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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Can Music Theory Education Overcome its Whiteness Problem?

White European classical music dominates music education in the U.S. at all levels. Achieving racial justice in the field means diversifying personnel, curricula, and repertoires. Only then will students be able to enjoy and create the rich array of music created by the world’s people.

When Philip Ewell, a Black professor of music theory, presented a keynote talk at the 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory (SMT), he asked why the field of music theory1remained so white despite the group’s two decades of diversity efforts to increase the number of people of color in the group (having moved from less than 2% African American or Hispanic to 2.9% over that period). Ewell, grounding his presentation in the work of sociologists and race scholars, argued that the field of music theory operates under a “white racial frame.” Under this Euro-centric framework, white composers and theorists are given priority in curricula, and the music of white people is held superior to the music of other peoples and cultures. Ewell cited, in particular, the music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), “an ardent racist and German nationalist” whose work dominates the field of music theory. Ewell called for a “deframing and reframing” of this white structure. His proposed solutions were quite simple in theory, if not practice: to diversify music curricula, allowing more space for other genres of music alongside European classical music, and to acknowledge the “pro-white” tendencies of white composers and theorists. The talk was generally well received2 and led to important discussions in SMT conferences and in university music departments around the country. And yet, Ewell’s discussion of structural racism and diversity in music soon landed our small academic field (I’m a graduate student in music theory) at the center of a national debate over academic freedom and cancel culture.

There are important lessons the left can learn from this saga. First, it is an opportunity for us to examine structural racism within arts and humanities education and to envision a programme of social and racial justice for arts education generally and music theory specifically. Additionally, we must recognize that buzzwords like free speech and cancel culture are often used as red herrings by those who are simply not interested in serious discussions that pose a challenge to the supremacy of whiteness in institutions and cultural practices. The mainstream media is, of course, all too willing to go along with these hot-take stories at the expense of a more difficult conversation around race. By identifying bad and bad faith arguments in the public discussion, we can focus on what is most important to us on the left: racial and social justice.

What Structural Racism Looks Like in Music Theory Education

Ewell’s 2019 talk was later revised and published as “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” which is a serious work of scholarship. (Also see Ewell’s six-part blog series “Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory.”) The substance of Ewell’s analysis of music theory education is built on the work of sociologist Joe Feagin, who conceptualized the “white racial frame,” as quoted in Ewell’s piece:

An overarching white worldview that encompasses a broad and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accents, as well as racialized inclinations to discriminate. … For centuries now, it has been a dominant and foundational frame from which a substantial majority of white Americans—as well as many others accepting or seeking to conform to white norms and perspectives—view our still highly racialized society.

It is easy to see the white racial frame at work when considering curricula. In music theory education—as with history, literature, or any of the arts—decisions about which topics are given space and attention, and which are excluded, are political and deliberate. Curricula reflect the priorities and values of those in power. When something is taught, a message is sent to students: these are the topics that matter and are worthy of your time (not those that are unmentioned).

The field of music theory has long treated, and continues to treat, classical music as the norm, the gold standard by which all music is judged. In fact, music education in American universities is dominated by one type of music: Western classical music. To be more specific, the music is predominantly European, Austro-Germanic, from 1700-1950, written by men, and written to service wealthy elites.

Coming out of the Enlightenment, European music theorists set out to discover universal, scientific principles they could apply to all music. For example, the principles of acoustics have been used to justify the logic of features of classical music (such as the major scale and tonal harmony), and these principles were used to thereby justify the aesthetic superiority of classical music. These theories, however, in practice, often demonstrated inconsistencies and were not able to explain even the wide variety of European classical music, the reason for this being that music is not universal but highly culturally particular. In other words, there is not one logic that underlies all music, but many logics that apply to each individual style and genre of music. Of course, there are similarities, parallels, and principles that are useful in multiple styles, but attempts at universality break down quickly. This critique of Enlightenment-style universalist thinking was made by structuralist and postmodern philosophers (for example, Michel Foucault), who focused their attention on the ways the Enlightenment framed certain cultural elements of society as “normal,” “rational,” and “scientific,” thus (in a sense) hiding them from scrutiny.

The question of curriculum content is closely linked to larger ideas about the purpose of the university and of education in general, for which there are competing visions on the right and left. One idea is that education is about the protection and maintenance of “high culture,” or what might be thought of as the “classics” in literature, philosophy, and the arts (for example, Shakespeare, Plato, and Beethoven, respectively). This sort of thinking can generally be found in conservative, right-wing commentaries on universities, even when those same commentators decry universities as hotbeds of liberalism and societal decay. Some notable theorizers include philosopher Allan Bloom, who argued against the “relativism” of modernism and emphasized the need to learn “great books” of the white, Western canon; Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued for the defunding of higher education due to overly diverse and intrusive “socialist” curricula; and Ben Shapiro, author of Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.

What’s often at work in conservative visions of education is, frankly, a white racial frame of Euro-centrism. Take Shapiro. He likes to mention his “music theorist” father in discussions of music in particular. He has gone as far as arguing that rap and hip-hop, for example,  aren’t “real music,” while at the same time elevating Mozart and Western music in general. As he put it:

In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music,” Shapiro says. … “There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. 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, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.3

An opposing vision sees education as an opportunity to explore the variety and depth of the human experience across time and the globe, and is often seen in left-wing pushes to diversify curricula to provide children an experience that is enriching, not just one that will enable them to perform certain skills for a job. “What is education for? It’s for becoming a person, not a worker.” Note that despite what members of the right argue, this vision does not seek to eliminate the classics from education, but to reduce their prominence in favor of opening space for other works and traditions.

The Supremacy of Heinrich Schenker

Perhaps nobody embodies the belief in universalist thinking and the inherent superiority of European classical music more than Heinrich Schenker, the Austrian music theorist who was the main target of Ewell’s criticism and the source of the controversy that followed.

In short, Schenker believed that acoustic principles justified the superiority of the music that he liked: predominantly Austro-German composers who wrote “masterworks” using traditional methods (he was not fond of those who, like Wagner or Schoenberg, experimented with new harmonic methods). He was an ardent German nationalist whose hierarchical, anti-democratic political views intensified after World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles placed blame and debilitating reparations on Germany. He believed not only in the superiority of German music, but in German culture and society, and, as Ewell noted, also believed in the supremacy of whites. It must also be noted that Schenker was Jewish, though he believed in “German-ness” as a nationality that anybody could assimilate to rather than a fixed ethnicity. (This is not, of course, to absolve him of any of his other hierarchical, racist, and nationalist views, but only to show how his Jewishness figured into that worldview.) He died in 1935 before the Nazi annexation of Austria, though his wife would later die in the Theresienstadt camp in 1945.

Schenker remains a relatively unknown figure to most classical music audiences, and indeed, to most classical performers. In music theory, however, he has a more elevated place than any other figure. As Ewell writes, “If Beethoven is our exemplar of a music composer, Schenker is our exemplar of a music theorist. After all, his is the only named music theory routinely required in music theory graduate programs.” As a student in master’s and PhD music theory programs, I can attest to Schenker’s importance: I had to take two seminars solely on Schenker’s theories, and one of my qualifying exam topics was exclusively on him. Furthermore, scholarship on Schenker’s ideas has dominated the field for decades, and to participate in scholarly discourse (a requirement for eventually obtaining a secure professorship), one must be fluent in Schenkerian theory and methods. To be fair, Schenker’s theories offer some of the best insight into the harmony and structural organization of European classical music from approximately 1700-1900. His theories do not, however, offer much when applied to other repertoires.

When Schenker is taught, the less savory aspects of his political ideology are either glossed over or omitted entirely, usually with the justification that his ideology has no impact on the music theory (an adapted form of the “separate the art from the artist” argument). As Ewell points out, not only is that not true, but it is a form of colorblind racism that impedes our ability to analyze the ways in which Schenker’s ideology still influences our assessment of music today. (For examples of Schenker’s racism and the whitewashing of Schenker, see Ewell’s paper.)

The dominance of Schenker’s ideology in the field of music theory is not only a problem for a niche area of higher education, but has broader effects on all levels of music education and how music is perceived. Almost all music teachers once earned a music degree and were taught by those of us in academic music studies. For example, a glance at the music teacher content certification test for Massachusetts, the state in which I reside, shows a heavy bias toward European classical music theory and history. Music teachers’ textbooks are also written by those of us in the academic world. And professors do (occasionally) interface with the broader public in books, articles, and presentations. This cultural capital then bleeds into larger society, and the sometimes-explicit/sometimes-implicit message from music theory is that classical music is worthy of your attention and other music is less deserving.

Furthermore, if someone with a background in non-Western music (or even non-classical Western music like jazz, folk, or rock) wants to find success in music theory, they must still become fluent in classical music and Schenkerian theory. On the other hand, in the reverse scenario it is entirely possible for someone to only study classical music and obtain success. Thus the meritocracy of music theory is defined strictly within a set of norms and parameters that are structurally racist, classist, and elitist. In other words, the people who tend to study the favored white-Euro classical music that dominates the field and who are looking to advance themselves in the field, or those who are already established in the field, tend to be white or otherwise privileged themselves. Thus, the whiteness of the field becomes a self-perpetuating feature.4

Decolonizing Arts and Music Theory Education

For many American children, public school constitutes the only opportunity for formal arts education. Arts education in the U.S., unfortunately, reflects the overall concerning state of public education, particularly for poor children and children of color. “Public education remains deeply flawed and profoundly unequal”5 and has been under attack for decades.6 In a society with significant wealth and income inequality, access to high school music electives and ensembles, for example, is also unequal, with “privileged groups” “overrepresented in terms of race, socioeconomic status, English fluency, and parents’ education level.” Disparities in arts funding and programs remain a big problem, with Black and Latinx children receiving far less arts education than white children.7

In the U.S., arts are almost entirely privately funded, with per capita public arts funding being one of the lowest of all developed countries. Even some conservatives got behind saving the National Endowment for the Arts when President Trump considered abolishing it in 2017.

Deborah Bradley writes about racial disparities in music education in her chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education (emphases Bradley’s):

Particularly within the traditional paradigms of choir, band, and orchestra, repertoire heavily focused on European classical and the Euro-American canon represents the curriculum, with little if any allowance for exploration of other musical practices. The choice of what music in such settings may be understood clearly as a choice of whose music, with the implication that only the music of some people is worthy of inclusion in the curriculum; the rest is unworthy of being taught in schools.

She labels this paradigm within music education a form of colonization, and goes on to note that students of color often choose not to participate in these programs as they feel that the programs aren’t “for them.” Notably, this is the exact same trend that plays out in higher music education, and is unsurprising considering that most music teachers attend university music programs. On this issue, Bradley writes:

Having never experienced music outside the Western canon, or only superficially so, teachers may react defensively at the very suggestion of including music from another culture or musical tradition. This is particularly noticeable among preservice teacher candidates. They complain that they do not know anything about other musics; in the extreme, some argue that the movement to teach from a multicultural perspective is an attempt to erase the Western canon from the curriculum, a defensive position that suggests unacknowledged racism. While many teachers embrace multicultural music education wholeheartedly, without exoticizing or tokenizing, there are also those who refuse to venture beyond what they already know.

The state of higher music education is thus inexorably linked to the state of primary and secondary music education. These are all pieces of a large puzzle that need to be addressed together.

Fixing these problems requires a broad commitment to equal and just funding of public schools.8Public schools also need improvement of curricula to reflect the diversity of children in school. In general, U.S. public education suffers from Euro-centricity. The problem can be seen in textbook selection and in right-wing legal backlash to proposed inclusion of ethnic studies in curricula, as well as the current right-wing outcry over critical race theory.

Besides a renewed commitment to public education, one critical thing to do is to increase the racial diversity of people in all levels of music education. This necessitates looking at the overall system of music education, including the pipeline leading to academic music studies. One of the biggest structural barriers for people pursuing the study of music at the higher level is that at many universities, one must already have a basic level of proficiency in classical music (performance ability, historical knowledge, etc.) to be able to participate. Thus, graduate music theory programs are often flush with those who took violin and piano lessons from young ages (who are, statistically speaking, more likely to come from white and/or otherwise privileged backgrounds), but not those who are jazz guitarists, DJs, or folk singers.

As one way of addressing this pipeline problem, Harvard’s undergraduate music department reconfigured its curriculum in 2017 to allow more flexibility in coursework. As one faculty music theorist put it: “The other goal is to increase diversity. We know that there are many students at Harvard who don’t have a traditional musical background but who are very musical, and it’s those people that felt the music curriculum wasn’t for them. And that was something that we wanted to address.” According to the department website:

A jazz musician who wants to learn to play South Indian music, an orchestral musician who wants to learn jazz improvisation, a musical theater performer who wants to develop her interests in West African music—all these students and more can choose courses that reflect their interests and expand their horizons. Our goal was to build flexibility into the curriculum, making it possible for students with diverse backgrounds and interests to flourish in the music concentration.

As Ewell pointed out in his paper, this kind of curricular adjustment “constitutes a reframing of music theory’s white racial frame.”9

We also must diversify the repertoires that we cover in all levels of music education. There is such a broad variety of worthy and incredible music from within the U.S. and around the world that it makes little sense to restrict our education to one narrow, culturally elite practice. Just to list some examples, we could teach Anglo-American popular music (jazz, rock, funk, soul, hip-hop, country, electronic music), American folk music (bluegrass, blues, zydeco, salsa, gospel), global popular music (K-pop, Tishoumaren, Reggae), or classical traditions from around the world (Hindustani music, European Medieval and Renaissance music, Indonesian gamelan, Sufi music). And there are already examples to draw from, from George Lewis’ guidelines for composition and performance, to the work of the Chicago Children’s Choir, to orchestras reconsidering the role of canonical composers like Beethoven.

But beware the straw man of “cancelling” classical music; nobody is arguing for its elimination, but rather to make space for other music alongside Mozart. Nobody is canceling Schenker, either. Ewell writes, “If Schenkerian theory is to survive in the twenty-first century, as I hope it does, we must confront the uncomfortable realities not just of Schenker himself but, more important, of the legacy of how we have engaged with his ideas and what that means with respect to race in American music theory.” The point is to teach Schenker’s ideas honestly—even his unsavory racism.

Higher education has been slow to adapt to changes, and the nature of the academic pipeline means it will take a long time to implement changes and to see the effects of these changes. The most important thing we can do right now is to commit to studying repertoires of music on their terms, learning from the people who make and practice those traditions themselves rather than applying a false, universal set of standards that actually represent the values of European classical music. As historian Walter Rodney poses in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “Who in this world is competent to judge whether an Austrian waltz is better than a Makonde Ngoma?” He was speaking in the context of European colonization of Africa, but the point holds true.

Also important is for leaders in music theory, regardless of racial or ethnic background, to commit to understanding and challenging the white racial frame. Ewell implicates himself in the white racial frame, too. “For my entire career as a music theorist, I have been firmly ensconced in the white racial frame of music theory, a figurative ‘white music theorist.’ … I teach music theory from the very same textbooks that I critique, and have done so, for the most part, willingly and joyously. But I am now conflicted. For to feed, sustain, and promulgate a system based on racialized structures and institutions is unacceptable in 2020.” As he argues, there is still much work to be done to educate people on the white racial frame and for people to accept the implications that arise from challenging the supremacy of white European music.10 And as we will see in the responses to Ewell from media and academics, his ideas certainly hit a nerve.

Academic Speech and the Response to Ewell

In June 2020, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (yes, that’s how seriously the field takes Schenker) published a “special edition” responding to Ewell that was not only highly critical, but contained numerous racially inflammatory statements and violated standards of academic publication practice. One of the journal’s editors, Timothy Jackson, wrote a response to Ewell that was, by generous accounts, highly defensive. Scholars around the country responded by condemning the content of many of the articles, while also calling for an investigation into the journal’s operating practices. The backlash to Jackson’s piece specifically led to an article in the National Review citing Jackson’s critics as a “mob” seeking to cancel the journal and the editor. A New York Times article that followed framed the issue as a question of drawing a line about academic freedom. Thus, what began as a discussion around social justice in music morphed into a cancel culture debate.

Volume 12, the “special edition” of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, produced at the University of North Texas (UNT) music department, contained two separate problems: inflammatory content and clear violations of academic publishing practices. To begin with the content, many of the articles appeared to be responses to Ewell’s ideas about Schenker but instead merely nitpicked details and ignored Ewell’s main thesis. Generally, the articles proved Ewell’s point about the white racial frame. The whole volume is available online here, though worst of the bunch was written by Timothy Jackson, who is white. For example, he writes:

Why, then, are there so few Black professors of music theory in American universities? Is it because of a conspiracy by racist Schenkerians practicing their inherently racist analytical methodology, as Ewell would have us believe? Of course, I understand full well that Ewell only attacks Schenker as a pretext to introduce his main argument: that liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to “people of color.” He is uninterested in bringing Blacks up to “standard” so they can compete. On the contrary, he is claiming that those very standards are in themselves racist. African Americans have the right to embrace their own culture as precious—i.e. rap music, hip hop, etc.—and study and teach it in universities, so that the products of the “defective,” “racist” White culture—i.e., classical music—can be shunted aside.

He continues:

Success in classical music is a matter of setting priorities, and summoning inner resources to succeed, no matter what it takes: first and foremost, young African Americans must want to be classical musicians, and their families must be supportive. But admittedly that is not enough. If we are to achieve true social justice in music theory, then we will be compelled to engage with the real issues. We must address African American students’ lack of foundation, especially music-theoretical, by facilitating their early training with appropriate resources, and by demolishing institutionalized racist barriers.

For Jackson, the superiority of (white) classical music and the current racial status quo are baseline assumptions, and everything else follows from there. Later in his article Jackson goes a step further, accusing Ewell of anti-Semitism and linking Ewell to the “much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the United States.” Note the real issue: Jackson’s particular vision of social justice is not to give equal space to the cultural creations of non-white people—in fact, he goes out of his way to denigrate those—but rather to make sure that disadvantaged, African American children have proper access to violins and classical training (“appropriate resources”). Jackson’s response proves Ewell’s point: white European music is considered the standard, and other racial groups and their cultural creations don’t matter (at least not to anyone but themselves, as Jackson says that Black people can enjoy “their own” cultural creations, which to him seem to amount to rap and hip hop, as if there weren’t other Black musical traditions (jazz, rock, blues, gospel, soul, and funk spring to mind).

Beyond the content of the articles, the way in which the edition was published violated basic academic standards (a fact that was called out by the SMT):

  • Although other editions of the JSS were peer-reviewed (a process in which experts in the field critically evaluate articles for publication), this edition clearly was not.
  • Many of the responses to Ewell were either non substantive in length or anonymous: some were comically short and resembled blog or social media posts11 rather than serious academic work.
  • Ewell was not given the opportunity to respond to criticism in the same issue.

Moreover, it turns out that JSS was not being produced by graduate students, as was claimed, but was run primarily by Jackson and another professor.12 In addition to the statement from the SMT board, many of us signed an open letter calling for all of us to examine our actions in regards to our field, and for the censuring of and an investigation into the editorial practices of the JSS. Note the two separate issues here: the critique of the content of the journal edition, and the critique of the editorial and publication practices. When the story was picked up by national media, these two issues were deliberately conflated to make this seem like an issue of academic free speech.

Those of us on the left can expect a disingenuous response from the National Review, which though it pretends to be a bastion of serious, well-argued conservative thought, often falls far short. The author of the article is affiliated with FIRE, an organization that campaigns in the name of “free speech” on campuses. Multiple pieces of the account I gave above were misrepresented. According to them, Jackson “offered a serious critique of [Ewell’s] work” (decide for yourself how serious it was). Also, we were evidently “calling for Jackson’s head,” and wanted the university to “launch a witch hunt to see what else they can dig up on him” (we weren’t calling for his head, but an investigation into the journal). And Jackson now “has a legitimate fear that he may lose his job and be rendered persona non grata at any other institution.” This is common conflation in conservative arguments of free speech and cancel culture: freedom from retaliation is not the same as freedom from criticism and consequences; write poorly argued racist drivel and you might risk losing the respect of your field. And in case you were wondering, Jackson still holds his job as “Distinguished University Research Professor of Music Theory” at the University of North Texas.

More disappointing, however, was the way the story was portrayed by the nominally liberal New York Times. While that story gave a much more honest account of events, it made two crucial mistakes. The first was the conflation discussed earlier, mistaking the investigation into the journal’s practices for censuring Jackson specifically over the content he wrote. The second is an issue with framing: rather than make the story about social justice in music education and the arts, it is a story about the limits of academic free speech. The details of Ewell’s talk and the backlash are just the basic facts, but this is the framing the author uses:

This controversy raises intertwined questions. What is the role of universities in policing intellectual debate? Academic duels can be metaphorically bloody affairs. Marxists slash and parry with monetarists; postmodernists trade punches with modernists. Tenure and tradition traditionally shield sharp-tongued academics from censure.

And later:

That said, race is an electric wire in American society and a traditional defense of untrammeled speech on campus competes with a newer view that speech itself can constitute violence. Professors who denounced the journal stressed that they opposed censorship but noted pointedly that cultural attitudes are shifting.

The differences in quality between Ewell and Jackson’s work have been flattened into a “both sides” quandary that the author can’t take a side on. The main issue is, of course, free speech. This perhaps happened because the Times may have had a preconceived narrative it wanted to fit this story into, and allowed for shoddy reporting and the misrepresentation of multiple critical elements. Also worth noting is the author, per the Times, is a “national reporter covering issues around free speech and expression, and stories capturing intellectual and campus debate,” and judging from his previous stories, had been covering sports prior to this assignment and not music, the arts, or education.

The center of debate shifted completely between Philip Ewell’s original talk and the story gaining national media attention. This is a common conservative tactical use of “cancel culture”: misrepresent the story, deflect from the actual serious issues at hand, reframe the debate around free speech, and portray those who raised the original issue as unreasonable totalitarians. The response from the left must be to call out these tactics and demand focus be kept on the main debate at hand, which in this case, was racial and social justice in music.

In the two years since Philip Ewell’s talk there have been some important, though slow, developments. The field of music theory has finally begun grappling with its structural issues, and more attention is being given to publishing and hiring scholars who work on more diverse repertoires. Sessions at the previous two SMT national conferences show the attention being given to discussing these issues. For his part, Jackson has been embroiled in a defamation lawsuit against 17 faculty and one graduate student. As I wrote earlier, however, changing the focus of the entire field will likely take a generation of new scholars to become professors to lead the charge. The most important change, though, has been the change in mindset. From Ewell making the implicit explicit—by clearly outlining the structural inequities of the field and the ways that classical music is held up as superior—people have been willing to discuss and implement real change. This was the main failing of the media and national attention given to our little field: they allowed the implicit to remain implicit and reframed the story to obscure the core issue. Our job is to speak out and cut through the media’s twists, point out the inherent assumption, and fight for the change we wish to see. The first step to implementing change is to win the battle of argument, and despite the media attention that followed, Ewell achieved a major success.

Correction 5/23/2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the New York Times had interviewed Philip Ewell for their story on the controversy. However, Ewell in fact declined an interview with the paper. The article has been updated to delete the mention of the interview with Ewell.

Jeff Williams is a PhD candidate in music theory at Harvard University.

  1. Music theory scholarship at the graduate and professor level focuses on deep analysis of pieces, songs, and works; composers, performers, and artists; music styles, genres, and time periods; and the philosophy of music. People who may have encountered music theory in their school or lesson studies will likely be familiar with learning types of scales and chords, which are introductory pieces of many styles of music. For a sense of research topics at the academic level, browse the latest issues of Music Theory Online

  2. In Ewell’s own words: “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Over two years ago, when I began this work, I knew that I’d lose some friends and colleagues once it came out. I speculated that, for every friend/colleague lost, I’d gain two or even three more. I was wrong. For every friend lost there have been more like 20–30 friends gained. It’s not even close. Exactly seven persons have written to me with angry, sarcastic, and mean commentary about my work. None of them engage my scholarship, but just call me an ‘idiot,’ ‘racist,’ or ‘inept.’ They are all white men. And, also significant I think, all pianists. They represent what Emory University’s African American Studies Professor Carol Anderson calls ‘white rage,’ and I’m uninterested in engaging with it. Show me the white woman, POC man or, most important, the POC woman who takes issue with my race scholarship as it applies to music and I’ll listen. (To my knowledge, none have.)” 

  3. Although the elements that Shapiro lists—harmony, melody, rhythm—are important to classical music, they are by no means the only ones. Considering rap specifically: just because the vocalist isn’t rapping on specific pitches doesn’t mean that rap/hip-hop tracks don’t have any melody or harmony. Beyond that, the question of what constitutes “music” is entirely open to social and political interpretation. It is not nearly as simple as checking a list of “musical features.” Shapiro is simply window dressing: devaluing a cultural creation he doesn’t like using technical terms (poorly) to distract from his underlying racism. Also, doesn’t he mean “subjectivity” and not “objectivity” to describe his opinion of rap? 

  4. Ewell points out that the efforts to increase the diversity of music theory over the last two decades, including the “language of diversity and representation,” have done little to fix the problems. Ewell lists the measures already employed: forming committees to address demographic issues; providing grant monies targeting ethnic and racial minority communities; instituting programs for mentoring persons of color (POC); culling demographic data to get a better handle on the issues; convening special sessions, panels, and roundtables on ethnic and racial issues at academic conferences; and diversifying repertoires to include the music of nonwhite (classical) composers. As Ewell summarizes: “Despite good intentions, and whatever intrinsic benefit these initiatives might have had, if their goal was to increase the numbers of POC in SMT, they have clearly failed.” Even if those efforts had worked to substantially increase people of color in the field, we know, to take an example from politics, that representation is not enough to advance an agenda of racial justice. This is why Ewell argued for an antiracist approach, not more talk of inclusion or mere inclusion in an otherwise fundamentally white-oriented field. 

  5. Noguera, Pedro. “Defending and Improving Public Education.” We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. New York: The New Press, 2020. 

  6. From the disasters inflicted by Bush’s No Child Left Behind—the focus on high-stakes testing, teaching (reading and math) to the test, cuts to arts, music, and other important aspects of education, the push to open charter schools, which have never been shown to be superior to public schools, “zero tolerance” for discipline problems (which led to heavy policing, particularly of poor children and children of color), and the push to close “failing” schools (often serving children of color)—to the Obama era of more privatization, our public school system remains unjust. Public schools remain segregated and unequally funded by a property tax system that is racist because home values have always been linked to race

  7. According to doctoral work by Georgianne Lundy, a Black violinist and orchestra conductor, quoting L.C. DeLorenzo: “From the perspective of resources and instruction, the alarming inequities in music programs (discounting urban schools designated as arts magnet schools or special grant funded programs) are clearly evident. In short, poor Black or Latino children do not stand an equal chance when it comes to the experiences needed for a college music program. Without continuity in music instructions, money for private lessons, or instrument rental and other resources, students cannot develop a competitive level of performance skills that lead to participation in music camps, community orchestras or admittance into college music programs.” 

  8. The Movement for Black Lives, for example, includes in their platform a demand for community control of schools as well as an end to the privatization of public schools. 

  9. Ewell has also explained his thoughts on how to improve textbooks. “My suggestion for a new textbook would be a two-fold approach: begin the discussion of pitch, rhythm, meter, and scale with nonwhite approaches from, say, Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Some of these approaches predate ancient Greece of course, and by introducing the basic concepts this way, one debunks the white-framed mythology that civilization, and whiteness, started with the Greeks.” 

  10. Ewell also recommended, specifically: reforming undergraduate curricula with focus on non-classical repertoires; removing German language requirements from graduate programs; convening conferences on antiracist themes, inviting antiracist speakers, and seeking out antiracist scholarship. 

  11. For an example, See p. 12, a paragraph by Charles Burkhart, in the linked document that includes the journal. 

  12. From the linked letter written by UNT graduate students: We would like to make it clear that the JSS is not a graduate student journal; since 2010 (Vol. 4), it has been run primarily by Drs. Timothy Jackson and Stephen Slottow. Many of us recently discovered that the journal is presented as graduate-student run in some contexts; in fact, there is little student involvement beyond copy-editing, and students have absolutely no say in the content of the JSS. In fact, outside of the advisory board (and in particular Dr. Jackson), we have no clear understanding of who oversaw the publication of the responses to the plenary session. 

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