Thursday 12:45-4:00 ET

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Whose Voices? Epistemic Injustice and Exclusion in Music Academia

Anabel Maler (University of Iowa), Chair and Organizer

"The COVID-19 pandemic and calls for racial justice in 2020 have called attention to the ways in which epistemic exclusion and injustice haunt our society and limit accessibility on a broad, systemic scale. “Epistemic injustice,” a term coined by Miranda Fricker, refers to “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.” A person may be wronged in their capacity as a giver of knowledge, or when a gap in collective knowledge puts them “at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences” (Fricker 2007, 2). The idea of epistemic exclusion, and the epistemic injustices to which this exclusion leads, can be a productive frame for understanding how some knowledge is valued and disseminated in the discourses of music theory, while other knowledge is marginalized, ignored, and rejected from our dominant musical paradigms. This session aims to dismantle the fixed epistemic frames of music theory, to shift what is marginal and marginalized to the center, to focus on the questions and perspectives that have slipped through the cracks of our epistemic resources. In calling attention to how our epistemic resources have largely been determined by white, male, able-bodied persons, we aim to highlight the knowledge and experience of those who have been traditionally excluded from our epistemic frames."

Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures

Stefan Sunandan Honisch (University of British Columbia)


In counterpoint to the question of whose voices are included and excluded in music academia, my paper asks a question of its own: how have changing aesthetics and shifting critical postures brought new points of emphasis to the creative practices of disabled musicians during Covid-19? Building on the premise that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, I explore the ways in which “disability music,” made and received within the curricular and pedagogical systems of “ability music” that our time of pandemic has revealed with particular clarity, throws hierarchical organizations of pitch, rhythm, phrase, melody, harmony, and ultimately, the very idea of “form” itself into crisis. My approach attends to what it means, and, crucially, what it could mean to be disabled at the beginning of a decade that, in Arundhati Roy’s apt words, constitutes a “portal,” inviting our presence “with little luggage, ready to imagine another world” (Roy, 2020). In so many ways, however, now more than a year after Roy’s call, the crisis continues, the portal remains untraversed, another world is left unimagined. Moving within the framework of Critical Disability Studies, and voicing the principles of Disability Justice in response to the epistemic injustices that reduce disability music to music’s other, can, I suggest, help us move beyond the ableist frames of a post-pandemic “return to normal,” a discourse which poses an always unanswered question: normal for whom?

‘We like no noise, unless we make it ourselves’: Music Theory’s (Insidious) Norms

Richard Beaudoin (Dartmouth College)


The field of music theory operates according to countless unwritten, unspoken agreements that quietly regulate its content. These insidious norms have historically funneled scholarly activity towards notated scores by white, male, able-bodied persons. Redirecting these currents, writings by William Cheng, Philip Ewell, Ellie Hisama, and Loren Kajikawa suggest that music departments would be more interesting, healthy, and populated places if all music — and all theorists — counted. This is not simply a platitude: an ongoing curricular transformation will be offered as a case study of the impact that these scholars have had on the creation of new courses and avenues of research.

Inspired by the proposals set forth in Hisama’s “Getting to Count,” I will raise questions about theory’s entrenched center/periphery binary: Which works are granted ‘citizenship’ at our conferences? Which performers receive analytical attention? Which interpreters are ‘allowed’ to record which repertoire? And within audio recordings, which sounds matter? This last question might seem trivial, but it is teeming with hermeneutic life: our collective appraisal about what ‘counts’ as music — and who does the counting — reinforces an undue sanctity for the composer’s score as determinative of meaningful content while simultaneously marginalizing the sounds made by the bodies of performers. (This includes the common and disturbing practice of suppressing the sound of musicians breathing.) New research that analyzes and celebrates the totality of sounding bodies is offered as a small contribution to the larger epistemic changes occurring within music departments and the SMT.

Rousseau as Neurodivergent Music Theorist: Thoughts on Disrupting Cognitive Barriers

Stephanie Ban (Illinois)

Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin)


As North American college instructors, we can design strategies to accommodate disabled students and facilitate their completion of the learning tasks that we have defined as essential to music theory pedagogy.  Those staff-notation-based, counterpoint-driven learning outcomes are the standards by which we define our academic discipline, essential functional principles that we can trace back to at least Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie and Nouveau système théorique.

But these principles can also provide noteworthy cognitive hurdles that limit access and bring about epistemic injustice. Stephanie Ban has proposed considering the musical thought of Rousseau, arguably the most significant contemporary interlocutor of Rameau, from a disability studies angle, considering his self-awareness as “disabled” from a social-model perspective precisely because of his struggles with comprehending and applying the musical principles that Rameau was codifying as essential for the French elite. 

We might even see Rousseau experiencing a sort of “disability gain” through his efforts to articulate musical priorities that challenged the primacy of Rameau’s models, though insufficiently to prevent them from becoming normate. Considering Rousseau’s attempt at an anti-Rameau theory more closely as a neurodivergent epistemic disruption might help us shake off some of the inevitability of functional harmony and species counterpoint as foundational starting points for undergraduate music theory today, and also understand how those pedagogical approaches create cognitive barriers that exclude some folks—neodivergent or otherwise—who would have valuable contributions to epistemological discourse on music and musicking.

Not Doing Music Theory: Reflections on My Path Through (and Around) the Profession

Sumanth Gopinath (University of Minnesota)


This talk reflects upon my experiences of being told that I was "not a real music theorist" or "not doing music theory." These experiences date back to the earliest days of my involvement in the field as an undergraduate student, through my graduate school years, and even, mostly implicitly, in relation to being hired, the tenure process, and subsequent work at my current institution of employment. While my identity as a South Asian American and person of color in an overwhelmingly white field is not separable from this history, its primary lineaments are intellectual and stem from 1) the experience of research science as an undergraduate student in electrical engineering, and simultaneously being confronted by what appeared to be the pseudo-scientific aspects of modern English-language music theory; 2) my encounters with the broader humanities, critical theory, Marxism, and labor and political organizing while in graduate school, which led to the formation of a scholarly ideal that diverged from the then-prevalent norms in music theory; and 3) the subordination of music-theoretical claims and inquiries to hermeneutic, historical, and political-economic ones in most of my work. My affiliation to music theory is strongest with what Fred Maus has described to me as the "fringe culture of the SMT": a capacious margin that includes a (for some) bewildering diversity of post-paradigmatic scholarly approaches to the study of music. Increasingly, that post-paradigmatic fringe is threatening to swallow up the whole of the field—a tendency that, in my view, we ought to explicitly embrace.

Music Sociality

Jennifer Iverson (University of Chicago)


I am not the first to note that music, and music theory, are highly skill-based discourses. As such, music can quickly exclude those who are “different,” construed here in terms of race, class, gender, bodily or cognitive ability, or some combination. This paper opens space for us to reconsider what we are doing when we are teaching music (theory) and more specifically, to consider teaching in a way that is more socially-based than skill-based. I share about “Music Sociality,” a middle-school program I facilitate at City Elementary (a Chicago school for children with autism and other sensory-processing or learning differences). The program aims to build students’ descriptive vocabulary and reciprocal communication about sound, thereby increasing social conduits, via music, between neuro-atypical kids and their (neuro-typical) peers. This program creates social connection around music, rather than teaching skill, technique, or specific knowledge. Recognizing that this is a middle school program, and that I teach music at a privileged University that values liberal-arts-style inquiry, I nevertheless think out loud and share tools for transporting the aims of “Music Sociality” into your contexts and your college music theory classrooms. This is an invitation to take creative, pragmatic, and specific steps toward reframing music, and your music (theory) teaching, as a space of shared sociality and inclusion, rather than as a space of epistemic exclusion.

Epistemic Injustice and Deaf ‘Hearers’ of Music

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke (Gallaudet University)


This paper analyses a particular epistemic injustice focusing on the experience of deaf music knowers. One narrow folk definition of what a deaf person is reinforces common stereotypes about deaf people and our ability to access music. This definition assumes that all deaf persons hear no sound at all and are therefore unable to access, experience, appreciate or develop informed views about music. Academics are not exempt from this kind of thinking, as I recently experienced when giving a paper offering a view of how the field of Deaf Philosophy might approach the topic of music appreciation. My paper aims at the messy middle of signing deaf community reality – deaf people can and do appreciate music, with or without sound. During the discussion portion of my paper, I was dismissed as a knower of music and also as a knower of deafness. Ironically, these two epistemic challenges turned on the same criterion – whether I had the capacity to experience sound. My challenger's reasoning was as follows: to count as a knower of music, one must possess the capacity to hear; to count as a knower of deafness, one must not possess any auditory capacity. Fricker's own descriptions of epistemic injustice refer to the parties in such an interaction as 'speaker' and 'hearer', reinforcing a conception of epistemic injustice that is audist by default. I argue for a Deaf Philosophy approach, which assumes the validity of signing Deaf community testimony as a starting point instead of using an audiogram as gatekeeper.