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Antiracist Music Theories: Redefining The Discipline’s Key Terms

Jade Conlee (Yale University), Tatiana Koike (Yale University), Organizers

Philip Ewell (Hunter College of the City University of New York), Chair

Music theorists are increasingly questioning the “white racial frame” of our field (Ewell 2020). New pedagogical resources have been created to decenter the whiteness of music theory classrooms, and there is renewed scholarly interest in the affordances of cross-cultural analysis and the works of under-studied theorists of color. More can be done, however, to move the field toward an antiracist praxis. This panel evaluates the legacy of music theory's historical involvement in racist and imperialist projects and opens to field to more diverse theoretical and disciplinary perspectives, ultimately reimagining music theory’s position within discourses of power and authority.

This session brings together an interdisciplinary group of ten scholars to deliver ten-minute lightning talks. These talks represent works in progress for the upcoming edited volume, Key Terms in Music Theory for Antiracist Scholars. Each speaker has chosen a single key term as the focus of their talk. Some terms are drawn from traditional discourses in music theory, while others represent conceptual and practitioner-based innovations that broaden the field’s epistemological scope. In focusing this session around terminology, we aim to denaturalize the field's basic assumptions about music and analysis while still validating music theory’s traditional focus on musical detail. Our session’s speakers imagine an antiracist future for our discipline in which theorists critically examine the constructions of race, human, and world produced by our analytical terminologies. The session is divided into two parts separated by a twenty-minute break. Each part will feature five papers followed by thirty minutes of discussion.

Autonomy: Liberal Musicology, Marxist Aesthetics, and Racial Capitalism

Derek Baron (New York University)


The discourse on aesthetic autonomy poses an originary question for music theory in that it attempts to define the relation between an artwork and the society in which its meanings can be said to cohere. The classic conception of aesthetic autonomy posits a categorical separability between the work of art and society, creating an airtight hermeneutic bubble in which an artwork’s beauty can be contemplated apart from the exterior social world. In the late twentieth century, scholars associated with the New Musicological turn struggled to burst this bubble, introducing frameworks for music meaning that insisted on the constitutive role of contextual social differentials like gender and race. In recent years, however, scholars have used Marxist and post-Marxist analysis to rebuke New Musicology’s contextualism and reconsider formalism and autonomy as a strategic framework for sharpening musicology’s critical potential. 

In this talk, I argue that this discourse has hardened into an antinomy that misrecognizes racial difference as merely epiphenomenal to, rather than constitutive of, forms of social domination specific to capitalist society. By introducing the rich theoretical tradition on “racial capitalism” into the aesthetic debates that alternate between “race” or “capitalism” as a prioritized framework for cultural analysis, I offer a way for music theorists and musicologists to rematerialize their analyses. Rather than a zero-sum choice between race as social difference and capitalism as totalizing system, a critical vantage rooted in racial capitalism will lead to a more salient conception of relationship between music and the world.

Form: Deconstructing Hierarchy and Standard

Sam Reenan (Miami University)


This presentation deconstructs contemporary notions of musical form by reexamining two commonly held paradigms: that form is necessarily hierarchical, and that formal procedures abide by historically inscribed standards of normativity. Endemic to North American theories of musical form is the notion that western art music is organized hierarchically. In the context of music theoretical thought, hierarchies are regulative. For example, in Hepokoski and Darcy’s (2006) Elements of Sonata Theory, the authority of socially reified musical structures underpins an analytical project focused on transgressions. Sonata Theory’s adherence to a uniformity of practice calls to mind Butler’s (1990) “frameworks of intelligibility,” as certain forms are deemed more or less “available” in a given generic context. Such a conception of musical form promotes normativity rather than, as in Straus’s (2018) adaptation of disability studies to music, drawing on deviations “as a valuable source of new kinds of musical combinations and musical effects” (3). As a form of musicological “surveillance,” to borrow a concept from Browne (2015), the maintenance of a catalog of classical norms only serves to reinforce the boundaries between the white, male “masterworks” and the Other. I reimagine hierarchy and standard along the lines of embodiment and phenomenology. Following Ngo (2016), I consider the active mode a listener-analyst can adopt in (re-)defining sedimented expectations. Reversing the usual paradigm of a passive transfer of ritualized responses, Ngo suggests that the reified norms and expectations of a receiving body are subject to change by actively challenging those very structures.

Siihasin: A Diné Perspective on Music Analysis

Renata Yazzie (University of New Mexico)


Our Diné (Navajo) people have long held song as a source of healing and vitality. The multi-functionality and inherent sacredness of song does not accommodate colonial ideals of music analysis and theory; it is almost unfathomable. There is no word for “music” in our language as our “music” is always sung – thus, it is best translated as “song.” Attempts to analyze and understand Diné song have been conducted through acts of “pinning down” (Robinson 2019) Diné song on staves, reducing their agency in the name of salvage ethnography. This talk thus seeks to provide a Diné perspective of analyzing music that maintains the integrity of Diné epistemology of song. Through first examining our Diné language, this talk begins by revealing the unique relationship Diné listeners have to song and music. Further, by providing a basic understanding of Diné philosophy and worldview Sa’ąh Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón (SNBH), this talk ultimately seeks to contribute an Indigenous perspective of “music analysis” guided by the four stages of internalization of knowledge for living one’s life process: Nitsáhákees (thinking), Nahat’á (planning), Iiná (life), and Siihasin (fulfillment and hope). Thus, I posit that Diné people, specifically, can also utilize this framework to analyze song and music of all genres, today. For within Siihasin, we decide for ourselves how a song will affect our personhood - and for many Diné people, this particular “analysis” or reflection is paramount to the continued fulfillment of one’s life process.

Mariachismo: Sounded Hypermasculinity

José R. Torres-Ramos (Hiram College)


The modern mariachi tradition is one of Mexico’s most globally recognized icons of nationalist culture and is often musically characterized as a mestizo folk form that combines indigenous rhythmic elements with Western harmonic and melodic structures. However, in Mexico, mariachi’s performative musicality is informed by discrete notions of hypermasculinity that alter how its sounds are produced and heard among native practitioners and listeners. I conceptualize this musical semiosis as mariachismo, a coalescence of body, instrument, timbre, and garments, which phenomenologically mirrors an ethos of Mexico’s charro figure, and which induces musical gestures of hypermasculine attitude and sound not solely understood by traditional Western music theory. This presentation decentralizes traditional Eurocentric pitch-centered systems of musical sound production by exploring the sonic dimensions of mariachismo as a notion of timbral listening. Mariachi sound is perceived within a timbre-centered sound system (Levine 2006) that imbues melody with a particular quality of sonic masculinity, compounded with melodic elongations of rhythmic phrasing and wide vibrato, all of which combined, complicate any theoretical analyses conducted solely through written notation. The aesthetic efficacy of hypermasculine timbre is rooted in everyday sound and listening practices in Mexico’s lifeworld, which normalize acts of excess sonic aggression that privilege a patriarchal acoustic habitus. Mariachismo’s aesthetic sounds are not reducible to Western transcriptions of precise pitch and tonal quality. Rather, they encompass a larger confluence of internal bodily knowledge, culturally learned and naturalized, representing an interface of engendered sound, listening, and embodiment.

The Technē Turn

Cat Slowik (Yale University)


Internalized beliefs about how to answer the question “What makes us human?” undergird discourse about what kinds of cultural production are valuable. As Sylvia Wynter has argued, Western epistemology has long centered a White concept of the human that creates and sustains itself in opposition to racialized Others. A revision of the epistemological principles that have been used to determine who is and is not human is necessary to disrupt and unsettle the coloniality of power that prevails in Western society and its institutions, including music theory. 

Although technē the kind of practical knowledge that allows an expert to produce contingent things—has received little attention in music theoretical discourse, it has a long history as an alternative, non-racialized answer to the question “What makes us human?” In this paper, I consider the disciplinary affordances of centering technē as a model for music and music theoretical knowledge. I understand technē through its relation to two related concepts: first, epistēmē, the theoretical knowledge produced through the application of technical knowledge; and second, physis (nature), which technē supplements. Through these dispositions, I arrive at an account of musical technē that is specialist, but also universal: although different individuals possess different technical expertise, technai exist in all societies. If musical activity presupposes technē, I argue, then the proper domain of music theory is the epistēmē the theoretical knowledge that is produced by the application of musical technai.

Meter, Africanized

Martin Scherzinger (New York University)


The talk examines the way some types of sub-Saharan African music—ranging from pre-colonial matepe music from the Korekore region in northern Zimbabwe and amadinda music from the Kampala region in southern Uganda from the era before the destruction of the Lubiri Court—pose a challenge to, if not conceptually invert, the Newtonian-inflected relation of meter (and thereby also rhythm). In contrast to the Euro-industrial conception of it, consolidated in modern Enlightenment era, rhythmic-melodic entities in matepe and amadinda music, (no less than embaire, akadinda, mbira dza vadzimu, and timbila music) often remain stable, while metric schemes are meticulously rotated. This talk describes the systems that undergird their performance practices, demonstrating, for example, how interlocking parts and inherent pattern formations elicit beat entrainment set adrift of the embodied motor patterns of performers, as well as how procedures for pitch transposition further rotate distinct metric schemes, effectively recouping a kind of rhythmic-melodic identity under transformational metric conditions. Instead of merely to relativize Euro-industrial practices of meter (and its attendant rhythm-concept) the talk hopes to Africanize those metric practices that go as universal. This is a study in reimagining a musical formalism, beyond refusal or redemption, to decenter the colonial legacies of musical time.

Pitch Fundamentalism and the Colonization of Tonal Space

Daniel Walden (Durham University)

bio for Daniel Walden

Daniel is Assistant Professor in Music Analysis at Durham University. He received his PhD in Music from Harvard University and was a Junior Research Fellow at University of Oxford. His research interests include tuning and temperament and the global history of musical science, as well as analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. His book project traces the colonial histories of pitch studies in nineteenth-century Japan, West Africa, North India, and the Indigenous Americas, and examines how the systems developed within these contexts for quantifying and quantizing musical sounds laid the groundwork for today’s digital systems for managing musical data. He is the founder of NIFTY (New Instruments for Theory), an open-access database of digital and DIY instruments designed to diversify theoretical research and pedagogy. Daniel has also published on ancient music theory and early modern enharmonicism, and is active as a performer of contemporary experimental and improvised music. He was elected as Trustee of the Society for Music Analysis in 2021.


This talk examines how the epistemological and ontological formations of modern colonialism shaped Western academic conceptions of pitch and pitch space.  I start by tracing how comparative musicologists (Ellis 1885), musical psychologists (Stumpf/Hornbostel 1911), and music theorists (Fétis 1860–1865, Riemann 1914) relied upon epistemologies of “pitch fundamentalism” that automatically identified tones by their fundamental frequencies alone, and transferred the responsibility for recognizing those fundamentals to mechanical instruments.  Building on insights from political theory and anthropology that reveal how the conceptualization of geographical space as homogenous, empty, and absolute was leveraged for colonial governance (Mitchell 2000 et al.), I argue that the spatialization of pitch through diagrammatic techniques such as the Tonnetz (Euler 1739, Oettingen 1866, Tanaka 1890, Khare 1921) afforded acts of quantification, quantization, and commensuration that drew on the statistical instruments of empire, and justified re-drawing cultural, ethnic, and racial borders.  The dynamics of pitch fundamentalism and spatialization, I suggest, have locked the past century and a half of pitch studies into the continual reiteration of two temporal frameworks: unilinear developmentalism and cultural relativism (Scherzinger 2017). The former leads to the homogenous and infinitely extensive plane of the just-intonation Tonnetz; the latter leads to “non-Western Tonnetze” (e.g. Khare 1921, Tenzer 2000) and the equal-tempered torus that has captivated Neo-Riemannian and transformational scholarship for the past three decades. The lessons of radical geography and Indigenous studies (Chen 2010, Robinson 2019), however, suggest that the work of decolonialism will require us to develop new ways for conceptualizing pitch.

Audiation, Musical Aptitude, and Racial Epistemology

Jade Conlee (Yale University)


In 1975, Edwin Gordon coined the term “audiation” as the lynchpin of his childhood musical aptitude testing franchise. For Gordon, audiation entails the comprehension of musical meaning through the lens of theoretical concepts such as mode and meter. Gordon admits, however, that he cannot be sure when students are audiating, as one can never know the interior thoughts of another. When personal and unverifiable acts of comprehension serve as the basis by which a teacher can judge a student’s ability, this leaves ample opportunity for race and gender discrimination to intervene. 

In this presentation, I argue that music theory’s reliance on audiation has perpetuated racialized and gendered conceptions of musical aptitude. Perhaps best articulated in Hugo Riemann’s (1914) Tonvorstellungen essay, Western music theory has historically given epistemic primacy to the interior performance of music-theoretical concepts over and above exterior sounds. In Voice and Phenomenon (1967), Derrida famously critiques an analogous relationship between symbolic and interior representations of knowledge found in Western philosophy. Following Derrida, I posit audiation as a musical correlate to Edmund Husserl’s “internal monologue,” a privileged space of pure expression in which meaning is immediately present to consciousness. Critical philosopher of race Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007) draws on Derrida’s work to claim that the Western epistemology of reason is premised on the perceived inability of racial others to construct and internally represent symbol systems. Following Ferreira da Silva, I argue that music theory’s “white racial frame” (Ewell 2020) extends to the epistemological status of its central concepts. 

Scale, Chōshi, and the Tuning of the Heavens: Orientalism in Discussions of Japanese Music Theory

Garrett Groesbeck (Wesleyan University)


The emergent dialogue surrounding traditional music in Japanese classrooms is one with significant implications for musicians worldwide reevaluating conservatory-style musical-theoretical models that have dominated globally since the nineteenth century. The koto has a special role in this dialogue, not only for its predominant role in this newly-developing Japanese classroom music education, but for its multimelodic sonic characteristics and decentralized, plurivocal transmission methods. In 2002, Japan’s Ministry of Education (MEXT) implemented significant changes to the country’s national K-12 music education policy, which had previously all but excluded autochthonous Japanese genres. In fulfilling this difficult requirement, music teachers have been forced to invent new pedagogical models for Japanese music, often reclaiming, reimagining, or choosing to ignore Euro-American musical-theoretical terms and concepts in the process. Drawing from my research with these music educators, I propose an approach to music theory education which reevaluates the centrality of “scale” in music analysis in favor of divergent, sometimes contradictory methods, grounded in embodied musical practice.

Polyphony: Difference and Separability in Global Perspective

Brian Fairley (New York University)


Since the mid-nineteenth century, the term polyphony has been a remarkably rich resource for scholars and composers, whether serving descriptive, historiographical, or polemical ends. While definitions of polyphony have varied widely, consistent across this period is the word’s ability to cleave apart historical periods and genres of music. The notion of polyphony—whether narrowly defined to suit the object of study or employed metaphorically, as in recent cognitive turns—conjures such an appealing world of multiplicity, interactional possibility, democratic participation, and unfinalizable structure, that its consistently high status in musical discourse reinscribes a presumption of superiority for the European canon. Tracing anew polyphony’s historical entanglement with racial and colonial epistemologies of musical form and performance can serve to unsettle this supposedly universal category of musical texture. As scholars in postcolonial and Black studies have demonstrated, the universal human subject of post-Enlightenment moral philosophy was tailor-made for white European men and foreclosed other possibilities of personhood. So, too, the terms and tools of music theory, while making claims to universality, are uniquely suited to a musical tradition self-consciously tracing its origin to the birth of two-voice organum from monophonic chant. Even the restorative move by ethnomusicologists to ascribe polyphony to non-Western musics may serve to elevate some traditions at the expense of others, an inadvertent perpetuation of European hierarchies of form. Building on Ferreira da Silva’s theory of “difference without separability” (2016), we must reconsider the very separability of voices in polyphony if we are to move beyond its exclusionary legacy.