Confronting Racism and Sexism

Music Theory’s Future

I can say two things about history with certainty: 1) history definitely repeats itself, and 2) history definitely does not repeat itself. History’s dual linearity and circularity are favorite topics in politics. For instance, Donald Trump is horrible in many ways like Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon before (circularity) but he is also uniquely horrible in ways that we’ve never seen (linearity). Music theory also unfolds in linear and circular time. Certain topics ebb and flow, like Riemann (early twentieth century) to Schenker (mid-late twentieth) to Riemann (late-twentieth to early twenty-first), while others appear at a unique moment in time, like video-game music, i.e., ludomusicology. However, with respect to racial and gender matters, music theory—and the white-male frame generally—only recognizes linear time: “that was then and this is now, we don’t have the same problem with racism and sexism that they did then, so stop talking about it.” Only linear progress we’re told, and no circular regress. The simple notion that Schenker’s racism can’t affect music theory today because we’ve made racial progress hinges entirely on linear, not circular, time. (The whole argument against reparations for slavery, by the way, also hinges entirely upon linear and not circular time.) This allows music theory to accomplish two goals: to give the impression that linear progress has been triumphant in the field—all are welcome to practice music theory now—and, at the same time, to allow the white-male frame to dictate what exactly defines the field through the avoidance of explicit discussions on race and gender.

In 2003 antisexist forces in Norway had had enough. Sexists were spinning their hackneyed idea of “how hard it is to find qualified women” for company boards of directors, so the antisexist government acted. They passed a law so that all publicly held companies have minimum 40% women on their boards. The law took effect in 2006 and gave companies until 2008 to make the change or risk liquidation. Guess what happened? They found the women. Imagine that. Other countries followed, like Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, and Spain, for instance. Sexist countries have criticized Norway’s actions and tried to spin it negatively, since Norway’s success would imply similar action should be taken elsewhere.

Such forced inclusion is needed in music theory to change power structures. The Society for Music Theory could set benchmarks like Norway did: “By 2025 we at SMT vow to make the society minimum 50% nonmales and minimum 40% POC. We will do this by aggressively recruiting nonmales and POC to run for office and serve on boards and committees, and not just diversity committees where nonmales and POC historically serve. We will set benchmarks with respect to the number of nonmales and POC who are involved in our governing structures.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, 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 this action is already part of the conversation. Only through forcing the issue will music theory diversify with respect to race and gender—it will not happen organically. Because of self-interest, white-male power will not cede power by itself. In this structural realignment, indigenous, black, and Latinx communities, roughly 30% of the U.S. population, could be specifically targeted since they are so utterly underrepresented. All aspects of music theory’s fallacious race/gender neutrality could be addressed: nominations, awards (!), publications, board representation, etc. As Ibram X. Kendi says in How To Be an Antiracist, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination” (19). Only through such antiracist/antisexist discriminations might we have a truly equitable field, a field that we should all want and that we all deserve.

Upon realizing how difficult it is to be a POC in music theory’s white racial frame, many POC, especially blacks, leave the field for musicology or ethnomusicology—which are slightly better at dealing with racial matters—or altogether. Worse still, the white-male frame often says that such departed colleagues “couldn’t hack it” in the field, or that they “weren’t cut out for music theory”—I’ve heard such statements more than once. Elijah Anderson speaks of exiting the white frame in “The White Space”:

In exiting the white space, however, a black person can feel both relief and regret—relief for getting out of a stressful environment and regret for perhaps leaving prematurely. For the white space is where many social rewards originate, including an elegant night on the town, or cultural capital itself—education, employment, privilege, prestige, money, and the promise of acceptance. To obtain these rewards, blacks must venture into the white space and explore its possibilities, engaging it to the extent that they can while hoping to benefit as much as possible. But the promise of acceptance is too often only that, a promise. All too frequently, prejudiced actors pervade the white space and are singly or collectively able and interested in marginalizing the black person, actively reminding him of his outsider status to put him in his place. (16)

I myself have often thought of exiting music theory’s white space, because to be a POC in music theory is exhausting. I know the exhaustion I feel is shared by others marginalized by our white-male structures.

A note to music theory students of all levels. You have power, more than you know. If you’ve read my blog posts and agree with their content, I encourage you to organize and press faculty and administrators to address the issues I’ve written about (I’m happy to help if I can—just let me know). For instance, you might say, “Phil Ewell argues that the complete absence of Asian composers in the typical undergraduate music theory textbook represents an unjust erasure of Asian composers and Asian voices in music theory. Do you agree? If so, what are you doing to rectify this? If not, what counterargument could you offer to refute his claim?” Or, “Phil Ewell argues that we must confront antisemitism in music theory. Do you agree? If so, why did we study this Tchaikovsky example without so much as a word about his antisemitism? If not, what counterargument can you offer?” Or for prospective grad students interviewing for PhD programs: “I see that you still require German-language proficiency for your degree. Phil Ewell argues that this is a racist policy based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC. Do you agree? If so, why do you still require German? If not, what is your counterargument?” Or maybe you’ll be asked to serve a music theory society in some respect: “Phil Ewell argues that the field of music theory and SMT’s Committee on the Status of Women have practiced gender racism with respect to nonmales of color. Do you agree? If so, what are you doing to address this issue? If not, what is your counterargument?” These are reasonable questions, and no one should take offense if asked them. If someone does, there’s probably something rotten in the state of Denmark. For the record, I have yet to hear any serious counterarguments to my critical-race and feminist music theory scholarship.

My African American father would often say that those who stand to gain the most from racial equity and justice are white persons, in “the truth shall set you free” fashion. White persons, especially white males, bear an enormous unnecessary burden in sustaining the many myths of whiteness and maleness in music theory. After my presentation of “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” in November 2019 I was struck by how many people, hundreds from all over the world, reached out to thank me for my talk. At first I was struck by comments from nonmales and POC, but after reflection I was perhaps more struck by comments from white males, usually younger, who were thankful that I had begun this discussion. The divide is largely generational. Young scholars, irrespective of racial/gender identity, generally support my critical-race and feminist work. Indeed, I have never been more convinced that these young scholars are eager to undertake this type of work and turn the page on music theory’s irrepressible promotion of whiteness and maleness. However, senior scholars, also irrespective of racial/gender identity surprisingly, are often skeptical of penetrating discussions of race and gender in music theory. They are more skeptical because they have power, and power wants to keep power out of self-interest, as Kendi often notes in How To Be an Antiracist. Powerful self-interest freezes music theory into inaction, and promotes confusion and obfuscation. Current discussions of race and gender are shrouded in multiple layers of nuance and complexity, expressed in euphemisms and coded language, and are generally overcontextualized. In “Fuck Nuance,” sociologist Kieran Healy speaks of the obfuscation that nuance sometimes entails, an obfuscation that is crucial to music theory’s white-male frame: “By calling for a theory to be more comprehensive, or for an explanation to include additional dimensions, or for a concept to become more flexible and multifaceted, we paradoxically end up with less clarity. We lose information by adding detail.” I believe that when I state simply, as I did in my first post, that music theory is built on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC, and on the sexist idea that males are superior to nonmales, there are those who will clamor for more nuance, more context. In so doing, they seek to confuse the issue and lessen the impact of my simple point, which really should not be in doubt if thinking of, say, required History of Music Theory seminars in graduate school that literally feature 100% white-male music theorists spanning some 2400 years of time. This point needs no nuance, though the point desperately needs to be made. In music theory’s white-male frame, and America’s white-male frame for that matter, direct racial and gender language is frowned upon, and underlying matters about racism and sexism go misunderstood as a result. Upton Sinclair saw this long ago when he famously wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In “The Heartbeat of Racism Is Denial,” Kendi writes, “Only racists say they are not racist. Only the racist lives by the heartbeat of denial. The antiracist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America—the heartbeat of confession.” Anyone who knows me well knows that, to an extent, I confess to being racist. To an extent, I confess to being sexist. To an extent, homophobic, antisemitic, islamophobic, transphobic, ableist, among others. Regrettably, I am all of these, for I am human. But by reading, listening to, and hearing those who know more about these issues than I do, I vow to work at becoming the least racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, islamophobic, transphobic, and ableist person I can be. I consider this to be a worthy goal. Is this not also a worthy goal for music theory?

(With thanks to Poundie Burstein, Rob Cowan, Jessie Daniels, Michèle Duguay, Suzanne Farrin, Joe Feagin, Daniel Fox, Marc Hannaford, Eileen Hayes, Ellie Hisama, Jason Hooper, Billy Hunter, Ashley Jackson, Mariusz Kozak, Rachel Lumsden, Megan Lyons, Wolfgang Marx, Susan McClary, Matthew Morrison, Cora Palfy, Alex Rehding, Steven Rajam, Miguel Roig-Francoli, Garrett Schumann, Linda Shaver-Gleason [RIP], August Sheehy, and Joe Straus, all of whom helped in one way or another with these six “Confronting Racism and Sexism” blog posts.)

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.

7 replies on “Music Theory’s Future”

Thanks for your very effective advocacy in creating conversation around these issues. I am confident that change will happen, and also that it will happen too slowly! But let’s all at least commit to pushing in the right direction.


Thanks for these posts–you have created my reading/listening list for the summer and I am grateful for your work. I am wondering if you know of a book called “Sonic Design”–it is a bit dated now, but for me it constitutes a masterful attempt by Cogan and Escot to create a music theory textbook that transcends cultural boundaries. Most importantly, it does not dull the senses with rules about 4-part writing 😉


I do remember seeing, and flipping through, Sonic Design some years ago. I’ll have to grab it from our library again and take a look, once libraries are back in business…thanks!


Dear Mr. Ewell, another blog towards your comments about the quality of Beethoven as a composer and white representation in European based classical music brought me here. As a professional musician for more than 30 years in one of the representative German orchestras, I am very excited to learn from you a completely different point of view from the US about the current situation of classical music which I don‘t agree from my perspective being educated and active here in Germany/Europe. Looking forward to the upcoming conversation. I like to start first with your comment about the requested languages but I have read this obviously in another article you have put on this blog. Why German and Italian as part of the required languages in music theory and music business? In my point of view it‘s not supremacy but a result of the dominating part of the repertoire which is performed till today. Music from the german-speaking areas for the symphonic repertoire and the so-called „Liedgesang“ requires German knowledges. Italian for the operas and especially the vocal parts in baroque music wherever it was composed in Europe was and is still the must learn for everybody in the world with the wish to become an active professional in singing or a scholar in music theory. I am surprised to learn that Schenker is still such an important figure in your field in the US. It‘s absolutely not here in Germany or Austria. Despite the US is a huge country, it seems there is still lack of diversity. Classical music in the US and in many non european countries seems to be more a part of the upper class life style than an integral part of the cultural life of the local population. Here in Germany it‘s completely different as we have around 130 full-time, full paid orchestra and around 80 belong to theatre companies with around 200 performances per season. One example of diversity is the fact, that orchestra members come at least from 12 to 25 different countries even in the top orchestras which means these members where born abroad, studied finally at German music universities after starting their education at home and got a job in an orchestra as the orchestras here are choosing their members during the audition process and not a committee. I apologize for my very long first comment but before discussion fundamental supremacy in European classical music and the privilege of being white and male -I am both- is a really sensitive topic. I appreciate your goal and I hope I can contribute to this goal for a diversity all humans and especially the music we all together love deserve. Thank you very much.


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