A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.
Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

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.

15 thoughts on “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

  1. Dolores Catherino

    Thanks for this very interesting perspective! These are very deep waters of understanding musical literacy within oral-aural traditions and written, codified languages. Western music education, especially at the undergraduate level, tends to focus on the latter. On a fundamental level, this is appropriate since notation is the only enduring form of ‘encoding’ music for the future. Technological formats become quickly obsolete (records, tapes, cd’s) and oral-aural traditions tend to stack modification upon modification, over time, in the translation process.

    Far from being a limitation, the basic theoretical fundamentals and language of whichever musical tradition one is immersed in, provide a foundation for further exploration and development beyond them. The limitation only exists in the curiosity, imagination, creativity and receptivity of the artist.

    Theory is a musical toolkit. It is measured by its effectiveness in teaching, learning and expanding the possibilities of a musical language. Evolving musical experience through diverse listening is just as essential in the musician’s practice; as is the development of understanding and expertise of musical technologies. The pedagogic challenge is attempting to provide an effective and efficient theoretical framework, in a brief academic experience, which can integrate diverse musical structures within it. And upon this imperfect foundation, more complex and comprehensive music theory systems may continue to be discovered and developed.

  2. John Z

    This is an incredibly flawed article, and it would take too much of my effort to refute, line by line, all the fallacies unabashedly stated here. Let’s focus on the big picture. Forget the technical aspects of Western music and its teaching. Do you deny the beauty of the works of Western music? What other musical tradition produced the Passions of J.S. Bach and his Musical Offering, the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven and his 9 symphonies, the 10 symphonies of Mahler, the Rite of Spring of Stravinsky? If this music doesn’t move you, if, you, being a professional musician, can say that you are willing to dismiss all these towering works of art that have literally changed the lives of generation after generation because of the gonads and melanin content in the skin of their authors, you should quit and be kept away from writing articles. The fact that you are denouncing racism, sexism and a myriad of other human aberrations in a musical tradition sounds as you believe in some sort of conspiracy theory by which all these works and their dissemination were nothing but a few more pieces in the power game: ways of oppressing the vulnerable. The domination of white males over women and peoples of color. You should rather start believing also in that there were indeed atom bomb codes in Webern’s serial works.

  3. Jon Russell

    Bravo, Dave, a well articulated analysis of a deep and systemic problem in music theory pedagogy. It’s hard to overestimate how complex a problem it is to solve too. It has to be done systemically; a single, well-intentioned teacher can only do a very small amount if the department isn’t willing to completely overhaul the entire curriculum. Simple inertia is a huge part of it. We have hundreds of years of pedagogical tradition and techniques and countless textbooks to fall back on for teaching so-called “common practice” music theory. We also have clear, largely unambiguous standards of what is “correct” and “incorrect” (parallel 5ths, going from V to IV, etc.) — standards that no longer apply when we broaden the canon (pop music of course is full of parallel 5ths and V-IV progressions). Sticking to the traditional curriculum, but using a Beyonce song as an example of a I-IV-V-I progression doesn’t come close to cutting it, as it is cherry-picking to illustrate “rules” that don’t actually apply to that music. At this point, the teacher who wants to take a different approach must largely invent their own pedagogy from scratch. If you’re an adjunct being paid $2,000 to teach one theory class, will you really have the time, bandwidth, etc. to do that? And if the next level after yours presumes that your students will know how to “correctly” write four-part harmony and follow “proper” chord progressions, aren’t you obligated to ensure that your students do indeed learn that? No, what is required is a radical and complete overhaul and re-thinking of the entire curriculum. I’m guessing this is what you will address in your next article, and I am very eager to see what you say, as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot myself. It’s a daunting task — once we unshackle ourselves from centering the curriculum on Western classical music, given that it is impossible to include ALL music, how do we decide what we do include? How do we deduce teachable general principles from the vast ocean of musical practices that exist? How do we manage to both impart real, rigorous content and knowledge to our students without dumbing down or discounting the specificity of individual styles and traditions? How do we, as teachers, achieve sufficient expertise in a range of musical traditions to feel competent teaching about them? My own thoughts have been to try a sort of “case study” approach, where for each musical parameter we could focus on a few specific styles/traditions (or even specific pieces of music?) that approach it in different ways. So, for example, one could compare how triadic harmony functions in a piece by Mozart, traditional Georgian vocal polyphony, and a contemporary pop song. Or you could compare the idea of “rhythmic groove” in West African percussion music, The Rite of Spring, and a 70’s funk song. Etc. Obviously, this would not be comprehensive, since comprehensiveness is literally impossible when you’re faced with all of music; but at least it would provide the students both with some sense of the range of possibilities and with some concrete understanding of specific techniques. I haven’t had an opportunity to try out this approach since, again, it would require a music department willing to re-think its curriculum far more radically than any department I have yet encountered. I’m very interested to hear any other thoughts on this incredibly important and complex issue!

  4. John Steinmetz

    Responding to John Z: I don’t see anything in this article that disrespects the amazing musical achievements of the West. Many of us want to find ways to respect not only those achievements, but also amazing musical achievements from other traditions. There isn’t any single right way to do this.

  5. John W.

    I think the academy has to stop kidding itself and admit that a music program cannot even try to teach an all-inclusive theory-of-everything approach to music that embraces all styles and all cultures from all of history. Attempts to do so can only result in a watered-down curriculum that teaches nothing in any depth. Plus, what can a western classically-trained musicologist or music theorist competently say about Beyoncé, much less Indian ragas or Japanese Gagaku, without having spent many years learning it? To try to do so would, paradoxically, be the very definition of cultural appropriation. While this article’s subject is well-meaning, it also will seem to many of us as a straw man. In twenty years of music education, I was never taught that music equals harmony plus rhythm plus melody, not that western art music is the “pinnacle” of music history. This is the theory and history we learned, because we were a music school that trained mostly classical musicians, and our professors taught us to it that way. Finally, how can western music theory be racist if jazz is a much more complex version of classical harmony?

  6. Andrew Keegan

    Another response to John Z: Your comment displays what is referred to in the Academy as “white fragility” which is so often encountered when white supremacy/domination/colonialization/call-it-what-you-will, is pointed out to those who are willingly or unwittingly blind to their inherent privilege that is solely due to their skin colour, or their gender, or their orientation. A more mature response is to step back and consider what one enjoys inherently by being white or male or straight and then realise that one is in a privileged position due to no inherent positive quality of one’s own and, as a result, that should lead one to work tirelessly for equality and reconciliation.

  7. John Steinmetz

    Reply to John W: I like the questions you raise. I agree that it’s impossible to teach every kind of music that exists. The suggestion isn’t to teach everything about everything, but to consider how students might benefit from learning more than common-practice theory. II agree that students need to go deeply into something, and they should also be able to go broadly. (This is not easy to organize, but neither is an orchestra.)

    Schools could think of their students as emissaries to the future. What musical future do schools want to foster? What assumptions and skills do they want to send there?

    Yes, It’s true that schools inherited their focus on classical music, and most teachers trained that way. Yes, it’s hard to do things differently. Luckily, musicians have a lot of experience doing hard things that are worth the trouble.

  8. Jamie Wind Whitmarsh

    I just want to say a few things:
    1. There are a lot of Johns in this thread, I can’t keep track of which John thinks what
    2. I am adding yet another male voice to this thread, probably yet another white voice as well.
    3. I agree that adjuncts are probably not the people capable of making institutional changes.
    4. If we are going to work toward inclusion of traditions outside of Western art music, we need to identify why we are including them, how, and what specifically to include. A music theory curriculum is not capable of teaching about all of the music in the world at a high level equally (I believe one of the Johns mentioned this). Furthermore, we have to identify the point of Music Theory as a core course. I can see two points – identifying/categorizing musical content and thinking critically about how it develops.
    5. As a composer, I have a problem with the way we teach music horizontally anyway (how/why musical content develops within a piece, and then how those trends develop over time). Vertically, C major triad is a C major triad, regardless of function. We might spend a bit too much time on how certain chords interact with each other.
    6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the big problem with representation in Western art music is not that there were not people of color or women composing – it’s that they’re not visible in the traditional curriculum. Perhaps there has been research done on composers that were contemporaries of our DWG composers that could provide a link between underrepresented communities and traditional theoretical structures, as a first step?
    7. If we were to use more musical examples from living composers when educating music majors, we might be able to solve a lot of these problems simultaneously…

  9. Lily

    An insightful and important article which I am saving and sharing with my fellow music educators. Just one thing: while I know you began your argument with rap music vs Western art music, I am a little concerned you didn’t give more examples towards the end of your article. (You started your article with rap and ended it with Beyoncé…. ) If I don’t read your second part of the series, I would assume that you’re treating racism as a black-white binary, which is yet another problematic way to discuss racism.

  10. John W.

    Your point about the benefits of curriculum expansion is one I agree with wholeheartedly. Having participated in curriculum planning firsthand, though, I am convinced that any increase in breadth requires a sacrifice in depth. Let’s say you want to give music students a deeper appreciation of Raga music. This would require hiring someone new who can teach it. And dwindling resources being what they are, this means one fewer person to teach Western music theory. The natural next question is, is the potential benefit for students worth the cost? And a school’s answer to that question will be determined by what they feel the goal of that program is. This is where I don’t buy the article’s conclusions. Music schools in the USA are predominantly a place where professional musicians are trained to understand better the music they play and teach. There are programs with more of an emphasis on jazz, and others with more of an emphasis on pop music production. These already have a broader theory curriculum, as they should! But if your student body consists of mainly aspiring classical musicians? Teaching them classical theory isn’t an exercise in white supremacy; it just makes professional sense. If you’re an orchestral violinist or an operatic soprano, learning how modulations work isn’t a matter of bowing to the dead white male gods, it’s learning a core professional competency that will (hopefully) help you to better play/sing in tune and will certainly deepen your interpretations.
    And the thing is, you can inculcate in students an appreciation for music that does not abide by the rules of western harmony while still admitting that this particular classroom is not the ideal place to learn them. I remember in my own education twenty years ago hearing exactly this sentiment from my theory professors. I believe that the “de-centering” that the article is calling for can be as easy as this. But if we want curricula to be even more inclusive, a good first step would be to better utilize the research specialties that your faculty already has. My favorite undergrad music history teacher had a specialty in Western swing, but was never invited to teach a course on it. I did, however, take an intro to ethnomusicology with her and it was an eye-opening experience. While that was an elective, programs could conceivably expand their core curriculum to include a required semester in world musics. This is not the “complete overhaul” of the theory curriculum that seems to be what this article is calling for, but it’s probably the best that most programs could manage while still maintaining quality in their education of core competencies.

  11. Phil Fried

    “Western art music is not a universal language.”

    Yes this is true. On the other hand I don’t know, or have met, anyone in the arts world who would disagree. That would lead me to think this is just another “straw man” argument (so popular on NMB). So a TV pundit stands for “classical music”?? Really?
    That is a sad day for all of us.

    No Sonic prejudice.

  12. Benjamin Havey

    I appreciate the intentions of this essay, but I believe that this essay misses the mark on both defining the problem and providing solutions. People that study music in school are generally taking the course to learn particular styles of music rather than learning an over-arching Theory of Everything for music. I do not believe that a polystylistic approach would necessarily succeed as it would lead to a lack of depth in understanding in any one style. Breadth is important, but I believe deeply understanding a particular musical language will enable understanding of other musical languages.

    Western art music should not make claims to be the only style of music, but I also see no problem with teaching a “Materials of Western Music” class. Many people take music theory classes because they are interested in WAM. We do need to provide music theory examples by women and PoC (as I do both when I program works and teach them), but I see no problem teaching a class that focuses on diatonic harmony using equal temperament. Jazz theory and popular music theory deserve their own classes (I would certainly have loved to take either) as do various practices of Indian classical music. If a university can’t offer all the options they need then diluting a harmony class won’t solve this problem.

    My solution would be offering more degrees in production and songwriting, and have WAM/production/jazz all have separate theory tracks tailored to the needs of these particular practices. I agree that we should avoid a grand narrative that WAM is the totality of music and I loved reading the article!

  13. Andy Buelow

    Thank you for this thought-provoking column. I manage a symphony orchestra and we are just beginning to grapple with issues of equity and inclusion within our own organization and community. The more I ponder this the more I realize how deeply institutionalized racism is embedded within the classical music industry, from academia to performance. What you are saying makes me uncomfortable, as it should.

  14. Chris Sahar

    Probably the best way to address the deficit that is likely to occur from a diet of the traditional progression of music theory courses and the heavy concentration on Western art Music (basically the period of 1700 – 1945) is to create a sort of Music Peace and America Corps where music students are offered 6 – 12 months working in some milieu that does not rely heavily on the Western Art Music tradition. Plus it will open their eyes to the main deficit of university and conservatory undergrad music training – a good deal will work in K – 12 schools and will NOT be teaching or doing much of the literature the belabored over. It isn’t tht the training is a waste but rather the idea is to focus on demanding works and works that are still being explored to this day so that doing the rep and skills needed to teach music from K- 12 will be easy. Those Bach chorale harmonizations done in undergrad become much appreciated when you have to rearrange a pop song for 4th grade choir that have had less than 6 months singing experience or a growing school string orchestra that has to accommodate newcomers and those who have been it for several grades. Furthermore, knowing the history of electronic music as is becoming more commonly added to the curriculum at the undergrad level helps better understand fundamental concepts needed to do some audio engineering and audio editing.

    The only thing I didn’t like about the article is that it implies (more by it tone than directly) was that music theory and history as taught was willfully done to paint a skewed and racist portraiture of world music. This argument could be transferred to practitioners of Chinese art and folk music or jazz and blues – we could say they have their own ethnic imperialism and one that has been absorbed by others outside these practitioners and their listeners. For example, I still cringe when a member of a church I played at said of a white choir singing some gospel hymns that we really needed a black gospel choir to do it properly. The pedagogical approach we use to teach theory and history will NOT be universal and will have its problems whenever it omits vast areas of world musics. But for the sake of focus and depth it is necessary. And often music students are already overwhelmed at their post-secondary schools by liberal arts requirements and mandatory classes for all music majors – to add anything more may simply dilute the quality of the education and create a generation of dilettantes.

    So, the idea of a 6 – 9 month immersion in another musical culture/milieu where the Western Art Music traditional is secondary or tertiary to the main musical diet, would do wonders. If did so for me when I was in Belize and got a little taste of Western African influenced drumming when I heard it at the Dangriga Festival in Belize when I was in Peace Corps, and years later while earning my Masters at Queens College/City University of New York taking the chance to write for gamelan and immersing myself in its sounds and learning the basics from Professor Michael Lipsey who is head of the gamelan groups there. I wish there whad been something to extend my immersion in the gamelan, free from traditional art music requirements for a few more months.

  15. Simon Williams

    The author’s intentions are laudibe, and indeed the thrust is not wrong. We do need to decolonialize the curriculum. However, he mounts this argument in a manner that its entirely underdetermined and really only arguing with very silly music theorists who cannot recognize the musical world outside of their research. The world he is critiquing is totally alien to me, and to my colleagues from music school. I had the chance to study Karnatic, Hindustani, West and East African, and Middle Eastern musics of all kinds during my conservatory training. Also, any department with an ethnomusicologist on staff would also not make many of the mistakes he is making here as their role is to present musics of all kinds to the students, including the hip-hop class that I TA’ed while being I grad school. Western art music is just one music among many. The fact that it is not presented alongside other musics in performance, theory, composition, and musicological training is usually the fault of weakly managed or underfunded departments. There are many institutions in the US, Canada, UK, and Germany, at least, where all musics are respected and presented as equals and courses on performance practices, research, theory, and composition are filled with opportunities to engage in non-Western musical idioms.

    This ommission means that the author has an impoverished education, or has at least not examined the bulk of institutions and their curriculum before making this argument. (A clear indicator of this is the use of the weak term “styles” that suggests the author is not aware of the advanced dialogues regarding musical idioms, and cultures of music making.) There are many institutions that are already able to offer the kind of education he clearly craves. And in many cases, the ethnomusicologist(s) on staff there have anticipated the need to decolonialize the curriculum and these initiatives have been underway for years.

    The fault does not lie in Western art music. The fault lies only in those who use it to further their own ends. When we consider music in the larger sense, as many of us already do, non-Western music, and the theory needed to understand it simply takes its place amongst the music and training needed to understand it. Makam, ragam, dastgah, gamalan and the cubist-like, emergent polyrthymic constructions of Ewe drum pieces become partners to harmony and voice-leading. Because this already exists in the world, it is better to focus on making it more common, before simply mounting a political arguent which, while not wrong, is giving western art music too much credit.

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