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Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy
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Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. … Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Coming from a rock guitar background, Dave Molk embarked on jazz performance before switching to composition full-time. He writes mainly for pitched and non-pitched percussion, combining an energized rhythmic propulsion with expressive timbres. Dave is a close friend of producer Olde Dirty Beathoven. Dave is a board member of New Works Project. His research focuses on developing inclusive pedagogy and dismantling structural racism. He is an advocate for undocumented communities in and outside of higher education. Dave has a Ph.D in music composition from Princeton University and taught composition and... Read more »

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

  1. Dolores Catherino

    In these socially volatile times, it seems even more important to be aware of the words we use to describe a problem and its perceived causes. There are many ways of addressing the conservative traditions of Western music theory. The use of hyperbole and reductive generalization creates an adversarial environment, when the situation requires just the opposite—a mutually honoring, collaborative process.

    Respect and collaboration are obstructed by the use of hyperbolic terms like “white”, “privilege” and “supremacy”. Framing this problem with provocative language fosters misunderstanding and a zero-sum game situation (one group’s gain = another group’s loss), rather than an ever-evolving, synergistic one (sum greater than parts). As nations become increasingly ethnically diverse, it important to create new ways of collaboratively existing, and this is beyond the “us/them” frameworks of the past. I hope that music will lead the way toward this goal.

    I would like to understand how “whiteness” is being defined here—it is based on geographic locality, cultural heritage, personal identity, skin color appearance? As a Portuguese-American, would I be considered “white” or does it depend on my skin tone?

    The ideas presented here of transforming and evolving our understanding of music as a collaborative effort are inspiring! But framing the problem in a racially-charged way creates new problems and may offend those who feel attacked by these loosely defined and applied labels.

  2. John Robertson

    https://youtu.be/HebDy-sLdCs This might help broaden your outlook about proper training. None of this would be possible without the participants having received good tuition, neither the composer that the documentary is about, nor any of the performers. That level of professionalism cannot be attained if one only studies “the music they want to study” to the exclusion of all else. If your ideas for curriculum ever become established, I feel for your students when they go out into the big bad world of professional music and find, and it finds, that their training equips them for only a very narrow track.

  3. Johnny MacMillan

    Thank you for spending the time thinking about this issue. It is very important for all of us to keep doing so, since theory pedagogy isn’t everything it might be.

    Now, if you are studying at a music school, it is very important to have a solid foundation in music theory. Otherwise you will not understand the music you’re playing and cannot hope to become a good teacher. But even after taking four years of theory in some of the best universities and conservatories, most students have barely scratched the surface–just when it starts to get interesting! Spending even less time on theory would leave students unprepared for most of the relatively few careers available to them.

    I agree that most music schools present students with a lamentably narrow picture of what music is. (Though few, if any, professors imply that what they teach is sufficient to understand music from other traditions, or that music from other traditions is any less valid. It is hard to avoid the impression that the adversaries presented here are straw men.) In any case, it takes a long time to become competent in any musical tradition. Having students spend a couple semesters in jazz, Gagaku, or Hindustani music would be insulting to these traditions, which require decades to master. Western Art Music takes just as much time to master, and in my experience, most students cannot afford to spend less time on theory and aural skills than they already do. The fact that many do not listen to Western Art Music outside of class makes this even more essential. After all, they should be familiar with the tradition they choose to study. By the same token, jazz students should not need to become experts on Western Art Music. And the members of Balinese gamelan ensembles do not need to study other kinds of music in order to be good gamelan players–nor is it a symptom of racism if their ensemble plays music written exclusively by Balinese men and women, or is only comprised of Balinese men and women. Traditionally, it’s been Balinese people carrying on the tradition. So it is with Caucasian people for Western Art Music. There simply weren’t that many minorities in 19th-century Germany. (Though it should be remembered that Jewish composers such as Schoenberg, Mendelssohn, and Meyerbeer did have a profound influence.)

    Carrying on this tradition is not tantamount to perpetuating historical injustices. If it were, there would be very few artistic traditions left, and our lives would be notably impoverished. It is important to carry on this tradition competently and with appreciation for what we’ve inherited. I fear that following your suggestions would leave us neither.

  4. Richard Mix

    Othering can indeed be carried out on anyone, as in Kästner’s apolegetic ‘Far-western Europe’ to describe the Iberian organ tradition, which could only be peripheral to a Mitteleuropaeer, or Milan Kundera’s distress at being shoved into the ‘East European’ drawer.

    “What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific?” is an important question, one that I don’t think can be adequately answered by some ‘common-practice’ “dr[awing] primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music”. “Music theory” is indeed an immodest label for a discipline of relatively narrow scope (Ewell is absolutely right it’s a scandal that Chinese or Arabic can’t replace the German requirement), and we can be mindful of comparative or ethno- musicology’s colonial roots (I was once told that I’d have to learn Dutch before Javanese to specialize in gamelan).

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