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Music education has a race problem, and universities must address it

Written by Jacqueline Warwick, Professor of Musicology, Dalhousie University


Since the start of the pandemic, people have been turning to music to process the anxiety of living in the shadow of death. In global Black Lives Matter protests, music also plays a role, forging community and celebrating resilience. We can be more grateful than ever for music’s power to express feelings and ideas too complex for words.




Read more:
Hip-hop is the soundtrack to Black Lives Matter protests, continuing a tradition that dates back to the blues


So in this moment of intense reliance on music, we should pay attention to what might otherwise look like a petty squabble in a minor academic discipline. At the 2019 Society for Music Theory conference, music theorist Philip Ewell delivered a keynote lecture titled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Philip Ewell’s talk at the 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory.

Ewell’s talk explored how conventional analytical strategies reinforce European classical music as the most worthy of study. Indeed, it’s the only music that gets to call itself “music” without an adjective like “popular,” “folk” or “world.” This naturalizes the position of Western art music at the centre of what matters, while the musics of the rest of the world are particularized and othered. Thus, early in my own career as a music professor hired to introduce popular music to the curriculum, senior colleagues reminded me I needed to teach “real” music too.

Schenkerian supremacy

Ewell pointed to the widely acknowledged white supremacy of music analyst Heinrich Schenker’s work, questioning why Schenkerian analysis remains central in most university music programs. And this, it seems, was a bridge too far; the Journal of Schenkerian Studies devoted most of its 12th volume to an 89-page rebuttal to Ewell’s 3,000-word presentation.

Surely it is fair to refer to this as a pile on, especially when five of the 15 contributors serve on the journal’s editorial or advisory board; all appear to be white (Ewell is Black) and at least 13 are male (one author chose to remain anonymous); Ewell was not notified about the content in advance; and the contributions were not peer reviewed.

This flouts professional standards in scholarly publishing. Much of the writing is insulting and racist; articles by Richard Beaudoin, Suzannah Clarke and Christopher Segall, however, respectfully engage with Ewell’s work, demonstrating that some in the field are willing to examine biases and broaden approaches. The angriest pieces are by senior scholars, including one professor emeritus.

I need hardly say that this outsize response underscores Ewell’s argument; clearly, outraged Schenkerians have assembled to defend their turf. Like the weepers described by Mamta Motwani Accapadi in her analysis of how white women use tears to deflect critics, these “SchenKarens” are shoring up their authority with indignation and bluster.

Public denunciations

Denunciations have come from the Society for Music Theory and, magnificently, from graduate students at the University of North Texas, which hosts the Journal for Schenkerian Studies.

Still, I worry about this impulse for “woke” music scholars to insist that music theory, musicology and ethnomusicology are all distinct disciplines and that theorists are notoriously backwards … don’t even get us started on composers and performers!

Insisting that music theory, musicology and ethnomusicology are separate disciplines with no shared ground impoverishes all of our work. By narrowing our focus and policing our boundaries, scholars miss connections and opportunities, and we remain frozen in disdain for all that we don’t know. A distinction between applied and academic music may have its uses, but hyper-specialization leads ultimately to a belief that scholars can’t be creative and that artists are incapable of critical thought.

All these subdisciplines were built on assumptions of white supremacy, whether in the presumption of Western art music’s superiority or in the entitlement of early ethnomusicologists collecting and codifying the music of “exotics” and “primitives.” We who teach music must work together to dismantle these ideologies, particularly when we see them weaponized. Surely 2020’s most urgent lesson is that we are all responsible for ensuring our communities are safe, inclusive, and respectful.

Legitimizing music education

Distinctions between areas of music studies are limiting, and they contribute to ensuring that university music programs are irrelevant to actual musicians, even those who want higher education.

There are plentiful examples of successful musicians who developed their skills outside of university music departments. Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney enrolled in UCLA’s creative writing program rather than music, because he lacked background preparation for the predominantly classical repertoire. John Legend — who has been nominated for 31 Grammy awards and received 11 — chose English, not music, at the University of Pennsylvania. Thom Yorke studied fine art and English at the University of Exeter, while planning a music career.

Moses Sumney performs as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series.

My own institution, Dalhousie, was the logical place for Sarah McLachlan to study music — she’d performed on campus as a high-schooler. Instead, she pursued fine arts at nearby Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD).

These stories are less shameful than Nina Simone’s infamous rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1951, but the pattern of musicians dismissing the value of music degrees is troubling.

Unflinching examination

Can we keep condoning an ideology that deters ambitious, talented musicians from pursuing higher education in music? Many professors are scrambling through this extraordinary summer to learn to teach online, and to make their class content speak to the times we live in. We can also seize this opportunity to make our programs inclusive, appealing and useful to talented people dreaming of creating music that will speak to the world.

This must include an unflinching examination of our collective investment in the music of the past and in musical whiteness. It will be challenging, but the boundaries can dissolve between performance and creation, classical and vernacular musics, and theory and application. Now is the time to work together, in recognition that what we teach matters.

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