How Critical Race Theory Has Poisoned Music Theory

How Critical Race Theory Has Poisoned Music Theory

Identity politics has come for music theory, teaching that there is a fixed amount of intellectual space in the music theory world, and that space has too many white men in it.

Leftism has become extremely prevalent in academia, and it has accelerated. Controversy exploded this summer in a field that, until recently, had very little to do with identity politics: music theory, the study of musical structures and the way people perceive them. At least one professor has been canceled, and an entire area of specialization is being torn down as “racist.”

This political infiltration follows the pattern of other academic shifts, such as the emergence of so-called grievance studies, fields a Federalist contributor described as “identity politics thinly disguised as scholarship.” One of the most infamous examples of this was revealed by a 2018 experiment in which a group of scholars submitted a series of outlandish hoax articles to peer-reviewed journals, many of which were unironically accepted and published.

One includes a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” rewritten using terminology from intersectionality theory. Another journal published a paper about how dog parks are “petri dishes for canine ‘rape culture.’”

While it is fun to laugh at the absurdity of those articles, it’s important to recognize that the scholars within “grievance studies” did not take that embarrassment to heart and reflect on the state of their research. Instead, they worked to discredit those who revealed their bias, calling for an investigation into their “research misconduct.” The same egregious trend is now coming for music theory.

‘Music Theory’s White Racial Frame’ Is a Myth

At the 2019 annual conference for the Society for Music Theory, Dr. Philip Ewell, a professor at Hunter College in New York City, gave a presentation titled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.” He argued that 20th-century Austrian Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, a sort of founding father of the discipline, was a “virulent racist,” that his research was tainted by his racism, and that his students and intellectual followers were “whitewashing” his legacy by focusing on his research rather than his nationalist political views in the interwar period.

The attack on this historical figure was similar in tone to the 1619 Project and other recent attempts to discredit America’s Founding Fathers as too racist to be honored, and the American founding too tainted by racism for to preserve or improve its institutions. In response to Ewell’s presentation, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a peer-reviewed publication by the University of North Texas, published a “symposium” of 15 articles to discuss the merits of Ewell’s evidence and conclusions. Some supported Ewell’s position, but the majority opposed it.

The articles against Ewell’s position criticized his research for decontextualizing Schenker’s words to present a misleading picture of him, for being historically inaccurate about the acceptance of Schenkerian methods in American academia, and for making suspicious logical connections about the nature of Schenker’s work. Some of the authors, most notably Dr. Timothy Jackson, an adviser to the journal, took time to speculate about why the discipline is not very ethnically diverse. He also suggested Ewell’s research might involve antisemitism.

Rather than debate the criticisms of Ewell, however, the society decided to go a different direction. The journal has now been decried as racist, unprofessional, and unethical. Throughout the community, there have been calls to “dissolve the journal,” “critically examine the culture at the university,” and “hold accountable every person responsible for the direction of the publication.” North Texas graduate students themselves have made these calls, supported by hundreds of professors, including nearly all of the other North Texas department faculty members.

Censorship Infiltrates Music Theory

There has been no serious attempt to debate the authors in the journal edition on the merits of their arguments, as they sought to do with Ewell’s. Instead, students and professors such as Megan Lavengood are taking passages out of context and presenting them as evidence of racism, as attempts to cover up Schenker’s racism, or as attempts to excuse themselves for “participating in a racist system.” The authors are being demonized for daring to suggest that music theory, as it is studied in Euro-American academia, is not fundamentally racist, and the reaction to the journal is clear evidence of a culture of censorship within the community.

Notably, one person contributed anonymously to the journal edition. This is highly unusual in a peer-reviewed journal, but this person was rightfully fearful that if his name were revealed, the society could blacklist him. Rather than recognize this as a tragic example of oppression within the discipline, however, it is instead used as evidence of the journal’s “lack of academic rigor” and justification for its cancellation.

Ironically, the society’s executive board released a statement calling the journal’s rebuttals of Ewell’s research “silencing” and “designed to replicate a culture of whiteness,” and for that reason, it needs to be silenced. In an interview with Denton Record-Chronicle, Ewell said he has not and does not plan to read the journal edition because he “will not participate in [his] own dehumanization,” and claimed the authors were “incensed by [his] Blackness challenging their whiteness.” He would rather see his rivals silenced than acknowledge the possibility that reasonable people could disagree with him without being racist.

Music Theory Can’t Flourish Under Ideological Suppression

It is the work of a music theorist to identify the building blocks of music, such as melody, harmony, and rhythm, and to reveal their organizational principles. As teachers, we seek to illuminate the mysteries behind how great works of art are composed, so others might use those tools to find their own artistic voices. As analysts, we look for patterns in music and seek to interpret their meanings for a fuller, more nuanced understanding of musical works.

Music is in many ways a very subjective art, and if we seek to fully understand its working, we must also seek to understand more about human perception. To do that, a music theorist will also study (to varying degrees, based on one’s area of expertise) history, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, acoustical science, cognitive science, and a variety of other related fields in order to refine his or her understanding not only of the music but also of how humans hear, feel, relate, and emotionally connect to music.

Both identity and politics have played major roles in musical expression throughout history, but “identity politics” in the music theory field today is not about revealing how they are communicated in the music. Instead, it has become a belief that there is a fixed amount of intellectual space in the music theory world, and that fixed space has too many white males in it. It is a belief that the only way to achieve equity in music theory is to silence not just “problematic” voices but to diminish entire “problematic” modes of thinking. This is a false and immoral belief.

There should not be any limit to the ideas we can explore, nor should there be any arbiters suppressing them. With calls like these, however, leftists once again reveal they do want limits on ideas, and they do want suppression of the “problematic” ones. That is because they enjoy being the suppressors.

The author works in the music theory field and is anonymous here to avoid being canceled.

This byline marks several different individuals, granted anonymity in cases where publishing an article on The Federalist would credibly threaten close personal relationships, their safety, or their jobs. We verify the identities of those who publish anonymously with The Federalist.

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