Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom
We present strategies on how to begin disrupting the normalization of whiteness in the music theory classroom, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being.
By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona
Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom
“Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.
Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)
As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.
And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.
White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.
An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.
When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.
Questioning the Curriculum
The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.
Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom
I. Centering the Student
To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.
During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.
Questions to ask:
- Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
- What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
- What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?
Strategies to incorporate:
- Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
- Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
- Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
- Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.
In Practice: Big-picture conversations
To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.
These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:
- What makes music good?
- What exactly is “the music itself”?
- What is authenticity in music?
- Disparities faced by women in music.
- Connections between music, race, and racism.
- The efficacy of protest music.
II. The Polystylistic Approach
A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.
If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.
Questions to ask:
- What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
- If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
- If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?
Strategies to incorporate:
- Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
- Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
- Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
- Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.
In Practice: Sampling
To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.
To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.
I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.
- Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
- The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
- We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.
Putting It Together: The Blues
Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?
We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.
The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.
Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.
As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.
We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.
We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.
Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.
Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”
James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.
The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).
Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.
Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.
Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.
Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.
Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.
Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.
Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?
The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.
Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?