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A Black Professor Pulls Back the Curtain on Racism in Music Theory

By BETH HARPAZ

CUNY music theorist Philip Ewell is calling on his field to dismantle its “white racial frame.” He says that process must include exposing the influential music theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in 1935, as an “ardent racist.”

“Is this our #MusicTheorySoWhite moment? I certainly hope so,” wrote Ewell in Music Theory Online, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Music Theory.

Ewell, a professor at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, is African American. But his field is virtually all white: Just 1% of the Society for Music Theory’s 1,173 members are Black. 

Ewell says music theorists and biographers have “whitewashed” Schenker’s racism, dismissing it as irrelevant in relation to his venerated theories on musical structure. Yet Schenker himself  “argued explicitly that his views on race and music were to be considered together,” Ewell says.

Schenker’s approach “is the only named music theory routinely required in music theory graduate programs,” Ewell says. He sees that as part of the institutionalized racialized structure … that exists to benefit members of the dominant white race of music theory.”

Among the “mythologies” supporting this “white racial frame,” Ewell says, is the belief that “music and music theories of whites from German-speaking lands … represent the pinnacle of music-theoretical thought.” Ewell’s analysis of the top seven music theory textbooks found that 98.3% of the musical examples referred to in the books were written by white composers. All but one of these books also featured at least one example by composer Stephen Foster, known for blackface minstrelsy and lyrics that “dehumanized” African Americans.

Ewell says that “adding a few POC composers” won’t solve the problem. The underlying issue, as he sees it, is that Western tonal systems—the basis for all melodies and harmonies in Western music from classical to folk, blues, jazz, and pop—is taught “as the only organizational force in music.” These Western tonal systems dominate world music not because they are intrinsically superior or intuitive, but because of “colonialism and hegemony.”

One anti-racist remedy, he says, is to expand “music-theory curricula to include nonwestern and nonwhite forms of music theory … Music theories of nonwestern cultures—from Asia, South America, or Africa, for instance—can and should be part of basic required music-theory curricula.”

Schenker, living in Austria in the early 20th century, supported the white supremacist and German nationalist movements that presaged Hitler. “It is time that Germans freed themselves from the illusion that all men and all nations are equal,” Schenker wrote. Schenker called Japanese people “animals,” compared Senegalese soldiers to cannibals, referred to “primitive” and “inferior” races, and opposed racial intermarriage as “mongrelization.” Ironically, Schenker was Jewish, but he died before Germany annexed Austria and unleashed its campaign to exterminate Jews. Schenker’s wife, also Jewish, died in a concentration camp in 1945. 

Just as historians scrutinize Jefferson’s behavior as a slave-owner, just as psychologists dissect Freud’s misogyny, and just as philosophers acknowledge the anti-Semitism and white supremacism espoused by Heidegger, Ewell asserts that music theorists “must present Schenker’s work to our students in full view of his racist beliefs, and let our students decide what to do with that information.”