Framing the Issues
Leslie Tilley, Chris Stover, and Anna Yu Wang
Music studies, like many academic disciplines, is in a moment of upheaval. It has become increasingly clear that the way we teach and conduct research is not only incomplete, it is insufficient, even irresponsible. From Philip Ewell's eye-opening "Music Theory and the White Racial Frame" to Danielle Brown's unflinching "Open Letter on Racism in Music Studies" to Edward Sarath, David Myers, and Patricia Shehan Campbell's instructive Redefining Music Studies in an Age of Change, individuals across music's subdisciplines have issued calls to radically rethink our practices—calls for anti-racist and decolonizing approaches; calls to diversify not just what we teach, but who, how, and why.
This volume of Engaging Students, subtitled Beyond Western Musicalities, was conceived as a response to those calls. The volume title is important. The very notion of engaging students—of soliciting their input and using it for transformative pedagogy—is something that ought to be the focus not only in teaching and learning, but in designing curricula, thinking about outcomes (including rapidly changing career pathways), and assessing questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The "s" of musicalities is equally significant, because it serves as a reminder that "Western music" is not a singular practice, even while it remains a hegemonic force in music institutions, academic and otherwise, throughout much of the world.
There is no silver bullet here, no one approach or perspective that will be big enough. Recognizing and dismantling the deeply entrenched systems and assumptions in our field will take conscious unlearning, collaborative innovation, candid dialogue, and honest self-reflection. Turning from music studies to the more focused space of music theory, we envision this volume as a small step in that process: an imaginative space where scholar-teachers share their experiences of and insights into diversifying the music theory classroom. But, like Ewell's and Brown's work, this volume is also unapologetically a call to action, and a call for accountability: accountability to ourselves and to each other as music educators to be bold, to continually reimagine what is possible in our classrooms, and to both seek and offer constructive feedback from a wide spectrum of viewpoints; accountability to our students to teach to the breadth of their lives and experiences, to empower them to question accepted structures and norms, and to introduce them to ideas and perspectives they may not otherwise have the opportunity to encounter; and accountability to our global community to strive for equity in our classrooms, from the material we cover to the people and perspectives we welcome into them.
In acknowledgment of the complex ethical and methodological implications of this project, we believed it was vital to begin this volume with a multi-authored Introduction, bringing a diversity of perspectives, concerns, and recommendations to the table. As such, this Introduction is significantly longer than the average Engaging Students foreword. Following these opening remarks is a triptych of short thought pieces that examine, at multiple levels of granularity, questions of diversifying and decolonizing music theory classrooms. In "Decolonial Metaphors for Renewal and Return," Stó:lō/Skwah professor of music Dylan Robinson recontextualizes core curricula as a foundation and "ground" upon which music programs are built, and suggests that in order for decolonization not to merely be a metaphor, curriculum might need to be one of the things "given back" to BIPOC scholars to re-define. In "Diversifying Music Theory Pedagogy In Brief: What, Why, and How?," music theorist Anna Yu Wang makes a case for why we should challenge students to engage questions of culture and ethnicity within the context of music theory, and how the discipline would benefit from new methodologies that tailor to the act of dialogue. Finally, in "Does it Pay to Play?: Musings on the Economics of Music Theory Training," ethnomusicologist and cultural activist Maya Cunningham zooms out to offer deep considerations on how Western music theory systems and training developed in conjunction with the European colonial project and continue to be driven by an inequitable, culturally biased, and State funded demand for European classical music performance. Together these authors provide a nuanced and multi-modal picture of not just the implementations but the implications and imperatives of diversifying and decolonizing our music theory classrooms.
The final, longest part of the Introduction, "Rebuilding the Music Theory Curriculum: Opportunities and Issues," exponentially expands the concept of the multi-author work. Here, guest editors Anna Yu Wang, Leslie Tilley, and Chris Stover, in a truly collaborative work, organize, synthesize, and extrapolate from the responses of twenty-four survey participants who shared their perspectives about diversifying the music theory classroom. This essay addresses challenges, disagreements, goals, and possible ways forward, ending with a starter list of reflective questions aimed toward sustained accountability and change.
We hope the ideas and prompts in this Introduction will encourage you to read the essays that follow with both an inquisitive and a critical mind, drawing from them those ideas that will help broaden your own teaching while also thinking about the ways each essay could be expanded, go deeper, or do more.
Decolonial Metaphors for Return and Renewal
In Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang's oft-quoted essay "Decolonization is not a Metaphor," the authors note in no uncertain terms that for decolonization to occur, the lands of Indigenous people, both those unceded and those unethically appropriated, must be returned. Their point is that decolonization is not firstly about inclusion or consciousness-raising, but restitution and redress. Substantive structural change (or perhaps demolition and rebuilding) is at the core of their call for decolonial action.
While the return of Indigenous land is not something we should dismiss as infeasible, I want here to consider parallel calls to cede power and "ground" within music programs as part of substantive structural change. Within all academic disciplines, the core curriculum serves as the epistemological foundation—the ground that we provide through the courses, the texts, and the performances we teach. It might then follow that in order for decolonization not to merely be a metaphor, curriculum might need to be one of the things "given back." To not limit substantive forms of redress here to the singularity of "the land" (and the accusations of impossibility for such restitution to take place) means that decolonization initiatives might instead begin with the question of what epistemological foundations and ground we occupy, and how these might be relinquished. What normative foundations do we (perhaps inadvertently) reinforce through our courses? What ground are we inviting others—our students, our colleagues—to occupy?
The foundations of white supremacy and settler colonialism that serve as the infrastructure to our music programs today do not simply remain because of their fortification designs; they are also buttressed by collective apathy to change structures felt as insurmountable. Yet this insurmountability is also maintained and reinforced by our refusals to refuse settled states of curricular inertia. A practice of "settler refusal"—that is, a practice where settlers refuse to continue their role maintaining settler colonial structures—would thus refuse apathy and lack of interest toward substantive structural change that might seem impractical and infeasible to undertake; it would refuse the white supremacist foundations of music curricula; and it would affirm the need to give over these foundations, this ground, entirely, and center the work of rebuilding guided by Indigenous, Black and other POC leadership. To give these foundations over entirely does not mean we will no longer teach what we love or value teaching—Bach, Beethoven, Björk, the Beatles—but instead that we might practise forms of refusal that obstruct inclusionary structures merely seeking to fit non-Western, Indigenous, and BPOC work into pre-existing frameworks.
In order to think with Tuck and Yang's provocation, I've paradoxically turned to metaphor as a form that allows us to imagine practices and intensities of structural change. To give back a foundation in order to rebuild is one potentially productive metaphor. An alternative metaphor to the "giving back" of foundations is burning down, by wildfire. The intensity and energy of flames engulfing racist, settler colonial, and heteropatriarchal structures has an undeniable appeal. But I am also reminded of Indigenous practices of controlled burning, that precipitate the emergence of new life. While burning is used by some Indigenous communities in order to prevent large-scale forest fires, others—particularly Northwest coast First Nations artists—burn masks once their work is done. I do not describe such "controlled" fires in order to reassure, or to allay worries that such fires aren't too destructive. Rather, the sensory registers of such metaphors—audiating the singe and sear of flames; visualizing life's regeneration from scorched earth—can galvanize us toward action. Metaphors for decolonial action here help us work around the zero-sum reactionary response (itself a structure of white supremacy) often given to proposals for structural change that involve more than mere inclusion. While decolonization is not a metaphor, metaphor offers the possibility to imagine structural change as a practice of renewal.
Diversifying Music Theory Pedagogy In Brief: What, Why, and How?
Anna Yu Wang
Culture and ethnicity are not conventional subjects of study in North American music theory, but there is little sense in keeping things this way. Notwithstanding the widespread view that music theory concerns structures of sound rather than the people who create and enjoy them, the literature that populates this discipline and comprises its teaching materials has, without exception, advanced certain beliefs about culture and ethnicity. This reality is unpacked in the following questions: Do the resources we study and teach actively present all people groups with equal dignity, or do they uphold the hegemony of Western thought? Do they consider cultural positioning to be fundamental to every analytical hearing and thus worthy of inspection? Do they endeavor to reckon with modes of musical logic that lie outside the author's comfort zones of ethnic familiarity, and if so, on whose terms? The answers to these questions illuminate norms of cultural engagement within our discipline that, when brought into our teaching, quietly give shape to the postures our students adopt in their own encounters with both musics and people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
To offer a diversified music theory curriculum is to bring the discipline's rules of play as they pertain to culture and ethnicity under our students' critical gaze. And I believe that students who are made aware of the intimate relationship between music theory and cultural narrative will be better positioned to grow this discipline in its breadth, depth, and ethics. A diversified curriculum encourages students to gain fluency in the worldviews of other cultures, to learn how to code switch, to develop lived experiences in contexts where they are part of the minority, and to be vigilant of the blind spots of a Western positionality. Each of these should be seen for what it is: an intellectual milestone that will radically broaden the scope of insights accessible to music theorists. Moreover, this expanded skill set fosters a disposition for dialogue and generous perspective-taking across group boundaries, acts which recently have become alarmingly rare. As such, these skills may serve as crucial remedies to the growing discursive segregation that has led to distrust and violence within today's political landscape.
Ideally, a diversified music theory curriculum will involve agential and knowledgeable interlocutors from disparate cultural spheres who have a stake in how the music of their locale is being represented and studied. In order to be sensitive to these new voices, we need to reflect on how speculative music theory must adapt and change. Western music theory has traditionally relied upon the methodology of close listening and solitary rumination, which has given theorists a certain self-sufficiency in their work. But isolated speculation is not an apt substitute for dialogue. This is especially the case when our existing cultural competencies and ontological frameworks may be incommensurable with those of the communities whose musics we seek to study (some of the essays in this volume demonstrate that incommensurability). If diversifying music theory pedagogy means coming to know another community's musical perspective, it must be an endeavor that hinges upon dialogue. In practical terms, this means the need to integrate ethnography or other disciplinary methods that are conducive to dialogue into music theory's modus operandi.
Students may well relate to music theory teachers differently after these curricular and disciplinary changes are enacted—in fact, they ought to, if we have not totally botched it up. In time, perhaps students will have reason to see their theory teachers not just as experts on musical structure, but as guides along the complicated path of inhabiting the pluralistic, messy, traumatized, animated, angry, proud, and beautiful collectives that are part of our global community.
Does it Pay to Play?: Musings on the Economics of Music Theory Training
Decolonization is in the air. In all music studies disciplines, scholars are engaged in debates on how to decolonize their respective fields. My question concerning the decolonization of undergraduate music theory programs is this: do we really understand the extent of the colonial system that we say we are trying to undo? In order to decolonize music theory instruction, we must change the economic system that supports it.
Consider this. Music theory training is situated within economies that prepare musicians to supply the music that is in demand. For instance, in West African Mande societies, djelis require years of extensive training to become professional musicians. Before colonialism, the patronage of traditional emperors and kings supported djelis' training, as well as their performances for the royal court and life cycle events. Royal wealth came from West African gold which was in demand on the Silk Road. The Old-World global economy provided the financial engine that drove djelis' instrumental and vocal training, providing the structure within which djeli musical knowledge, contained in intricate theoretical systems, was passed down through patrilineal transmission. Although these traditions still continue today, European colonialism disrupted the Mande royal patronage system. How could royals continue to support djeli families as court musicians when the very gold they used to do it was stolen by the occupying forces of a foreign European power?
At West Africa's expense, a robust economy for theoretical training in Western European classical music developed, supplying musical entertainment for European royal courts and religious music for European churches. Royal patrons could support these highly trained musicians because of wealth gained from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, New World plantation economies, and subsequent colonial projects. In fact, the development of the Western Classical tradition was ubiquitously driven by a European economy that was enriched by the industrial products developed from slave-produced raw commodities. The European economy, via royal patrons and the church, paid for the time needed for classical musicians to train in established music theories and to build upon them.
The economic demand for training in Western music theory continues in the contemporary United States. Performances of European classical music are funded both through public tax dollars and by foundations who gained wealth through the capitalist system. Every major city has a symphony orchestra. Even the tiny New England city where I live has a municipally-supported symphony orchestra—complete with an eighty-member ensemble that performs in a grand symphony hall in the city center. This is what it means for a music tradition to be centered or "mainstream." By contrast, the city has sizable Puerto Rican and African American populations whose music traditions are marginalized because they are not municipally-supported.
If we want to decolonize or diversify Eurocentric undergraduate music theory training, we must substantially balance the economic demand for it. It does no good to train students in non-Western musics that are not supported by the economies in which they live. Decolonizing music theory programs must span beyond curricular diversity to policies that create equal opportunities for the performance of non-Western traditions, which would be served by training in correlating music theories. Decolonization means revolutionizing a system. To truly do this in undergraduate music theory instruction, we must, at minimum, demand sustained and equal State funding for performances of music traditions that reflect diverse cultures—even if it means minimizing programming of the Western classical canon. Cuba presents an excellent example of this approach. The Cuban government gives equal support to performances of, and training for all traditions, including Western classical music and non-Western forms like Afro-Cuban jazz and son. If the United States were to give equal funding to non-Western musics, this economic demand would drive undergraduate training in these traditions. We must ensure at every level of the system that it not only pays to play all cultural musics, but that it pays to learn how to play them.
Rebuilding the Music Theory Curriculum: Opportunities and Issues
Chris Stover, Leslie Tilley, and Anna Yu Wang
"I can dream about a day where I can take a series of courses on North American Indigenous Music Analysis where we learn about the structures of various genres of songs, and ear training is the class gathered around a drum learning to discern the path of sound that rapidly daunts between triple and duple meter. Where music is more than art; it defines our relationships as humans, to our world. Realistically, I want people to know how complex my people's 'music' is and that the way song functions in our culture is vastly different. Realistically, I want people to know how Diné composers today are creating piano pieces centered around Diné imperatives of song. Realistically, I want to see examples of music and sound composed by non-white people, by women, by LGBTQ2S+ composers, spanning genres. I want to see other forms of notation introduced, more compositional styles recognized, more compositional structures analyzed, more cultural and historical context to the music being studied. Studying new forms of listening and hearing, understanding how the senses work to input the sounds we make. These are all included within the possibilities of music" (Renata Yazzie).
From the very early stages, we envisioned these discussions—and this Introduction—as a truly multi-author, multi-perspective undertaking. There are five named authors to the Introduction, but twenty-four more scholar-teachers lent their time and expertise by responding, often in rich detail, to a number of survey questions around diversity, equity, and inclusion in our music theory classrooms. In their responses, and the dialogue that followed among the five of us, two types of themes emerged. A broad range of ethical questions centered around identifying the problems with existing disciplinary and institutional structures, understanding why real, systemic change needs to happen, and carefully considering what is at stake in enacting such change (or in failing to do so). But questions of practicality and practicability also arose: concerns around instructors' expertise, time and space, potential departmental push-back or disciplinary resistance, longer-range structural implications, and much more.
The discussion that follows explores these questions, then, from 29 unique lenses. In order to acknowledge their intellectual labor—except in cases where survey contributors asked to remain anonymous—we strive to use the contributors' own words and name them when we do so. You will hear our voices and perspectives in the framing and commentary in these pages, but the major themes and ideas are theirs.
Why Diversify Music Theory Pedagogy?
There was little dispute among survey respondents over the importance, necessity, and urgency of this project, though alongside these convictions there was also some resistance and hesitation. John Roeder expressed concern about whether students would still be able to achieve the "professional level expertise" that can result from focusing intensely on a small range of musical practices, while Liam Hynes-Tawa wondered "where the intense study of Western European classical music would go" when a more robustly diverse music theory curriculum is enacted. Others worried about systemic problems like institutional inertia and reluctance to participate from colleagues who are more entrenched in existing teaching and curricular practices. Yet all asserted the necessity of at least some level of curriculum diversification. And while one anonymous respondent felt that the aim of diversifying was simply to diversify, nothing more, most identified wider goals and ethical imperatives to such a project. Those imperatives largely respond to what Philip Ewell, borrowing from Joe Feagin and others, identifies as institutional music theory's White Racial Frame: the hegemonic forces and disciplinary infrastructures that perpetuate the privileging of white musics, theories, and people, and make invisible that process of perpetuation.
Some ethical imperatives for diversifying our pedagogical practices merited strong consensus among survey respondents. At minimum, most agreed, we must begin with the "assum[ption] that all cultures create music that is worthy of study" (Clifton Boyd), and we must convey that simple yet fundamental conviction to our students. This position signals, first of all, the need to "decenter Western ways of thinking about music" (Robert Wells), not only to "build awareness of musics outside the Western European canon" but to insist that "non-canonic musics … be an integral part of the curriculum, not a semi-mandatory add-in" (Noriko Manabe). As Kofi Agawu affirms, we can thereby "expand students' horizons by introducing them to new sound worlds and new ways of organizing sound."
Diversifying music theory pedagogy, several respondents argued, is also a meaningful way of addressing long standing issues around how students identify with the people and practices they are studying and the frameworks within which they do so. Karishmeh Felfeli-Crawford points out that our current practices amount to a form of "ideological warfare" through which "students who don't meet the existing requirements will always be relegated to the margins." It is clear that many students do not feel fully welcome in the music theory classroom; their own interests and expertises are continuously marginalized and even ignored, leading students to believe that music theory "is somehow not for them, or not relevant to them or their musical lives" (Benjamin Levy). A crucial part of this project, then, as Manabe notes, is to make the whole enterprise of music theory
more approachable and welcoming to a diverse group of students…. It is easier for students to relate to concepts if they can see themselves in that concept. When students see or hear people who look like them perform, or analyze the music of people who look like them, it helps to let them see themselves as authentic performers and composers without any need to feel like infiltrators.
Tomie Hahn suggests that this approach lets students actively contribute while also learning from one another by engaging with the music that they know and love in analytic ways.
Some responses reached outside of music studies to consider larger humanistic themes. Martin Scherzinger sees in diversified pedagogy "the struggle for social and economic justice, a project in which validating and demonstrating the genuine value and dignity of the world's music can play a role." Meanwhile, Maisie Sum suggests that "open[ing] the ears (and minds) of music students by broadening their sound pool (and cultural knowledge)" will, among other things, "equip students with knowledge and experience to be citizens of the world." Patricia Shehan Campbell similarly foregrounds how "aims of global competence and intercultural understanding should guide our efforts" in diversifying the curriculum, while Philip Ewell insists on using the curriculum to "giv[e] voice to the many voices that have been excluded by music theory's white maleness." He goes on to assert that the discipline of music theory in its current state does not show that it understands the fundamental tenets of antiracism, a condition about which Ed Sarath pointedly asks: how can music theory better respond to the insistent imperative of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement? In that spirit, Scherzinger urges that we put music theory pedagogy at the forefront of movements for structural change at the institutional level, so our pedagogy drives that change rather than always responding to it too late.
"Music" Theory and Music "Theory"
To decolonize the discipline of music theory and its practices, it is imperative first of all to interrogate the underlying assumptions embedded in our use of the word "music." As Liam Hynes-Tawa notes, "'music' in the academy has long been synonymous with Western music." In nearly all North American and European music theory curricula—and all influential textbooks—Western European Art Music (WEAM) appears as an "unmarked, default category" (Inderjit Kaur). As a result, WEAM's narrow norms and principles have become the unexamined lenses through which our students learn to understand, evaluate, and place value on music. And while this reality "may have always been unfair, [it] is especially so now that student bodies and student interests are more diverse than ever" (Hynes-Tawa).
It will be just as important to interrogate what is meant by "theory." Theories have the potential to illuminate meaningful relationships and uplift what is important to listeners, but they equally have the power to do epistemological violence to diverse musics and their communities by forcing them into hegemonic frameworks. Those frameworks "need to be acknowledged, inhabited, contested, debated, upheld and upended, contracted and expanded" (Scherzinger). We need to recognize and name not only the diversity of our student bodies but the fact that "richly developed theories of music exist around the world" (Sum) and moreover that "'theory' and 'pedagogy' often mean different things in different cultural contexts" (Hahn). The music theory classroom—and perhaps especially the undergraduate core—could be a space for this decolonizing work. Yet such work bumps up against long-standing debates and ideological divisions in the field. These are revealed even in our small pool of survey respondents: a self-selecting group of teacher-scholars already interested in the project of diversifying music theory pedagogy. They will be yet more pronounced in the discipline at large. From these debates spring three broad questions.
First, whose experience of music should "music theory" reflect, support, and validate? To Roeder, a diversified music theory should equip students to "create original compositions and interpretations." He suggests that one aim of music theory is to nurture the development of each person's subjective hearing and the creative application of concepts learned. But many other survey respondents would disagree, believing that music theory should first and foremost raise up the situated perspectives of communities local to the musics being studied. As Felfeli-Crawford argues, we need "to teach music theory as if it [were] a provisional, flawed, and meaningful way from which we might understand our musical impulses, and those of the people who make music." And we must teach theoretical concepts, she continues, as if they are "musical manifestations of particular culturally significant moments in music's history."
A further complication to the contextual issues Felfeli-Crawford identifies are the histories of colonialism in global communities, which have had a lasting impact on music and music studies. As Tomie Hahn observes, "since Western art practices and points of view are so prevalent in other cultures, often due to colonialism, it can be a challenge to unravel the deeper meaning of theory and pedagogy within a (sub)culture that has adopted or integrated Western music."
Felfeli-Crawford and Hahn's arguments lead to a second question: how does culture figure into what a music theorist should be theorizing? Many respondents insisted that issues of culture be examined much more deliberately within the music theory classroom: that it is an ethical violation to remove "the sounds themselves" from their cultural contexts. Renata Yazzie argues emphatically that "the notes can no longer just be notes; they must become notes within the context of the vast array of music from around the world." Meanwhile, Inderjit Kaur foregrounds the uncomfortably close relationship between "universalism, colonialism, the aura of an objective unbiased stance and method(ology)" and "the invisible cover-up of implicit bias, exclusion, inequality, [and] resistance to change."
But a handful of respondents advocated for an opposing view, which may reflect a hesitation quietly felt in large numbers across the field. Somangshu Mukherji believes that while culture "certainly has an effect on how musicians create and perform music, and how scholars study it … there is much to music that goes beyond culture." He thus urges theorists to "study these cross-cultural, and potentially universal, aspects of music," holding that "discussions about such [musical] facts, and the theories that can help explain them, should be encouraged in the classroom—but are often dismissed on specious, cultural-relativist grounds." John Roeder similarly cautions against "reducing music to a social phenomenon." Both concur that music theory pedagogy should maintain some aspect of music theory's traditional focus on "the music itself," and that a diversified curriculum should not completely lose sight of this foundational perspective.
A final question calls to mind the title of a too-seldom discussed volume, "What Kind of Theory is Music Theory"? That is, what kind of work is it that music theory claims to be doing? There may well be value in certain kinds of universalizing theories that seek common "truths" across diverse musicking practices, as Mukherji argues: while we should not "blindly 'universalize', [we should] at the same time not be opposed to genuine cross-cultural connections where they can be shown to exist convincingly." That said, Mukherji agrees with Roberts Wells, who urges that, in the quest for such connections, we must resist conflating concepts that seem similar but are in fact distinct—like meter and tala—and instead use the music theory classroom to tease out differences. Similarly, Levy points to "the dangers of an approach that just cherry-picks examples for the sake of diversity within a largely canonic framework, but doesn't fully engage with them as representing a potentially different tradition with different practices, aesthetic values, and so forth." Yazzie underscores the importance here of appealing to the knowledge keepers within specific cultural traditions, and of making spaces for those experts in the classroom and community. She also soberly reminds us to be respectful of the boundaries around knowledge systems: "If a culture doesn't find it appropriate for their music to be studied and then taught outside of their spaces and/or by an outsider, that needs to be respected and the content needs to be removed."
It is in the context of these debates and opposing convictions that we must shape our goals moving forward.
Aims of the "Music Theory Core"
Survey respondents had strong ideas about what a diversified pedagogical practice should look like. Yazzie's approach would "create an inclusive learning environment that de-centers Western (art) music as the 'poster child' of all music and sound." Boyd, similarly, envisions a curriculum in which it is "impossible to teach a course that goes a week without listening to or citing a BIPOC or woman." Patricia Shehan Campbell pulls no punches, asserting that "a core curriculum built around WEAM is unethical and immoral," since "the choices we make of the music we feature are statements on the people we choose to include and exclude as music-makers." But what does it mean to create a core curriculum that is diverse in these ways—what kinds of concepts, methods, and aims might such a curriculum embody, and what presuppositions might need to be reevaluated?
Diversifying our curricula first of all requires reimagining what counts as a fundamental concept in music theory, and from Day One engaging a wide range of approaches to pitch, rhythm, timbre, and more. This can and should include popular musics, but as Sarath and Roeder argue, it is important not to conflate the incorporation of pop music with true diversity. Teaching, for example, "non-heptatonic scalar systems, different notational systems, [and] different kinds of musical structures" (Yazzie) would enable us to "expos[e] students to many kinds of musical structure and ways to embody sound; inspiring broader multimodal concepts of musicianship" (Michael Tenzer). Again, this means approaching music concepts from a range of cultural perspectives and resisting the hegemonic move that locates "Western" concepts as unmarked norms. Our classes, Robert Wells argues, should neither "begin with [nor] fundamentally derive from aspects of the Western curriculum," and should resist "treating Western music (and music theory) as the norm and non-Western musics as interesting exceptions." And for Juan Diego Diaz, the breadth of our music theory course offerings "should examine many kinds of repertoires from around the world, teach theories from those places," and beyond this, "teach students to learn how to go look for those theories."
To achieve these objectives, we also need to diversify our teaching and learning activities. A considerable number of responses foregrounded creative acts of performance and composition as necessary components to a diversified curriculum. For Roeder it is important in the study of musics from beyond the West "to respect the music makers' moral rights to their creations, but within those constraints, to foster imaginative listening and composition that connects their music to others'." Tenzer, meanwhile, suggests undertaking composition exercises complemented with performing opportunities in world music ensembles to help students "internalize the music encountered." Campbell similarly believes in the importance of giving music theory students "opportunities to perform (sing/play on available instruments) segments from assigned repertoire—not full pieces—by ear, and to sketch out skeletal transcriptions." Agawu goes so far as to suggest that "introducing modest acts of performance can sometimes convey the pertinence of the cross-cultural more effectively than delivering long sermons about diversity." In all these creative activities, it remains important to heed Yazzie's insistence that we respect the wishes of culture bearers when it comes to teaching—and in some cases manipulating—their musics and musical systems.
One question that looms through all of this is how music should be visually represented in our teaching and learning. As Richard Cohn observes, "representation is potentially an ethical problem," especially when it invokes another hegemonic presence: that of Western staff notation. "But without representation," Cohn suggests, "music analysis cannot pass the starting line; so either we represent, or we terminate the enterprise and go sit on the bench. The trick is to remind oneself: representation is contingent, and its value is heuristic." Tenzer also addresses the question of notation when he suggests a fully reworked music theory core that focuses on "embodiment, close listening, and transcription of many kinds of music (including EuroAmerican Art [music]), using many kinds of creative notational practices." But even as we encourage students to adopt and invent representational systems that resist the contingencies of Western staff notation, theorists need to acknowledge that no notation is neutral, and that each reflects a set of priorities. When a musical practice does not have a local form of notation, or when a notated practice is represented with an alternate system, it will be important to discuss with students the music-theoretical and ideological consequences of using these visual representations.
Another recurring theme in survey responses was the necessity of expanding the canon, making it more inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity, geography, gender and sexuality, ability, and so on. But it is also important to question how canons are formed in the first place, and to do the work of resisting those kinds of hegemonic formulations. True structural change will thus necessitate questioning the very skill sets and experiences required to both enter and excel in a university, college, or conservatory music program. This restructuring will entail, as Felfeli-Crawford writes, "rethinking what competencies are even important in the first place." Levy concurs, arguing "a music theory course should provide multiple points of entry for students from different backgrounds, without the implicit suggestion that those who have not studied Western classical music are somehow 'behind the curve' … [I]deally, this would also instill the sense that those who have only studied Western classical music also have a lot to learn." As Keith Salley suggests, it is important to "rethink learning outcomes from the top down" and to "diversify assessment methods" too, thereby reconsidering the required competencies for both getting into a post-secondary music program and successfully getting out. Finally, as several survey respondents argue, true restructuring will also require creative discussion around possible career paths for our students.
Yet even if we agree in principle that all these changes are necessary, there are still challenges to decolonizing and diversifying efforts.
This project is fraught, to be sure, from risks of inadvertently tokenizing those musics we hope to highlight or otherwise reinforcing the White Racial Frame to challenges around implementation, institutional pushback, and instructor expertise. By naming these risks and challenges, we can collectively begin to address them.
1. Instructor expertise
One of the most immediate hurdles to a diversified music theory curriculum is practical: the ability of any given instructor to adequately facilitate substantive, sensitive, and ethical engagement with diverse global musical practices. To address this problem, many survey respondents argued for the importance of continuing education. Boyd, Campbell, and Hynes-Tawa stress that this means not only supporting junior faculty in developing their knowledge and skills but also nurturing a culture in which senior faculty are similarly growing their areas of expertise and valuation criteria. No instructor can know everything, of course, and as both Tenzer and Wells emphasize, it is equally important to admit the limits of one's knowledge and to practice humility. Agawu advises to "be upfront about what you know and are good at, but also convey your curiosity about other ways of thinking about music." Similarly, Robin Attas emphasizes how "individual instructors should forefront their own expertise and lack thereof, their own learning, their own strengths and weaknesses." Hynes-Tawa draws attention to the dangers of concealing one's ignorance when teaching a diversified curriculum: "If an individual instructor is confident and charismatic enough, many students are liable to believe they know what they're talking about, which is again why instructors must be transparent about what they do and do not know." He hastens to add, however, that "at the same time, they should not use a lack of knowledge of other types of music as an excuse not to diversify their curricula."
Part of teaching with humility involves recognizing that expertise comes from many places. Boyd extends the imperative that institutions hire people "with the expertise to teach music outside of the Western canon (even if we wouldn't normally consider them music theorists)." Boyd's parenthetical point is key here. Juan Diego Diaz suggests that "working collaboratively with our interlocutors in the field can help us better understand, teach and 'translate' theories." But extending his argument further points to the necessity of rethinking how we frame job searches and criteria for tenure track positions in ways that would open up such spaces for master musicians and knowledge keepers from many music cultures. Meanwhile Sarath advocates, in a way, for a return to the days before music theory became an autonomous discipline, insisting that "music foundations should be taught by improvisers/composers." One way to implement this shift within the discipline would be to incorporate a great deal more training in improvisation and composition in music theory graduate curricula. In order to address what he sees as a critical problem of music theory instructors who are not themselves creative practitioners, Sarath asks us to reconsider "who teaches music theory and work toward multiple models so students can choose [an appropriate path for themselves]."
2. Tokenizing and the White Racial Frame
The danger of tokenistic representation—cherry-picking, as Levy described it, a few examples by minority composers or musics outside the current WEAM canon without addressing structural and methodological frameworks—is very real. Levy suggests that such tokenistic gestures can "backfire into reinforcing stereotypes rather than tearing them down." Incorporating a single activity from a traditionally marginalized genre in a course otherwise focused on the accepted canon can actually strengthen an unspoken assumption about that genre's secondary status and may do more harm than good. Furthermore, as Yazzie explains, "when selecting which music cultures to highlight, it's important to not reduce each region covered to a single musical style that implies a monolithic culture." Cultures are not only internally diverse, they are dynamic and continuously changing—this includes Western musical cultures. Therefore, we must take care not to essentialize concepts as if they are true of all or even most musical contexts, even within the so-called West.
In a related argument, Wells warns of the danger of "using non-Western musical examples to demonstrate Western music-theoretic ideas or analytical tools," such as explaining Western concepts of meter through the lens of Arabic iqa'at. Sarath similarly cautions against "viewing music of another culture through a Eurocanonic lens"; for example, when the pitches in a non-Western tuning system are described as deviations from Western norms rather than understood in terms of their own logics. For Attas, these missteps indicate a need for (especially white) instructors to be willing to relinquish some power and control and then to "actually do so, rather than allowing inclusion of 'others' on the terms of white supremacy."
These arguments against both tokenization and false equating call back the yet larger question of curricular priority. Through such moves, Attas warns, we risk mistaking a small gesture for a very large one: "for instance, adding a Clara Schumann example to a chromatic harmony course without questioning why there's a chromatic harmony course in the first place."
3. Implementational challenges
Equally pressing to many survey respondents were questions of implementation. How might a radically diversified music theory classroom function? Will there remain "a single body of learning holding all of the students together" (Hynes-Tawa)? Is this even desirable? If so, which bod(ies) of knowledge should we prioritize? If not, how should we reimagine our assessment tools? What kinds of outcomes can or should be preserved from existing teaching and learning models, and what new outcomes should supplement or displace those we reject? One of the challenges we will face is how to maintain a "depth component" (Levy) that still enables progress toward the "professional-level expertise in [music-]making [and] listening" described by Roeder above, understanding that the specific criteria for "professional-level expertise" are bound to be contested and transformed through this ongoing project.
We can expect challenges to come from our students as well. As Attas warns, it will be crucial for instructors to be sensitive to "the dynamics of student responses to changing pedagogies," which can include "resistance and microaggressions." These reactions may result when students, expecting to be immersed in conventional canons and methods, are caught off guard by the inclusion of other traditions, or they may arise from what students perceive as merely virtue-signalling by the instructor or institution. Furthermore, while some minoritized students may choose, of their own accord, to offer insights into musics from their cultural backgrounds, it is inappropriate for a teacher to single out individuals to speak on behalf of "their peoples' experience," Attas argues. This amounts to another kind of tokenism: presuming a monolithic experience of culture while reducing marginalized students to a single dimension of their identities.
4. Institutional Challenges
Zooming out, respondents identified four overarching institutional challenges: the narrow scope of most available teaching and learning resources, the firm entrenchment of some colleagues in conventional pedagogical models and repertoires, ongoing issues around hiring practices and faculty diversity, and a deep-rooted institutional inertia.
The limitations of existing textbooks and other teaching and learning materials present a significant challenge; readily available resources continue to "emphasize four-part harmony and works by European composers" (anon). Boyd asks us to recognize how the systemic racism and sexism that operate in society at large are likewise at work in such teaching materials. Yet despite the urgency of that call, as Ewell tersely puts it, "there are currently no textbooks that have so deframed music theory's white frame." As we endeavor to create or find materials that can help us dismantle the discipline's white frame, it is important that we do so respectfully. Attas cautions against "treating cultures as places for collection, extraction, or resource mining" and urges theorists to follow "local protocols in terms of seeking permission." Yazzie adds, "it's important to not share ceremonial/sacred songs and information if it's not for public consumption. Most of the time it is not."
Once we have identified—or created—more diverse and equitable resources, how do we respond, as Yazzie asks, to "instructors of music theory who do not see the value in de-centering WAM in foundational music theory classes"? We will likely need their buy-in for all but the smallest changes. Moreover, it will be necessary to dialogue with our non-theorist colleagues. As Manabe notes, "music theory departments typically work with other constituencies—music education, music therapy, choral groups, instrumental performance, etc. [We will] need to get buy-in from them, and some instructors in other departments may be uninterested in our teaching outside of the classical canon." Such entrenchment also has wider reverberations, manifesting in things like promotion processes. Hynes-Tawa suggests that the particular type of continuing education needed to responsibly engage diverse musical practices will remain challenging for pre-tenure instructors "until such learning can be incorporated into the tenure process as valuable action." Such a shift would necessitate challenging what is valued by institutions as well as by the senior faculty members that make up review and promotion committees. We will each need to form alliances with other like-minded people at our institutions—within and beyond our own departments—and think seriously about our own spheres of influence around these larger systemic inequities, from curricular design to promotion reviews to hiring practices.
The question of hiring practices cuts two ways. First is the clear need not only to create opportunities for team teaching and partnerships with community practitioners but also to hire and properly support tenure-track BIPOC faculty. For Tenzer, this is fundamental to the very project of diversifying curricula and pedagogical models: "we need to see hiring committees make this kind of program a core desideratum." But it is also important to acknowledge that, "when creating spaces to include scholars from diverse backgrounds into our music departments, we are obligated to actually make space" (Yazzie).
Second (and connected to Yazzie's imperative), we must take care not to overburden BIPOC faculty in terms of teaching, mentoring, and committee representation. Manabe offers this testimony:
As I'm the only BIPOC music theorist in my school, I think students and faculty look to me to teach those musics. But every faculty member should be teaching a wide range of musics. It should also be noted that often minority students will come to the minority faculty member for help and advice. For music studies to be truly welcoming, there needs to be a diverse faculty, and not just at the TA/adjunct levels.
Related to these concerns are larger patterns of institutional and social inertia. Scherzinger cautions that "the inertia of historically-inscribed institutions cannot be overcome with simple gestures of diversity." Most big institutions, with so many moving parts, will often have a vested interest in resisting change; whether consciously or not, any system that depends on donors, capital campaigns, and real or imagined accreditation requirements may feel threatened by deep structural shifts.
Some respondents more specifically identified capitalism as an important vehicle of such inertia. Scherzinger suggests that "the ultimate aim [of diversifying music theory pedagogy] is the struggle for an institutional location to deliberate on musical worlds that have been historically subject to systematic exclusions … in service, ultimately, of social equality and economic justice." Mukherji is upfront that "the main practical challenge to a diversified music theory pedagogy is capitalism….The market forces that drive higher education in the West," he points out, "force large class sizes, fixed curricula, and such, and these are what prevent the diversified teaching that would be the stuff of dreams." Strong arguments have elsewhere been put forth that structural racism is specifically a function of capitalism; capitalism, therefore, has a profound interest in keeping the forces of racism alive. We will need to push against these many kinds of inertia in order to move forward.
We close this discussion by suggesting some possible ways forward, but the scare quotes around this section's title are intentional here. There is much recent literature—in community engagement and Indigenous studies, for example—that pushes against "solution"-based thinking, which often papers over both broad systemic and specific contextual concerns.
A foundational theme that emerged throughout the survey responses was the need to identify that there is a problem in the first place. This might seem obvious, but as Ewell and others have made clear, the problem has gone largely unnoticed, or at least unheeded. So the first step, as Kaur insists, is to qualify the "Westernness" of current music studies, not allowing it to go unmarked. Ewell encourages us to "speak openly, and at length, with [our] students about these issues right in the first class." This means that we "name whiteness and maleness, and the fact that they have worked in tandem … to exclude non-white-male voices." Sarath likewise insists that we "work towards a culture in which big questions are asked about what constitutes musical foundations in the 21st century, from artistic, pedagogical, and social justice standpoints." As Ewell urges: "don't evade the issues, which has been the primary modus operandi for music theory's white racial frame." Levy agrees, arguing that we must "acknowledge some of the difficult issues of race and gender, power balances and appropriation of ideas rather than shying away from them or," importantly, "pretending they don't impinge on music theory." This process will also necessitate acknowledging our own intersecting identities as instructors, and being transparent with our students about our own positionalities.
It is crucial, many survey respondents asserted, that music theory instructors not try to accomplish these transformative goals alone; this is a process that necessitates breaking through long-standing disciplinary silos. As Campbell suggests, "perhaps, a coordinated effort needs to transpire, so that music theorists, historians, ethnomusicologists, and performers are working together." Diaz likewise argues that "music theory and ethnography should work together, to allow the theorist to have some contextual understanding of music making and thinking." Sarath suggests that the best way forward may be to "start from a clean slate, as if we were designing a field of music studies from scratch." He emphasizes "the need to actually rename every discipline"—eschewing the name "music theory" entirely—and proposes "construct[ing] foundational pedagogies and content based on real-world musical practice. Culturally diverse approaches to these foundations," Sarath argues, "would be an organic aspect of any resultant model." Attas and Boyd similarly suggest that what might ultimately be required is a complete reimagining of current practice. Only when the core curriculum as it stands is utterly dismantled and then rebuilt can diversity truly find a place in the very bones of our teaching and learning structures.
With these perspectives in mind, we present here a list of suggested pedagogical principles, which we envision as a guide to shape our thinking moving forward:
(1) Contextualize WEAM as one among "thousands of musical cultures in the world" (Yazzie), not to downplay its importance within its communities of practice but to show students that other musics are equally important to different groups of people, and are equally valuable and worthy of close study.
(2) Interrogate even the seemingly neutral terms we use—such as "scale," "downbeat," "consonance"—for they may not be applicable to the musical tradition under study. Hahn suggests "providing … opportunit[ies] to discuss the implications of using one culture's language to describe and analyze music of another culture." For instance, "when a student uses the word vibrato to describe Pakistani Qawwali music, [one reply could be]: 'thank you, and vibrato is an Italian word for…?'" .
(3) Don't shy away from nuance, complication, and difference. "The same concept may play out differently across repertoires. In discussing these differences with our students, we engage their critical faculties and enable higher-level creativity" (Salley).
(4) Diversify who the students encounter in the classroom by (a) frequently bringing in guest artists and culture bearers and properly compensating these specialists for their time and expertise; (b) implementing alternatives to individual-instructor models, such as rotating instructors in a single class based on their diverse specializations (Hynes-Tawa); and, importantly, (c) advocating for the hiring and long-term support of a more diverse permanent faculty body.
(5) Reimagine the content that students are taught. This could include teaching repertoires and theories from around the world and showing students how to look for those theories (Diaz), expanding the ways in which students prepare to learn music theory "by gaining some knowledge of the culture(s)—either through music cultures courses, readings, films, travel courses, etc." (Sum), or attending to marginalized histories within music theory by revisiting past efforts at diversifying the discipline that have escaped mainstream discourse (Mukherji). What all this amounts to is the cultivation of new "habits of inquiry. In other words, students should emerge from a music theory curriculum with the ability to know what are the useful questions to ask about how meaningful moments occur in any piece of music" (Salley).
(6) Be transparent about the many challenges inherent in the process of diversification: about instructor expertise; about the danger of tokenizing; about "the breadth of information [we] are leaving out" when presenting new concepts (Yazzie). As Yazzie argues, for example, "when you've left certain sacred knowledge out of the syllabi, let the students know. Discuss why it's respectful to not seek that knowledge."
(7) Organize continuing education activities like teach-ins and workshops, not as one-off events but as a sustained practice that will help define a new community model. As Manabe argues, such continuing education should include not only training in specific genres and practices but also bias training and other holistically oriented programming.
(8) Establish measures that hold the institution accountable for continuing support, including financial support for robust, long-term diversification and decolonization projects (Kaur). "Com[e] up with a vision, followed by a short- and long-term action plan [as] a meaningful first step for schools and departments committed to making a change" (Sum).
(9) Persist. Continue to do the work; this cannot be a one-time project.
We invite you to use the preceding pages, and the essays that follow, as both map and mirror, to help examine your own ideals and practices, imagine better ways forward, and hold yourselves and your colleagues accountable for sustained dialogue and transformative action. With this panoply of ideas and perspectives in mind, we present here a starter list of prompts through which we, the Introduction-writing team, have chosen to hold ourselves accountable. We hope you will allow these questions to become both a guide for critically reading (and using!) the articles that follow and a call to action for your own teaching, learning, and scholarly practices:
- What am I doing to disrupt the hegemony of Western systems, priorities, and approaches in my music theory classroom? What more could I be doing?
- How am I centering diverse voices in my readings and resources, musical examples, in-class guests, and theoretical frameworks? How am I ensuring that these inclusions are respectful, appropriate, and carefully framed in historical, social, and cultural context, and that they avoid tokenizing musics, people, and cultures?
- How can I balance deep immersion and fluency with broader perspectives?
- How am I enabling students to approach my class material from the breadth of their different perspectives and musical experiences, and how do the ways I frame musical and theoretical concepts validate those diverse experiences?
- How am I maintaining transparency with my students? How am I both guiding them and learning from them?
- What are my metrics for self-assessment through this process of change? Who can I reach out to to keep me accountable? Do I have a diverse group of people, including those from various marginalized identities, to bounce ideas off, and how am I compensating them for their labor? How can I take their feedback with grace and thoughtfulness rather than defensiveness?
- How am I questioning my own education, and the ways it has shaped my approach to music theory pedagogy? In what ways are my own perspectives limited by my education and training?
- In what ways am I holding my colleagues accountable—and encouraging them to hold me accountable—for making necessary changes in our curricula and in our music programs more broadly? How can I maintain sustained and open dialogue and foster collegial support and accountability through this process?
- What are my various spheres of influence—from in-class framing of concepts to curriculum design to college admissions to faculty hiring and mentoring to full program overhaul—and how am I working to enact change in each of these spheres?
- How am I actively engaging my students in these conversations, both by making space in class sessions and assignments for critical discussion and reflection on these issues (and thoughtfully facilitating these discussions) and by giving them a place at the table—and a voice—in conversations and decision-making around larger structural, curricular, and systemic changes in my department?
The next five prompts are purposefully left open-ended to aid you in extending this list in a way that speaks to your personal teaching and learning experiences:
- How am I…
- What are my…
- Why am I…
- Who do I…
- How can I…
- Brown, Danielle. 2020. "An Open Letter on Racism in Music Studies." My People Tell Stories (June 12). Accessed 15 August 2020.
- Ewell, Philip. 2020. "Music Theory and the White Racial Frame." Music Theory Online 26, no. 2. https://doi.org/10.30535/mto.26.2.4
- Feagin, Joeseph R., 2020. The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and counter-framing. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429353246
- Grenier, Louise, 1998. Working with Indigenous knowledge: A guide for researchers. idrc.
- Grier-Reed, Tabitha, Detzner, Dan, Poch, Robert K. and Staats, Susan, 2010. Toward multicultural community engagement. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 14(3).
- Lemann, Nicholas., 2020. Is Capitalism Racist?. The New Yorker, p.25.
- Sarath, Edward W., Myers, David E. and Campbell, Patricia Shehan, 2016. Redefining music studies in an age of change: Creativity, diversity, and integration. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315649160
- Tuck, Eve. and Yang, K.Wayne., 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).