Among the many efforts to decenter whiteness in academia and other left-leaning institutions is one to take on the presumed racist tendencies embodied in musicology. It’s an issue that has nagged at me for years, and one exemplified by a new book, the Hunter College music professor Philip Ewell’s “On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone.” Ewell’s book, an expansion of his widely read 2020 article “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” is an impassioned argument that the study of music theory is infected by racism.
I am not a musicologist by training, but music is something I have paid close attention to my whole life, to the extent that I teach a course on music history at Columbia. In the past, I have raised questions about some of Ewell’s claims regarding music theory. And after reading Ewell’s book, I have a few more.
Ewell’s original article was a major spur to the movement to decenter whiteness in musicology. And that movement has certainly had some positive results. The increased attention to Black classical composers such as Joseph Bologne — an 18th-century French Caribbean violinist, composer and fencer who is the subject of the new film “Chevalier” — William Levi Dawson and Florence Price (both 20th-century Americans) is crucial. Scholars must highlight the work of a Black American composer such as George Walker just as they learned to elevate the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen. But Ewell is seeking something more revolutionary than this: a complete overhaul of musicology’s focus, procedures and expectations in which much that is designated “white” is treated with skepticism and much that is not is presumptively welcomed — although Ewell offers few concrete examples of what this additional non- “white” material might be.
Indeed, much of what Ewell recommends seems to entail relaxing requirements and expectations. In this, he joins similar calls in other fields, where sociopolitical intent is elevated over fact-finding, linear reasoning and basic curiosity (as described in this article, which my colleague Pamela Paul discussed two weeks ago and of which I am a co-author). We are encouraged to contemplate a physics without “white” empiricism and a math where getting the correct answer is optional. And here Ewell proposes a credentialed expertise in musicology that does not require the until now customary abilities to play the piano or translate from any foreign language, and where one is allowed, if desired, to get a degree on the basis of beat making or sound recording, which do not require the playing of any instrument.
Regarding the piano, for example, Ewell thinks it “enforces a commitment to whiteness and maleness,” and thus playing it should not be expected of those who teach music theory. But apart from the rather central question of what makes piano playing male or white, the truth is that a keyboard is far better suited to demonstrating music theory than most instruments for the simple reason that one can play chords on it. Ewell seems also to be referring to the fact that there are online tools for teaching theory these days, but can they replace a teacher who is able to execute basic pieces spontaneously in order to demonstrate those principles?
Ewell also believes musicology should entail no foreign language requirements, because Greek, Latin, Italian, French and German are “white” languages. Questions abound. Do we really want music experts unable to read or understand the lyrics in Wagner, Puccini or any works in these specified languages? It is my sense that Ewell might not mind this. He implies that there are non- “white” languages that students could be pointed to: “It should go without saying that there are music-theoretical works worth studying written in foreign languages other than these five, and that they can be representative of other longstanding rich music theory traditions, both inside and outside of the European continent.” It is a fascinating proposal, and one to which I am not at all averse. But it is difficult to assess precisely because Ewell does not tell us any of the languages he is referring to. If we are to be maximally un-white about the matter, I am hoping he is referring to music theory work in Swahili, Hausa, Amharic or Twi, but it’d be good to have some specifics.
Music theory has traditionally been taught with a major focus on the work of the Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whom Ewell specifically attacked in his 2019 article. In the book, Ewell expands his argument that studying Schenker should be optional because he was — like many Germanophones of his time and place, straddling the turn of the 20th century — a German nationalist with overtly racist views. Timothy Jackson, an editorial adviser of a small journal devoted to Schenker’s work, commissioned a special issue of responses to Ewell’s article, most of which were critical. The issue was widely condemned as racist in musicology circles, and Jackson was barred from the journal amid calls for his firing as a professor at the university that supports it.
There are surely reasoned debates one could have about Ewell’s various recommendations, but it is disturbing that they so often entail a relaxing of standards without presenting new challenges other than those that decentering whiteness might entail. Getting a musicology master’s or Ph.D. degree in Ewell’s world would be a lot easier: no need to play piano (or apparently, any instrument), no need to learn foreign languages, no need to take standardized tests or submit to anonymous peer reviews (two additional targets of Ewell’s) and so on. Ewell answers thus: “If someone says that enacting any of my recommendations represents a ‘lowering of standards,’ push back against that language. Usually a lowering of standards is code for becoming less white and less male.” He does not explain why his ideas do not involve a lowering of standards; he merely dismisses such standards as racist “code.”
The assumption, then, is that the “whiteness” or “maleness” of any given proposition must automatically be a mere power play rather than a reasoned aesthetic or logical conclusion. And that elicits a question we’re not supposed to ask: What if, where classical music is concerned, white people, in all of their perfidies otherwise, got something right? And I mean so right that all those trained in the close study of music should be familiar with it? Black people got it right with syncopation as default, with blue notes and, especially in Africa, with complex rhythm. All of these elements deeply season our modern musical experience. But Beethoven’s Seventh is just, in Ewell’s telling, white stuff? In a blog post, Ewell dismissed the composer as merely “above average” and fetishized by the white establishment.
Of course, any white man’s ideas and responses to critique — like any human being’s — can be shaped by his privilege and biases. But we need arguments demonstrating that for each individual case. Summarily dismissing all objections as invalid when coming from a white male seems less higher wisdom than just holding your ears.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”
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