Exposing the racial injustices of music theory
Since its inception in the mid-twentieth century, American music theory has been framed and taught almost exclusively by white men. As a result, whiteness and maleness are woven into the fabric of the field, and BIPOC music theorists face enormous hurdles due to their racial identities. In On Music Theory, Philip Ewell brings together autobiography, music theory and history, and theory and history of race in the United States to offer a black perspective on the state of music theory and to confront the field’s white supremacist roots. Over the course of the book, Ewell undertakes a textbook analysis to unpack the mythologies of whiteness and western-ness with respect to music theory, and gives, for the first time, his perspective on the controversy surrounding the publication of volume 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. He speaks directly about the antiblackness of music theory and the antisemitism of classical music writ large and concludes by offering suggestions about how we move forward. Taking an explicitly antiracist approach to music theory, with this book Ewell begins to create a space in which those who have been marginalized in music theory can thrive.
Philip Ewell is Professor of Music Theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York.
“Philip Ewell’s sweeping and brave On Music Theory is certain to make an indelible mark on our discipline. Ewell’s racial re-framing of the discipline’s intellectual heritage draws forth conclusions that are by turns powerful, shocking, revealing, and ultimately hopeful. The book will be vital to the future growth of music theory as an academic discipline.”
—Roger Mathew Grant, Wesleyan University, Author of Peculiar Attunements: How Affect Theory Turned Musical- Roger Mathew Grant, Wesleyan University
“Phil Ewell kicked the hornet’s nest in 2019 in a conference paper on the white racial frame of standard music theory. He was not the first to question tonality’s hierarchical principles whereby the dissonant other must be subsumed or eliminated for the sake of harmony: Schoenberg, George Russell, Christopher Small, and feminist theorists have raised similar critiques. But three years of panels, denunciations, and lawsuits have not settled the controversy over Ewell’s presumed transgression. In On Music Theory, he mounts a detailed defense of his arguments, as well as an account of the repercussions that followed in the wake of his talk. A crucial book for those involved in the ongoing debates over covert biases in academic disciplines.”
—Susan McClary, Case Western Reserve University, Author of The Passions of Peter Sellars: Staging the Music- Susan McClary
“On Music Theory leaves no doubt about the discipline’s deeply ingrained antiblackness. In doing so, Ewell successfully demonstrates that the problems facing music theory are systemic and not simply the fault of a few bad actors. The book provides a framework and vocabulary that will enable future scholars to identify and challenge racism in the field and demonstrates a new approach to music theory that draws on interdisciplinary scholarship about race.”- Loren Kajikawa
—Loren Kajikawa, George Washington University, Author of Sounding Race in Rap Songs
"This book may represent the cusp of a racial reckoning for music theory in the US. [E]veryone—students and- Choice, B. J. Murray, Miami University
faculty—involved in music theory should read it. . . Essential."
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