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Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

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. 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.

Written By

Dave Molk

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.

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. 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.

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

    Dave Molk
  • Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

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

    Dave Molk

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.