Confronting Racism and Sexism

New Music Theory

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men (15). Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings” (16). Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white men. Advanced music theory, which I teach frequently, often has a somewhat open format, sometimes called “post-tonal,” in which twentieth and twenty-first century techniques are discussed. I have always taught the class as a traditional, which is to say white, techniques class, beginning with the Second Viennese School to modern set and neo-Riemannian techniques, along with other European and American topics such as minimalism and aleatoricism. Every twentieth-century techniques textbook I have ever used features music theorists who are 100% white men (while nearly all composers represented are white men as well). The next time I teach the class I will take my cue from Ahmed and try to not study any music theorists who are both white and male. This deframing and counter framing of the white-male frame will give a rich new perspective on twentieth- and twenty-first-century music and music theory.

I do not suggest that anyone stop studying or teaching someone simply because they are white and male. If you’re working on Babbitt’s serialism, have at it. Thinking about Klumpenhouwer networks and Perle-Lansky cycles? More power to you. Presenting on Fortean K and Kh relations? Enjoy. Teaching Hepokoski/Darcy or Caplinian form theory? Good for you. These topics deserve attention. My point is simple. All of these theorists—Milton Babbitt, William Caplin, Warren Darcy, Allen Forte, James Hepokoski, Henry Klumpenhouwer, Paul Lansky, and George Perle—were and are white men. It is entirely plausible that if, say, a Latina did exactly the same work, they would not occupy the same hallowed place in music theory that these white men do. And if you concede this point, you understand that race-neutral and gender-neutral policies are fallacious, at least to some extent. Racial and gender justice is the point of my inquiry, and by strengthening racial and gender justice we can begin to think of other marginalized groups—LGTBQIA+, ethnic, religious, disabled, among others—with greater clarity and ensure justice for all in the field.

Notably, work is already being done to re-envision the music theory classroom and the repertoire that we study. In “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” Dave Molk and Michelle Ohnona begin with a radical idea: naming “whiteness” in the music theory classroom. I wholeheartedly agree that only by explicitly naming the thing on which music theory is built can we begin to have the serious discussions we need to have in the field. Indeed, whiteness has been utterly hidden in music theory, in both subconscious and conscious fashion. Why conscious? Because if whiteness is named explicitly and proven to be advantageous of and by itself, “white claims to civilization,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates calls them in Between the World and Me, seem less impressive. For this reason whiteness seeks to obfuscate race in the field. In “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom,” Cora Palfy and Eric Gilson highlight the hidden emphasis on white men, or “the men of the Western Art Music canon” (81) as they say, that is part and parcel of music theory pedagogy in the U.S. This curriculum “is an element of the classroom that communicates meaning but is not openly acknowledged as part of the formal curriculum” (82). By underscoring the covert nature of whiteness and maleness in the music theory classroom, Palfy and Gilson seek to shine a light on the racial and gender injustice that happens when race and gender go unacknowledged so, in this sense, their work parallels Molk and Ohnona’s. Other significant attempts to reframe our undergraduate music theory curriculum include the Norton Guide to Teaching Music Theory (Lumsden and Swinkin 2018; see specifically, “Part III: Expanding the Canon”) and College Music Curricula for a New Century (Moore 2017). Finally, in terms of repertoire, the Institute for Composer Diversity is an excellent resource to find works written by POC. (Full disclosure: I serve on the Executive Council for this institute.)

So, what music theorists can we teach if not white men? My work as a Russianist has revealed many significant women music theorists in Russia and the former USSR. In fact, female theorists outnumber male theorists in Russia. Valentina Kholopova introduced her own system of pitch-class set analysis in the early 1970s. She called it hemitonicism, and used it to analyze the music of Anton Webern, but this system could analyze other composers as well. Through her system we could analyze Second Viennese composers and others like Bartók, Prokofiev, and Ligeti. Again, it is white-male music theorists, not composers, I’m removing from the mix. Kholopova’s work on Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, in what she called a parameter complex, could be used to analyze many twentieth-century post-tonal composers. Tatiana Bershadskaya is the leading theorist of the so-called “St. Petersburg School” of music theory, which relies heavily on elements of music cognition, psychology, emotion, and gesture in its methods. Olga Panteleeva has written on the music theories of Nadezhda Briusova, in “Formation of Russian Musicology from Sacchetti to Asafyev.” Anna Charnova, who traveled from Russia to Germany to study with Hugo Riemann in the late nineteenth century, has her own notable interpretations on late-tonal music. Other significant women theorists from early-mid twentieth century in Russia include Leah Averbukh, Barbara Dernova, Ekaterina Maltseva, Sofia Beliaeva-Eksempliarskaiia, and Maria Medvedeva. More recent women theorists include Tatiana Kiuregian, Svetlana Savenko, and Valeriia Tsenova.

In “One Line, Many Views: Perspectives on Music Theory, Composition, and Improvisation through the Work of Muhal Richard Abrams,” Marc Hannaford outlines many significant twentieth-century African American theorists through whose ideas we can study post-tonal music. Muhal Richard Abrams, a composer, teacher, and theorist, synthesized multiple sources into a highly personal sound, and was influenced by Paul Hindemith, Bud Powell, Joseph Schillinger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Art Tatum. Mary Lou Williams—whose Black Christ of the Andes is considered one of the finest jazz masses in history—helped shape the modern harmonic and rhythmic materials of bebop and worked tirelessly toward a more equitable music industry. Anthony Braxton’s multi-volume sets The Tri-Axium Writings and Composition Notes represent two of the most detailed theorizations of his music, aesthetic framework, and philosophy of creativity. Yusef Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns and Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music outline a theoretical framework for creative composition and improvisation that encompass post-tonal harmonic, embodiment, and metaphysical considerations. Roland Wiggins, who influenced Quincy Jones, Lateef, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Taylor, was an official teacher of Joseph Schillinger’s methods, but generated his own theoretical framework out of what he called the kinesthetic, syntactic, and semantic elements of music. Olly Wilson composed numerous articles on the relationship among western art music, contemporary music, race, timbre, and technology, among others. Wadada Leo Smith published three important but largely ignored explications on experimentalism, black creativity, composition, and rhythm in the mid 1970s, and also created a personal system of graphic notation, as well as groundbreaking theorizations and compositional implementations of interactive ensemble improvisation. Geri Allen’s multilayered and formally complex compositions from the 1980s combine technological, harmonic, and rhythmic innovation in a way that foreshadow other contemporary trends. She was also known for her careful mentoring of younger musicians and sensitivity to the gendered dynamics of the jazz scene. (With thanks to Marc Hannaford for the contents of this paragraph.)

This reorientation of post-tonalism could apply to tonal repertoires as well. Many writers have catalogued the musical contributions of African Americans: Dominique-René De Lerma in Reflections on Afro-American Music (1973); Eileen Southern in “America’s Black Composers of Classical Music” (1975); Olly Wilson in “Black Music as an Art Form” (1983); and Suzanne Flandereau in “Black Music in the Academy” (1998). One particularly important figure is Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869–1954), whose papers are housed at Columbia University. He wrote many operas— The Martyr (1893), The Octoroon (1908), Voodoo (1913), Athalia (1916), The African Kraal (1937), and Battle of the Gods (1938), for example—that were staged during his life but mostly unknown now. These works could provide fertile ground for music theory. In his unpublished manuscript The Negro in Music and Drama, Freeman gives some autobiographical detail in his account of the black experience in music composition in the U.S. He alludes to a sense of fellowship he felt with other composers of African descent from earlier generations and elsewhere around the world in a section of his manuscript entitled “Our Musical Cousins”: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), George Bridgetower (1778–1860), Carlos Antonio Gomes (1836–1896), and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912). The global and historical awareness Freeman demonstrates in parts of The Negro in Music and Drama both echoes the subject matter of his musical works and foreshadows arguments scholars of African-American music would make later in the twentieth century, arguments that stress important connections between traditional African musical practices and black music both inside and outside the United States. (With thanks to Garrett Schumann—who recently published on Vicente Lusitano, a forgotten black renaissance composer/theorist—for the contents of this paragraph.)

I’ve just scratched the surface in suggesting potential music theorists to study in the classroom who were not both white and male. One easily predictable objection to my list will be that many of the figures I list are “not music theorists.” But this is only because the field has been defined exclusively by, of, and for whiteness and maleness. In fact, any of the figures I list above could be considered a music theorist in one sense or another. And even if they are primarily a composer, their music theories are still worth knowing. I remind the reader that Milton Babbitt was primarily a composer. Along the same lines, I predict another objection will be that my new music theory represents a “dumbing down” or, in academic parlance, a “lowering of standards” of music theory as we know it. In this context, “lowering of standards” is a euphemism for “becoming less white.” I urge the reader to call out such coded racist language when they hear it: enough is enough.

A more reasonable objection relates to the effort it will take to cull sources and write and distribute new materials. This will be hard work, but it will be worth the effort. In “The Rediscovery of Florence Price”—another notable African American composer—New Yorker music critic Alex Ross touches on the hard work necessary to deframe our white racial frame:

The adulation of the master, the genius, the divinely gifted creator all too easily lapses into a cult of the white-male hero, to whom such traits are almost unthinkingly attached…. To reduce music history to a pageant of masters is, at bottom, lazy. We stick with the known in order to avoid the hard work of exploring the unknown.

The time has come to explore the unknown in music theory.

I note that the figures above are still mostly from a western tradition, especially if jazz is taken to be western. It should go without saying that the rich music-theoretical traditions of nonwestern cultures—from Africa, Asia, or the Americas—can be part of “new music theory” as I am trying to frame it here. So Al-Farabi (c. 872–950), Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611), and Shohé Tanaka (1862–1945), from the Middle East, China, and Japan, respectively, could easily become part of a rigorous History of Theory track at the graduate level (with thanks to Alexander Rehding for these three names). As Alex Ross says, this is hard work, and I don’t have all the answers. But the reward should be apparent to anyone reading. These nonwestern musical traditions—in conjunction with longstanding western traditions—will make for inspiring new music theory explorations.

In “Using Photography to Tell Stories About Race,” antiracist art curator and historian Maurice Berger, who recently died at the age of 63 from complications due to Covid-19, wrote about his education at Hunter College and The CUNY Graduate Center, two institutions I know quite well:

My freshman advisor at Hunter College, certain that the study of race was inconsistent with my “cultivated mind,” as she put it, persuaded me to focus on art history. My studies in college, and later in graduate school, completed my transformation from Project Boy to Cultured White Man. I was conditioned by my art history professors to believe that only the work of white people mattered. I engaged a mainstream art world—museums, galleries, collectors, and publishers—that viewed artists of color as sentimental or irrelevant at best, but more often as inept and dull. I eventually accepted these racist myths, even as I continued to live in the projects. But I also experienced another awakening: I learned how to see.

I am deeply saddened that I was never able to meet my fellow New Yorker and race scholar Maurice Berger, an impassioned voice for racial justice in the esoteric world of art. His is a whiteness that is all too rare in music theory’s white frame. Notwithstanding the white scholars mentioned in this post who are doing compelling work in deconstructing our white structures, music theory’s white frame can also be said to view composers of color as “sentimental or irrelevant at best, but more often as inept and dull”; to try to argue otherwise would be disingenuous. Berger was able to break out of the art world’s white racial frame and, in so doing, he “learned how to see.” It is high time that we in music theory broke out of our white frame and learned how to hear as well.

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 “New Music Theory”

Thank you for a great post! Agreed that we must expand the viewpoints on post tonal music AND tonal music theory. Thoughts on disrupting the white music theorist aesthetics that we view non Western Classical music? For example, viewing and analyzing jazz through its compositions and composers takes focus away from the improvised soloists. I have often seen improvised solos described as compositions, but I think this is problematic. It still is describing jazz through the aesthetic values of the white music theorist, the importance of the composition, and imposing that importance to jazz. The improvised solo is the heart of the music, not the compositions arguably. So, the question is how to broaden our music theory offerings to describe music through the lens of the practicioners? For example, with jazz, we could focus on the music theory jazz soloists think about not the compositions or for Cuban music, the total Santeria practice instead of just transcribing the rhythm of the bata. So as we are all challenging the lens of white male viewpoints in music theory, maybe the way through is to describe music through the vocabulary, actions, and pedagogy of the practitioners, devoid of the lens of the observer. Thanks for all the great posts. Looking forward to reading more!


Thank you SO much for this series of articles and for your work in general. An incredibly important conversation that I feel grateful and galvanized to be a part of. Lots of unlearning and learning to dig into!


I first learned of you through your interview by Adam Neeley. This is great thought-provoking work, which resonates with much of the work I have done as a music theorist and critic outside the musical academic world. While writing my columns for India Currents magazine, I came to realize that the very way you are framing the questions automatically skews the evaluations against Non-European music. As Henry Hung points out on this page, in most forms of music, the composer is not the primary producer of music. In most cultures, music is made directly on the instrument, not written on paper by a separate person called the composer. In Hindustani classical music, the composer does not even exist, because no two musical performances are ever alike. In Jazz, if you ask the question “who are the great composers?”, you end up being only able to talk about Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington, and must ignore or downplay artists like Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong, whose main contributions were improvisations on other people’s compositions. The very question “Who are the great Composers in this tradition?” is itself still accepting the White Centered view that music is marks on paper, no sounds heard in the world.

More thoughts on this are available in my recent book “The Cowboy and the Yogi”

Liked by 1 person

The problem with the term “whiteness” is that it is used to refer to two seperate, though related things. It is used to refer to a quality which distinguishes “white” people from “nonwhite” people, i.e. skin color, or perceptions of belonging to a group labeled as “white people.” It is also used to refer to a part of human civilization that originated in Europe and migrated and colonized North America. Now it happens that Europoeans and their descendents in North America are white. Thus, we conflat whiteness, with the world civilization which has its roots in Europe.

“Classical” music also has its roots in Europe. So wouldn’t it be more accurate to call it “European” music? Sure, anyone across the globe can create classical music, but the origins of this style lie in Europe. To call such music “white” music seems innacurate to me. It has its roots in “white culture” only insofar as “white” culture is synonymous with European/North-American (ENA) culture . But as should be recognized, ENA culture is not the same as “white” culture. I am not really sure what would qualify as “white” culture, actually. But in any case, the “great” (white) composers of classical music were, by and large, in Europe (including Rusia) up until the 20th century, not in North America. Therefore we should recognize this music not as “white” music but as “European” music.

Indian music, African music, Chinese music, Latin music, Gypsy music, … white music??? No, European music.


Comments are closed.