Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

‹-- PreviousNext --›

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

It is a splendid act of calling out a discipline that likes to consider itself above mucky things like politics, and it goes for the jugular in contending that the way the content of the discipline has been developed actively serves to exclude those who don’t fit the while male model of its gatekeepers.

As Jasmine Arielle Barnes said in a different musical context, when you spray a bug, it always has conniptions before it dies, and in this case, the conniptions appeared in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a journal so niche that it still appears only in print format. I’m not sure when volume 12 came out, but it had circulated widely enough to cross my social media feed by the last week of July. It contains a collection of responses to Ewell’s plenary paper, and both the content and the circumstances of their publication have been a cause for some outrage.

The responses fall into two types. There are those that show evidence of having thought about Ewell’s points and are making an honest effort to see where Music Theory, and in particular Schenkerian Studies, might go from here. And there are those that basically stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to engage. I think of the two camps as the ‘Now what?’ Lot and the ‘Lalala’ Lot.

It is the Lalala responses that have occasioned the heat. Some of them are breathtakingly condescending while others boil down to a statement that the author has no objection to a more inclusive subject and faculty but that they’re not going to lift a damn finger to make it happen. As the Yale University statement in support of Ewell points out, they provide some rather thorough exemplars of the kinds of problem his paper had identified.

But I’m more interested in the ‘Now What?’ responses, as these make some genuinely useful contributions to things we might do to deframe and reframe Music Theory to detoxify it. Other people have taken on the Lalala responses effectively elsewhere, and my purpose in writing about the whole thing is to share my learning process in the hope that others might find it useful.

I seem to have gone on at considerable length already, though, so I shall leave this post as background and start on the substantive stuff when we can meet it fresh at the start of a post.

Hi Liz, I appreciate you writing about this and only came to your site to find out bits about Barbershop, perhaps female Barbershop. And you brought to my attention the "White Frame" issue and I'm glad you pointed it out in a further article as really "White Male Frame". Of course nothing new, but glad it is getting attention.
What amazes me, I'm seeing in the whitesplanin' / mansplainin' is that you cannot even have a debate, let alone acknowledge or other people to acknowledge this issue on some forums. There is no voice in some places. (Ok, I'm on the wrong forums!) But I am tired of the "Oh it always has been this way" and "[this certain person] ... didn't mean it that way ..." or "No, I'm not speaking about that issue [despite referencing a video where Phil Ewell is featured throughout the 45 minutes!]"

I was looking a few months back about the petition about the ABRSM piano syllabus and it not featuring black composers. And I thought, well what about black female composers, British ones (best I found was Avril Coleridge-Taylor) and I actually feel as if surely my conditioning cannot be that bad that I can name only one.

The "White Male Frame" is so blatantly obvious, staring you in the face, been going on for (is it hundreds of years(?)) and there's either delusion, lack of accountability. Where I am in my conclusion is: complete conditioning that the mindset is: this is how it is, it is acceptable (which of course I don't agree with). And then there's further ideas: Can you fix such a broken mindset or is it a continual fight? I try to be aware, but can fall into the "what's the point? It's a waste of time" category at times.

Furthermore there is black people and women in academia debate (I'm sure things yet to be written) and it is an echo chamber where the prominently white male academics are surely just going to perpetuate white male ideas and values. I suppose that is the essence of the issue: old boys' network: It's a rigged game!

[Long time fan from Colchester 1998/1999? Please edit reply if needed, if suitable as reply]

Hello Owain, nice to hear from you!
As someone who has been involved in feminist musicology since the early 1990s, I know well this sense of questioning whether it's actually making any difference at all. (I wrote about it at some length a few years back:

You sometimes get tired, and it's okay to stop pedalling for a bit and regroup. If you care about this, as it seems you do, the world pulls you back into the fray in due course. The knack is working out what you can do effectively, and to do that, and not squander too much emotional energy where it won't make much difference.

Anyway, I hope you find what you wanted to know about barbershop as well as sharing your thoughts on music's white/male frame!

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content