Is Music Theory Racist?

I was shocked earlier this week when music theory hit the news! It doesn’t happen every day that the world gets a small peek into a very obscure field. Apparently, a controversy erupted between music theorists Philip Ewell and Timothy Jackson over whether or not the theorist Heinrich Schenker’s personal racist views were inherent in his philosophy of musical analysis. (Schenker analysis is part of standard music theory study for college-level music students; among musicians this is definitely a hot topic. If you would like to read up on this controversy, you can find articles at these links, all of which offer different perspectives and details: Dallas Observer; Denton Record-Chronicle; NPR; National Review. If you look deep enough into an online search, you can also find the actual writings involved in this controversy, those of Philip Ewell and The Journal of Schenkarian Studies run by Timothy Jackson at the University of North Texas.)

I have not yet taken the time to read Philip Ewell’s writings, nor the recent issue (or any issue) of The Journal of Schenkarian Studies. I will likely get to it eventually because I am a nerd about these things.

But my post isn’t really about this particular controversy. Instead, I am writing about one of the questions that has been brought up by the controversy: Is music theory racist? In my opinion, the short answer is: No. Now for the long answer.

It is important to understand what music theory is and is not.

Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. That means, one can only analyze music that is already completed. Theoretical analysis is only an effort to describe how the music of a composer takes shape. Taken too far, as is often done in analysis class, it can suck the life out of a piece of art. Theorists then take analysis of music that was popular in a period of time and come up with a theory about “how music works.” Really, it should be “how music worked” – in that time, in that place. Different music theorists will come up with different processes of analysis and reasons as to why their analysis is better than another theorist’s, and they “argue” about it in the form of books and journals. Or, they might argue about the rightness or wrongness of a previous generation’s favorite theorist, as in the case I mentioned above.

Any particular theory should not then become a limiting factor in the creation of new music. It teaches what can be done and what has been done, but it should not dictate what must be done. Some composers may find the old styles to be a springboard for their own work; others reject the old styles completely. Arnold Schoenberg disdained music theorists and even said they couldn’t be real composers because of their ties to the past. (His own book, Theory of Harmony, was not an analysis of past music, but a justification for his own then-new music.)

Music theory is also limited; it is not universal. Music theory can only explain music that takes place in a certain time and in a certain place. As music evolves, new theories develop to explain what is happening in the new music (after it is new, of course.) Music from different parts of the world also use different music systems. Schenker’s musical analysis only pertains to European music. And even then, it only pertains to some European music. The folk and dance music of various European cultures indicate different approaches to music that the standard classical analysis simply skips over.

I understand why that happens. There’s only so much time to teach theory and analysis, so we stick to what is most common in much of the west – white, European music. And if we are teaching classical music, we are by definition avoiding folk music. We just need to make this clear.

The problem comes not in the theory, but in the teaching. There may only be time to teach analysis of classical, European-style music, but there’s a problem if it is presented as the only legitimate style of music. There’s a problem if the music is presented as the only music that was written during that time. It does not take but a minute to run through scales that are not major or minor and say, as I did to my high-school students, “we are focusing on major and minor scales in this class, but here are some other scales that exist.” As we went through part-writing, I made it clear that we were discussing “basic tonal harmony” and that newer music and non-European music doesn’t necessarily follow these rules. Pique the students’ interest. Let them know there is a world of music that exists beyond the one class. Perhaps they will be inspired to learn more on their own, or perhaps they will make the time to take a music class that does focus on something that is not white, European classical music. More and more music schools are including jazz programs and even ethnomusicology programs.

What if European classical music *is* presented as the only legitimate form of music? Is that racist? Hmmm…. Well, I don’t know if it is racist or not. I would say it is ethnocentric and highly irresponsible. I believe there’s a fine line between ethnocentrism and racism, sort of like the difference between manslaughter and murder – it is about intention. I can’t know a person’s intention. But whether ethnocentrism is fueled by ignorance or by outright racism, it is still irresponsible. At the college level, I believe music students should at least be made aware that other musical systems exist, even if there is not time during standard analysis class to address them in detail. Every music school theory department is certainly aware of the existence of other musics and systems, and to withhold that information from students would make me ask, “why aren’t you letting them know?”

Ideally, college-level music schools would offer more theory classes that go beyond European classical music. They waste so much time starting with the basics of music theory. Perhaps this deserves another post, but why do we not expect a certain basic level of theoretical competence from incoming students? Even at conservatories, prospective students can perform dazzling auditions, but seriously lack in music theory and ear training. I know that high school students who are gifted in music can learn Freshman college-level theory because I taught them. How about we expect incoming students to know how music works as well as they know how to play, so schools can get beyond the trap of European classical music?

No, I don’t think that music theory is inherently racist. To even think that it is is a misunderstanding of music theory. There is no one music, and no one music theory, so how can the entire subject be racist? Schenker may provide a solid analytical structure for much of classical European music, but there’s a lot more out there – a whole world of music to explore.

Check out my post, “We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House”.

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