Diversity in Music Theory: a discussion

The aim of this post is to open up a discussion that is needed as much as ever, of ‘diversity’ in the discipline of Music Theory.

First of all, although the term ‘diversity’ used in the title can be seen as problematic, it is used here in its commonly-understood sense, specifically to gauge how inclusive music theory as a discipline is of various groups, may they relate to ethnic, gender, or sexual identity.

Two issues can be distinguished – institutional and methodological – although they are, of course, intimately connected.


As fields of study, historical musicology and, especially, music theory and analysis, have been and are still largely dominated by white men. This lack of diversity or inclusivity has been the subject of a special 2009 edition of the music theory journal Gamut, which can be accessed freely HERE.

Jeannie Guerrero's introduction discusses some data provided by the US American National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) and the Higher Educations Arts Data Services (HEADS) for 2007-2008. Although the data is incomplete, specific to the US and, by now, over a decade old, it seems safe to assume that it is still indicative of a major global problem that still continually needs to be addressed. According to this data, less than 30% of music theory students were female, while ‘underrepresented minorities’ (URM) accounted for 13.2% (of which 9.6% were ‘Asian’, compared to 1.8% ‘African-American’, for example). While the percentage of women was slightly higher (31.3%) among graduating doctoral students, it was a meagre 4.2% for URM. According to the data of all doctoral graduates in various music subjects,music theory had the lowest representation of URM, though representation of women was even lower among doctoral graduates in conducting and composition.

Needless to say, this begs the question ‘why?’. Guerrero cites a number of challenges, among them:

1) Financial: ‘To pursue Classical music in college or beyond presumes financial means to pay for music lessons and instruments’;

2) The absence or paucity of role models and mentors;

3) ‘Identity politics’ thwarting its own cause; Amy Cimini and Jairo Moreno (2009) argue in the same journal issue that by ‘keeping ethnic groups distinct and in direct competition with one another, identity politics enables their continued suppression. With the final blows being dealt in the name of profit margins, cultural and humanistic disciplines will lose their strongholds. Whether through self-governance or collective bargaining, all affected parties need to unite.’

4) Corporatization, which can be resisted by unionizing, ‘especially in alliance with adjunct faculty, teaching assistants, and other personnel’ not least as ‘ethnic minorities inhabit these lower ranks of university society in the numbers universities would like to see in the tenure track’.


Here, it is necessary to address a commonly-held notion, namely that ‘music theory is a technical discipline, confining its attention to issues of musical structure and syntax – “specifically musical” matters, as one says’ (Maus 1993). Fred Maus goes on to say that ‘[m]any people would find it natural to assume that “specifically musical” matters have nothing to do with gender [or ethnicity]. But theory and analysis have been, for the most part, a set of texts written by [white] men, about music by [white] men, and perhaps this has had some effect on the outcome’ (insertions mine).

Guerrero points to disagreements concerning methodology as one of the challenges to diversity in Music Theory, since ‘[t]he knowledge base within the field as it exists now precludes meaningful studies of non-canonic repertoires’. In other words, studying only canonical (read ‘dead, male, European’) composers, without bearing in mind that this can be limiting and problematic, contributes to the continuing marginalisation of music and ideas from other backgrounds (be it in terms of gender or cultural difference). In that sense, ignoring societal aspects of music is much like ignoring the existence of racism and inequality today: it benefits only those at the higher end of the hierarchy of power (political, economical, etc.).

That said, ‘supplementing traditional theory courses with world-music material does not solve the problem in itself’, writes Sumanth Gopinath (2009) who instead argues for investigating ‘harmony as a colonizing force throughout history’. As an example, most global popular music is unthinkable without the dual factors of colonialism and globalisation, as is, for example, traditional Xhosa religious choral music – which is mostly build on chords I, IV and V, the same chords familiar from much central-European folk music.

Should we stop focusing on dead European composers? Not necessarily; there are many reasons we might find a motet by Dufay fascinating, or a suite by Purcell, or a symphony by Albrechtsberger or even Beethoven. But even if that's our field of study, there is no good reason to ignore composers such as the 16th-century Portuguese Vicente Lusitano (also a theorist!), or the more famous George Bridgetower (1778-1860), or countless female composers from Hildegard von Bingen to Clara Schumann (to name two really famous ones). To ignore them voluntarily not only does contemporary composers a disservice (who might look for role models outside of the ‘white male’ canon), but also other musicians and scholars, including ourselves. Diversity or inclusivity makes us richer, not poorer.

The dark history of German Music Theory

To highlight that this is not ‘just’ an American problem, it is worth pointing to an article by Ludwig Holtmeier (2003 / 2004), who discusses the tradition of the subject in Germany and Austria in the 20th century and argues that the complicity of the founders of post-war Musiktheorie or (as it is also often known) Tonsatz in the Nazi regime was insufficiently addressed in the past. Again, institutional biases and outright racism (in the case of Germany, the purging of any music perceived as Jewish or ‘degenerate’) had an effect on methodology, not only in what was studied (German folk songs), but also how. Ironically, even though Heinrich Schenker (the ‘founding father’ of Schenkerian analysis, still widely influential in the US but largely irrelevant in German Music Theory) was Jewish, his theories were rooted in German nationalism and (though not usual for its time) heavily biased towards canonical tonal music from c.1780 to 1830, to the extent that music that did not conform to his theories was considered to be of less worth (Botstein 2004).

I'm really curious as to what other people think about the points raised, and about the wider context, so please comment below! Of course, discussion without action is, well, just discussion. It can only be a step along the way, but it is an important one.

Pictured: George Bridgetower, by Henry Edridge, 1790 (cropped)

Botstein, Leon (2004) ‘Schenker the Regressive: Observations on the Historical Schenker’, The Musical Quarterly, 86(2), pp. 239–47.

Cimini, Amy and Jairo Moreno (2009) ‘On Diversity’, Gamut, 2(1); available HERE.

Gopinath, Sumanth (2009) ‘Diversity, Music Theory, and the Neoliberal Academy’, Gamut, 2(1); available HERE.

Guerrero, Jeannie Ma (2009) ‘Inconvenient Truths, and Changes to Believe In’, Gamut, 2(1); available HERE.

Holtmeier, Ludwig (2003) ‘Von der Musiktheorie zum Tonsatz: Zur Geschichte eines geschichtslosen Faches’, Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie, 1(1), pp. 11–34; available HERE.

Holtmeier, Ludwig (2004) ‘From “Musiktheorie” to “Tonsatz”: National Socialism and German Music Theory after 1945’, Music Analysis, 23 (2–3), pp. 245–66.

Maus, Fred (1993) ‘Masculine Discourse in Music Theory’, Perspectives of New Music, 31 (2), pp. 264–93.


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