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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.)

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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 males. 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 males (while nearly all composers represented are white males 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 males. 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 males 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 males, 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, Rob Deemer’s 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 males? 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.

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Confronting Racism and Sexism

Beethoven Was an Above Average Composer—Let’s Leave It at That

“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a masterwork, born of the genius of a titanic composer.” We in classical music, and especially in music theory, have become so inured to descriptions like these that we no longer question what’s really being said. But behind such language lie two aspects of Beethoven that remain underexplored: race and gender. Not so much Beethoven’s race and gender, but the race of music theory’s white racial frame, which works in concert with patriarchal structures to advantage whiteness and maleness while disadvantaging POC and nonmales. In “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women,” Amanda Hess discusses the harm done in excusing the misconduct of artistic “geniuses,” who are usually men harming women. She argues forcefully for not separating the art from the artist, and urges the examination of how someone’s abuse of power outside of their creative output can affect that creative output. The racist misconduct of these geniuses is also generally excused, under the same notion that geniuses deserve some kind of dispensation for their conduct because of their genius. And with remarkable consistency, these geniuses have been white males in American society. This harm was on vivid display in the “Levinite” defense of James Levine after allegations of years of his misconduct came to light in 2017. In “When #TimesUp for Musical Gods: The James Levine Scandal,” Linda Shaver-Gleason debunks the myth of genius with respect to Levine and reminds us of the general dangers of “genius.”

“Master,” and its derivatives (masterwork, masterpiece, masterful), carries both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations. In music theory “masterwork” is generally applied to compositions by white males. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer is to state that you know all music written on planet earth 200 years ago when Beethoven was active as a composer, which no one does. Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years, and we have been told by whiteness and maleness that his greatness has nothing to do with whiteness and maleness, in race-neutral and gender-neutral fashion. Thus music theory’s white-male frame obfuscates race and gender, one of its main goals.

The white racial frame has created many euphemisms for “white” and “whiteness.” This tracks the general avoidance of racial terminology that race scholars often cite. In addition to “master” and its derivatives, here are some other common euphemisms for white and whiteness in music theory’s white racial frame: authentic, canonic, civilized, classic(s), conventional, core (“core” requirement), European, function (“functional” tonality), fundamental, genius, German (“German” language requirement), great (“great” works), maestro, opus (magnum “opus”), piano (“piano” proficiency, skills), seminal, sophisticated, titan(ic), towering, traditional, and western. Even terms such as “the long nineteenth century” and “fin de siècle” can be considered euphemisms for whiteness and white framing for their close associations with dates and events (and languages) significant to Europe and Europeanism. Such euphemisms are intended to sublimate whiteness into less objectionable forms, thus mitigating the effect of whiteness on music theory and hiding its existence. In fact, the mapping of time itself is white racially framed in the Gregorian calendar, civil calendar to the world. Since they could observe, humans have mapped the linear and cyclic nature of time, in the stars, sun, moon, waters, and migrations of animals and insects. Steph Yin explains this mapping in “What Lunar New Year Reveals about the World’s Calendars.” The fact that the world has settled on the Gregorian, after Pope Gregory XIII, represents white racial framing writ large. Sure, it’s useful to have everyone on the same calendar, but no one can deny the racial element behind how the world now understands the linear and cyclic nature of time.

More than any other country the U.S. is responsible for the emergence of music theory as a field separate from its close relative, historical musicology (more common, in most of Europe for instance, music analysis and theory is a subset of musicology). Part of this separation was due to differences between historical and analytical perspectives, while another part was due to funding that was available to scientific explorations in the U.S. at the time. Still another part of the drive to scientificize music analysis in the U.S. in the twentieth century represents an effort to shore up whiteness in music theory’s white frame since this scientifization insulates whiteness from potential criticism. Music theory highlights the “transcendent immutability” of its theories. If these theories are timeless, otherworldly, it is easier to suggest that they have nothing to do with race and gender. Thus in the mid-twentieth century musicologists who were interested in analysis in the U.S. began to attach the word “theory” to their discipline: American music theory was born.

Sara Ahmed, in Living a Feminist Life, questions the use of the word “theory” generally, citing her own beginning as a grad student in “critical theory.” She rightly notes how, in calling something a theory that can reasonably be argued is not, authors wish to insulate themselves from potential criticism and narrow the understanding of a subject to the dictates of a select few. In music theory’s case, and in many others in the U.S., this select few has consisted only of white males. Ahmed says:

Some work becomes theory because it refers to other work that is known as theory. A citational chain is created around theory: you become a theorist by citing other theorists that cite other theorists. Some of this work did interest me; but I kept finding that I wanted to challenge the selection of materials as well as how they were read. (8)

This “citational chain,” theorists citing other theorists, is essential to white-male-framed music theoretical research. Breaking this chain—moving beyond the barriers of what our white-male frame has defined to be music theory—is difficult, and generally discouraged. My engagement with race and feminist scholarship is a perfect example of breaking the citational chain of music theory. I apply the work of race and feminist scholars in order to better understand race and gender in music theory. Many senior scholars in music theory have been skeptical of my work and, in certain cases, even hostile, calling it a “manifesto.” This hostility is rooted in the white-male frame’s persistent belief in race and gender neutrality; once such neutrality is proven to be fallacious the white-male frame will lose power and prestige, which it wants to hold onto.

Like Ahmed, I wish to “challenge the selection of materials” in music theory’s white-male frame—I will offer some alternatives in “New Music Theory,” my next blog post. I also wish to break the citational chain in which whiteness begets whiteness and maleness begets maleness. And with respect to Beethoven, the problem is not with him or his Ninth Symphony. As a cellist I quite enjoy playing his music: symphonies, sonatas, quartets, trios. That will never change. What is problematic is what has happened with Beethoven and his music since his death in 1827. He (along with countless other white males) has been propped up by the white-male frame, both consciously and subconsciously, with descriptors such as genius, master, and masterwork. And, like Ahmed says, there is a citational chain in so citing this “master” that we end up where we are, such that there are those who would actually take issue with me saying the Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork that Spalding’s 12 Little Spells simply because we are told by whiteness and maleness that this couldn’t be the case. Beethoven was undoubtedly an above-average composer and he deserves our attention. But to say he was anything more is to dismiss 99.9% of the world’s music written 200+ years ago, which would be unscholarly, and academically irresponsible.

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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 U.K. 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 dual myths of race and gender neutrality have 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-male frame solace over the years in thinking that it is being “not racist” and “not sexist.” 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 nonmales) 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 female, b. 1953) and Toru Takemitsu (Japanese male, 1930–1996), whose examples, one each, appear in the textbook by Clendinning/Marvin. Thus our music theory examples are literally, from a critical-race 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.)

Categories
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 males, a large group including but not limited to cisgender and transgender females, transgender males, 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 male.) 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).

Categories
Confronting Racism and Sexism

The Myth of Race and Gender Neutrality in Music Theory

My turn toward race scholarship was born of two chance events. In 2014–2016, as an untenured assistant professor, I went through a harrowing and bruising battle for reappointment and then tenure and promotion at Hunter College, CUNY, in New York City. For almost two years, as time wore on, and as I wrote one legal memorandum after another in defense of myself, it became abundantly clear to everyone involved that the efforts of those who sought my dismissal were not based on what I was doing as a professor—my record of research, teaching, and service was significantly above average on all counts—but, rather, on the dark color of my skin. Ultimately, with the unwavering support of family (thanks Kazimir and Marina), friends and colleagues in the field (thanks Andrew, Joe, and Poundie), CUNY’s strong union (thanks Renee), and Hunter’s outstanding administration (thanks Andy, Jennifer, and Vita), I survived.

But then, Donald Trump was elected to the U.S. presidency on the heels of America’s first black president. These two chance events—my tenure battle and Trump’s election, in which white persons, especially white males, felt aggrieved by black advancement—are summed up by Carol Anderson with two words: white rage. In her book by the same title she says:

The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. It’s the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition. It’s a mantra told so often that some African Americans themselves have come to believe it. Few even think anymore to question the stories, the “studies” of black fathers abandoning their children, of rampant drug use in black neighborhoods, of African American children hating education because school is “acting white”—all of which have been disproved but remain foundational in American lore. (3)

Black advancement triggers white rage, and this rage knows no political party, nor does it limit itself to certain geographic regions. White persons in music theory are virtually all left-of-center in terms of politics, and it is easy for such persons to think that white rage is limited to those who are right-of-center. This is a grave mistake, as Robin DiAngelo often states in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk about Racism. When liberal whites believe that problems of racism are limited to those who are right-of-center, it makes it virtually impossible to achieve any positive change in music theory with respect to racial justice. Any person, white or nonwhite, can fall victim to the fallacies that Carol Anderson describes above. However, white persons are far more susceptible to fall victim to these anti-black fallacies and the white rage that so often accompanies them, and this is true for all white persons regardless of their politics.

Ultimately, once I realized how whiteness works hand in glove with maleness in order to suppress both nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, I began to read feminist scholarship and authors such as Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Kate Manne, among others. After all, white supremacy is the child of patriarchy, not its parent. In this and five forthcoming blog posts I draw on themes from recent work in hopes of achieving a more equitable music theory.

One of the key things I’ve come to realize is how important maintaining the myth of race and gender neutrality is to music theory. In fact, once this neutrality is exposed as fallacious, the white-racial and male-gender frames—which I sometimes conflate to the “white-male” frame in this and future blog posts—of music theory will be in serious jeopardy, so it makes perfect sense that music theory’s white-male frame works relentlessly to keep in place the idea that what we do “has nothing to do with race or gender.”

In How To Be an Antiracist race scholar Ibram X. Kendi offers four key terms for my argument: “a racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” (19), while “an antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group” (20). Further, “a racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups” (18), while “an antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” I will use these four terms—racist idea, antiracist idea, racist policy, and antiracist policy—in speaking about music theory. Finally, and most important, Kendi says, “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; my italics).

To a large extent one could substitute “racism” with “sexism” above, with the significant caveat that females can also be white, an intersection I will discuss in my next blog post, “Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory.” Thus, sexist/antisexist ideas/policies are also in play in music theory. In the same way that “racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities” (Kendi, 17), sexism is a marriage of sexist policies and sexist ideas that produces and normalizes gender inequities. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists is, to an extent, a monograph in service of debunking the myth of race neutrality, hence his term “colorblind racism.” Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life is, to an extent, a monograph in service of debunking the myth of gender neutrality, hence her term “feminist killjoy,” which she coined years before Feminist Life. This latter concept, one who insists on pointing out sexist structures and gender inequities in the face of fallacious gender neutrality, has had a profound influence on me. I wish to be considered both a feminist and antiracist killjoy in music theory by consistently pointing out race and gender inequities, among other inequities, in the field.

Generally, Kendi argues that “racist” is not a slur but a usefully descriptive term, and that the claim of “not racist” neutrality is often a mask for racism. He seeks to return “racist” to its proper use:

“Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. (8–9)

In music theory we are “frozen into inaction” when it comes to race and whiteness and, consequently, we are unable to have the frank conversations we need. We have not yet begun the conversation on how we can begin to deframe what sociologist Joe Feagin calls America’s white racial frame, because we in music theory have yet to comprehend its very existence. Race scholar bell hooks goes one step further than Feagin in calling the white frame a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, in order to show the “interlocking systems of domination that define our reality.” As with racism, music theory has trouble understanding structural sexism in the field. Though the field understands that there are too few people of color (POC) and women, it has not come to terms with how whiteness and maleness work in tandem to suppress nonwhiteness and nonmaleness.

American music theory is based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC, a sentiment stated explicitly by significant music theorists like François-Joseph Fétis and Heinrich Schenker in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the mid twentieth century, when explicit Jim Crow racism became untenable in the U.S., this music-theoretical racist idea was driven underground, yet it remained in full force in various ways, and remains so right up until today. This has created a slew of racist policies that advantage whiteness and disadvantage nonwhiteness in music theory. American music theory is also based on the sexist idea that males are superior to nonmales, which has created sexist policies. Music theory’s default stance is rooted in white-male assimilationism, another racist and sexist idea. As a result, that which is taught in the music theory classroom is remarkably white, and remarkably male. Kendi says “Assimilationist ideas are racist ideas. Assimilationists can position any racial group as the superior standard that another racial group should be measuring themselves against, the benchmark they should be trying to reach. Assimilationists typically position White people as the superior standard” (29). Assimilationist ideas are also sexist ideas if assimilationists position males as a superior gender, which has been the case in music theory. For these reasons over 90% of music theory’s fulltime employees are white, over 98% of the musical examples in our textbooks were written by whites, and 100% of the music theorists discussed in typical classrooms for core classes are white. The myth of race neutrality—the idea the race plays no significant role in the field—is a cornerstone of music theory’s white racial frame. And even though there are roughly 33% women in the Society for Music Theory, the myth of gender neutrality remains a cornerstone in the field as well, especially with respect to the music-theoretical topics deemed worthy of consideration. Despite the fact that music-theoretical research has, to some extent, branched out to include POC/nonmale figures, that which is taught in music theory classrooms remains resiliently white and male. By highlighting racist and sexist policies in music theory, and the dual myths of race and gender neutrality, I seek to begin the work of dismantling racism and sexism in music theory.