing as a nonsexist or gender-neutral policy.)

POC are often asked to serve on less-significant committees in white power structures, especially on diversity committees, in tokenistic fashion. For example, though I’ve not been part of music theory’s publication structures, I served for six years on SMT’s Committee on Diversity, as member and chair, from 2004 to 2010. This is how music theory generally views service for POC, on diversity committees where music theory can be viewed as being inclusive, while covertly maintaining the white status quo. I personally therefore no longer agree to serve on diversity committees. Nor will I agree to serve on other committees that are all white within music theory power structures. I will respectfully decline such requests and suggest to ask again once the number of POC (and non-cis men) on the committee in question reaches an appropriate level. In other words, I will no longer serve the function of tokenism. In “How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work,” Alan Henry reduces this distinction between publication-committee work and diversity-committee work to “glamor work” vs. “housework.” In short, glamor work produces opportunities for growth and success, while housework produces, well, work, without the opportunities and benefits that come with glamor work.

In the seven most common music theory undergraduate textbooks, 98.3% of the examples were written by white persons. In these textbooks there are 33 POC composers in the six textbooks that featured at least one (Aldwell/Schachter has none). Of those 33, only two were not black (African descent)— Chen Yi (Chinese woman, b. 1953) and Toru Takemitsu (Japanese man, 1930–1996), whose examples, one each, appear in the textbook by Clendinning/Marvin. Thus our music theory examples are literally, from a racial perspective, black and white, and nothing else. By focusing all efforts, minimum though they are, to diversify race based solely on blackness (again, African descent), music theory’s white racial frame entirely marginalizes and erases nonblack (non-African) POC, which is extremely common in the U.S. In “Why Are Asian Americans Missing from Our Textbooks,” Ellen Lee unpacks this unjust erasure. It should go without saying that contributions from nonblack POC deserve music theory’s consideration at all levels: classrooms, conferences, publications, and the racial/ethnic makeup of all governing structures. In the seven most common music theory textbooks, which represent 96% of the market share, only two examples from 2930 total examples are written by Asian composers, and those two examples appear in just one textbook. Music theory can do better than this. Music theory is lucky: Tomoko Deguchi, Noriko Manabe, Nancy Rao, and others have already shown rich aspects of Asiatic music traditions. In order to enrich music theory textbooks, all music theory has to do is ask, and listen.

The racial makeup of publication awards, journal editorial staffs/boards, glamor committees, and the composers represented in our music theory textbooks represents quantitative whiteness in the field. I’ll end with a qualitative example. The undergraduate textbooks by the following authors contain at least one example by Stephen Foster: Benward/Saker, Burstein/Straus, Clendinning/Marvin, Kostka/Payne/Almén, Laitz, and Roig-Francoli. Foster was one of the most important names in nineteenth-century American blackface minstrelsy, and he himself wore blackface from time to time. “Oh! Susanna” might be a good example of parallel phrase structure, but what about the second-verse lyrics, written by Foster himself: “I jumped aboard de telegraph and trabbled down de riber / De lectric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred nigger.” Theory textbooks routinely include lyrics to songs, often in French, Italian, or German and in English translation, but Foster’s are obviously excluded. Note the absurd caricatured “negro” dialect of the blackface minstrel, who did so much to dehumanize blacks in the buffoonish subhuman practice of blackface minstrelsy. In “Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse,” Matthew Morrison explains how blackface led to exclusionist practices in musicology; the same could be said for music theory. The inclusion of a white supremacist composer like Foster in our music theory textbooks represents the extraordinary insensitivity of music theory’s white frame—and of the textbook publishers I hasten to add—with respect to racial matters. It also points to our utter inability to recognize how whiteness has shaped the field. In “Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class,” Katya Ermolaeva speaks of the harmful legacy of including these racist songs in children’s songbooks. It’s time to remove these racist reminders—these music-theoretical Confederate monuments—from music theory textbooks as well.

(Note: I apologize if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s racial identity in this post. I also note that my original post did not include Catherine Losada among POC for Outstanding Publication Award Recipients, and I apologize for this oversight. Thanks to Miguel Roig-Francoli for pointing this out.)

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.

11 replies on “Music Theory’s Quantitative and Qualitative Whiteness”

Thank you for your important work. My department is presently rethinking the music major curriculum (again–after changes in 1997 that were progressive for their time). Information like this is very helpful in our planning, and I’m sending the link to my colleagues.


Excellent articles/blogs, Phil, thank you. And I agree with all of it. Just one small comment: I think you may have overlooked Catherine Losada in your count of SMT Outstanding Publications Awards for POC. I’m assuming that you use the term POC to include all Hispanics, white or not… Of course POC is a misnomer in many cases: I’m Hispanic, but White, as are many Hispanics, and yet I’d still be called POC as Hispanic–but leaving that aside, Catherine is definitely Hispanic.


{Apologies for the long comment, but this is very thought-provoking!)

This is a very useful piece, Phil. Very useful indeed. At several points you reminded me of an essay on literary studies by Toni Morrison, called “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989), which can be easily found in Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies, ed. by Henry B. Wonham (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996). I quoted it many years ago at several points in a review of John Covach and Graeme Boone’s collection Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and I’ll re-quote the relevant passages from her essay here:

“From the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the arguments resisting that incursion have marched in predictable sequence: 1) there is no Afro-American (or third world) art. 2) it exists but is inferior. 3) it exists and is superior when it measures up to the ‘universal’ criteria of Western art. 4) it is not so much ‘art’ as ore—rich ore—that requires a Western or Eurocentric smith to refine it from its ‘natural’ state into an aesthetically complex form.”

“…(the destabilizing forces are dismissed as merely political; the status quo sees itself as not—as though the term ‘apolitical’ were only its prefix and not the most obviously political stance imaginable since one of the functions of political ideology is to pass itself off as immutable, natural and ‘innocent’)…”

“It only seems that the canon of American literature is ‘naturally’ or ‘inevitably’ ‘white.’ In fact it is studiously so.”

A key point that I’ll add (which I added in the review) is that she’s not just writing about the failure to recognize black voices, but also the potent effect of ignoring the African-American presence in white voices:

“I am made melancholy when I consider that the act of defending the Eurocentric Western posture in literature as not only ‘universal’ but also ‘race-free’ may have resulted in lobotomizing that literature, and in diminishing both the art and the artist. Like the surgical removal of legs so that the body can remain enthroned, immobile, static—under house arrest, so to speak.”

“…The trauma of racism is, for the racist and victim, the severe fragmentation of the self…”

So there is a triply insidious effect of the racism you describe here, Phil: First, there’s the obvious perpetuation of racism and sexism in our scholarly field, excluding a number of brilliant minds and voices that could otherwise be contributing to our discipline. Second, as you point out, there’s the systematic ignoring of the work of ARTISTS who are people of color or women. However, there’s also a third, more subtle effect, which is what Morrison calls the “lobotomization” of the work we study and the way we study it by overlooking anything in the music that doesn’t (or hasn’t) fit the dominant white, male narrative. As a popular music scholar, of course I see the first two effects all two visibly. The catalyst for why I chose to write my PhD dissertation on the music of Stevie Wonder in the first place was the shocking result of a literature review for a paper on his album Innervisions. In a time when there were multiple published books on Prog Rock and artists like the Beatles, and numerous articles were appearing on groups like Yes or Genesis, Paul Simon, or The Beach Boys, I not only couldn’t find a single academic publication on the music of Stevie Wonder anywhere, I could only really find four academic essays on any Soul, Funk, or R&B. (This is within the field of music theory and analytical musicology.) But what I learned as I wrote that PhD was that the only tools available to study the music of artists like Stevie Wonder were those developed for the study of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. As a result, the workings and aesthetics of his music were mostly imperceptible using these tools. When I then started listening analytically for musical elements such as timbre, rhythm, complex repetition and groove-based design, call-and-response, signifyin(g), cultural memory, swing timing, pitch inflection, improvisation, and other key elements within Wonder’s music and music of the Afro-Diasporic tradition, it not only opened up Wonder’s music for me. It also transformed the way I heard art music. I remember once when I was talking to John Rahn once about my ideas on repetition and how it works (a useful audience for such ideas if there ever was one!), I mentioned how overlooked it was in the study of art music. His eyes lit up and he said, “Like Vivaldi!” and he started singing the melody of “Spring” from The Four Seasons. And in my studies of Minimal Music and the music of Ligeti, Elliott Carter, and Stravinsky, I heard new and deeper things. So let’s also avoid the third effect: Limiting out understanding of ALL music, by only listening with easier trained to hear the white, male narrative you describe.

Liked by 1 person

Thanks for this meaty comment Tim. Morrison is a great source for your thoughts. I don’t know that particular article, so I’ll look it up. I often speak of pop music studies in music theory as deeply embedded in music theory’s white racial frame. One reason that this is so is because that so many of the practitioners, often white males themselves, don’t believe that they could be part of the white frame, i.e., part of the problem, because they have moved beyond Beethoven to, say, the Beatles. The third level of racism you describe–I often speak about such levels as concentric circles –is the most subtle, the “lobotomization” of the work we study. Surely you must know Wesley Morris’s piece for the NY Times recent 1619 project? It deals with this third concentric circle of racism. It’s called “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?” Take a look if you haven’t seen it. Anyway, thanks for this…pe

Liked by 1 person

Phil, thank you for this work, and for generating dynamic interactions such as what Tim shared (below). I appreciate that this discussion can be extended beyond academia – for example, as in how I as a music educator frame tools and analysis for young students:

“… the only tools available to study the music of artists like Stevie Wonder were those developed for the study of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. As a result, the workings and aesthetics of his music were mostly imperceptible using these tools. When I then started listening analytically for musical elements such as timbre, rhythm, complex repetition and groove-based design, call-and-response, signifyin(g), cultural memory, swing timing, pitch inflection, improvisation, and other key elements …”


Thanks for this Lana! Yes, it is my hope that this work can extend certainly beyond music theory to other music study, and perhaps even beyond academia. I like how you move beyond western analytical methods above.


Comments are closed.