Last month music school grad student and YouTuber Adam Neely released a video he titled “Is Music Theory Racist?” Quickly renamed “Music Theory and White Supremacy,” Neely’s video followed some controversy within the insular world of music schools after a symposium talk by Philip Ewell, an associate professor of music theory at Hunter College in New York. Ewell argued that Heinrich Schenker, an Austrian music theorist with white supremacist views working at the turn of the 20th century, helped create Eurocentric and hierarchical view of music theory that has since become pervasive.
The main point of Neely’s video wasn’t that musical theory was actively working to oppress people of color, but that our concept of “music theory” is essentially “the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians.” Most American students lucky enough to be taught any music theory in public schools are likely exposed to a very specific systems of scales, chords, and rhythms that omits or elides any number of other musical traditions from India, China, the Middle East and Africa, as well as any number of indigenous musical traditions from the Americas.
Some of the claims in the video were revelatory.
The outrage in response to Ewell’s lecture and Neely’s video (mostly from white people) was swift and intense. Fox News reported on the backlash against Ewell from within the music community. On YouTube, reactions added to the discussion. One video defended music theory as a neutral system, even while wondering “whether we can say that within a certain dimension one culture is better than another.” What does “better” mean, and who should empowered to judge the merits of these cultures, and by what criteria?
As RIFF’s resident music academic, I decided to call up Oakland educator, acclaimed pianist, composer and hip-hop artist Kev Choice to weigh in on the controversy. We also spoke about the state of music instruction, the importance of music theory and the way music can empower people, all against a backdrop of increasingly angry protests over racial inequality in America. Kev Choice has toured and recorded with Michael Franti and Spearhead, Lyrics Born, Too $hort, Ledisi and Goapele. He also spent several years as musical director for Lauryn Hill.
“To me, music theory is just the formulation. It’s an approach to understanding or teaching harmony, melody, rhythm,” he told me.
The point that Neely makes in his video is not that music theory is racist, but that when we talk about music theory, what most people are referring to is the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians.
“Being racist is somebody who’s actively discriminating against somebody because of their race or using their race to suppress or oppress another person, “Kev Choice said, differentiating between racism and white supremacy. “White supremacy is basically trying to say that whiteness is the be-all-end-all. Like, ‘this is the definition of what’s great; our way of life, our way of living, our way of music is better than anyone else’s.’ It’s an uplifting of whiteness, to the detriment of of every other culture.”
“What is happening with this theory is like saying that the Beethovens and the Chopins are superior to everyone else, and that’s why their music needs to be taught. This is what genius is,” he continued. “And this is not to take away from saying that this brand of theory isn’t good or that it isn’t useful. I’m saying that it’s not the only one. There’s so many others that can be taught and it’s and it’s about time that we start looking at why is this the only one talk about. Why is this the standardized way?”
A broader conception of music theory is beneficial to everyone interested in music, Kev Choice said.
“It could be beneficial to everyone to understand more about, you know, North Indian theory. Or African rhythms,” he said. “And I also think one important thing is to understand the point [Neely] was making about the people who developed this concept of music theory, who are definitely coming from a very racist and white supremacist framework.”
The continuing legacy of white supremacy systematically foregrounds white contributions while ignoring or dismissing the musical traditions that exist outside whiteness.
As a college writing instructor, I see the same dynamic at work in the teaching of grammar. When we think of grammar, we most often call to mind “Standard English” that is synonymous with the way white people talk and write. The white supremacy of grammar is perhaps more insidious, as it doesn’t simply ignore the grammatical variations used by people of color or other marginalized groups, but actively condemns them as “wrong” or “incorrect.”
Even worse, grammar can be used to patrol the borders of class distinction. Grammatical “mistakes” on resumes and cover letters are often used to weed out potential employees. “Informal language” can be used as grounds to dismiss opinions as unworthy of our time and attention. The rich and powerful in our society can use the privilege of their education to marginalize others who were not fortunate enough to have the time and resources required to obtain that education.
The marginalizing effects of this elitism are pernicious.
Consider for a moment the economic barrier for some to even learn to play a musical instrument, an endeavor that requires a significant initial investment to buy the instrument as well as a considerable investment in time to learn to play it. It’s much like the cost of a computer and internet access fuels our current digital divide when it comes to equal access to information among the rich and poor.
As a culture, we need to face up to the lingering effects of white supremacy in all of our institutions. But that alone is not enough. Fighting white supremacy means diversifying our perspective, inviting all manner of otherness into our arts and education, broadening our perspectives and questioning the assumptions that undergird our curricula.
“I think it could start with just looking at other cultures and some of their theoretical practices,” Kev Choice said about finding a way forward. “I think the one good thing that this video did was talk about Indian ragas and things like that. We can get into Chinese or Asian culture music and the scales that they use, which people like John Coltrane definitely explored in their music.”