Music Theory

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Thoughts on Knowledge and Power

It is of course a cliché that knowledge is power. I have always thought about this in terms of why education is valuable. Knowing about stuff enables you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to; having more information allows you to make decisions that will fit the real world better and thus achieve your ends more effectively.

Philip Ewell’s blog posts on race and music theory, however, have shown me new ways to think about this truism. The generalised understanding still works, but Ewell also draws attention to ways in which the construction of knowledge within a discipline is a means to accumulate, wield, and confer power within the institutions that curate and validate knowledge.

I explored one aspect of this a few years back when reflecting on why it is so difficult to get women and composers of colour into the canon of western art music. I noted how our confidence as well-educated musicians is constructed through familiarity with its canons, and thus how it feels when we are asked to do engage with something unfamiliar: profoundly disempowering.

Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: a non-Schenkerian Case Study

I have often told the story of the most useful thing I learned as an undergraduate. My tutor had sent me away to read any one of three books by L.B. Meyer and asked me what I thought of it. I said I had found it interesting but wasn’t sure I agreed with him. ‘Good God woman!’ he exclaimed, his fist pounding down on the desk top, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them!’

I don’t believe I have ever told the story of what it was precisely in Leonard Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas that I disagreed with, but I have been thinking about it a lot again this summer.

Several of the essays in this book develop Meyer’s implication-realisation model of musical meaning, first conceived in terms of gestalt psychology in Emotion and Meaning in Music, but now in terms of information theory. In the essay, ‘On Value and Greatness in Music’, he moves on from the processes by which music communicates to how one might measure the relative worth of such communications. Some music is obviously well-formed but trite, while some music touches us profoundly – can this theory explain the difference?

Accepting Music Theory’s White Frame: Now What?

In my previous blog post, I gave the background to the ideas I’m now going to start processing in detail. In this post I’m going to reflect on some of the ideas presented by respondents to Philip Ewell in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies* who took the line of: we recognise both that Schenker held racist beliefs, and that he considered his social/political ideologies to be integral to his music theory. What shall we do about it?

I’m going to start with Christopher Segall’s suggestion that we move the focus away from specifically Schenkerian analysis and instead think (and write, and teach) in terms of prolongational analysis. He posits that this opens up the field for a greater variety of theoretical voices (such as his example of Kholopov), while retaining the most central musical concept that makes Schenker’s work useful.

Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

Facsinating Melody

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They say that if you lose one of your senses, your others increase in acuity to compensate: you become better at hearing if you lose your sight, for instance. It has seemed to me that as remote rehearsing strips out our capacity to operate harmonically, our awareness and appreciation of melody has blossomed to fill the aesthetic gap.

To be fair, I was always a sucker for a good tune, and had I been able to go and work with Fascinating Rhythm in person on Thursday, we probably would have spent a lot of our time thinking about melody anyway, given the character of the music we were dealing with . But I was particularly glad that the song they had asked me to arrange for them last autumn* that we explored together is so profoundly melodic, as it gives them the opportunity to reach much of what the heart of the music is about, even while they are stuck in their Zoom rooms.

Harmonising Blue Notes

At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

8-Parter Project: Thoughts on Balance and Voicing

Having walked through the differences in range and characteristic vocal behaviours of the respective singers SSAATTBB versus M&F quartet textures, it is time to consider the implications for how we combine them into harmony. This is the bit where I’m finding, so far, the greatest tension between the idea of two discrete ensembles in combination and a single, 8-part texture.

First, a basic principle of voicing. Generally, you want the notes lower down in the chord to be spaced wider apart than those higher up in the chord. This is true not just of a cappella writing, but tonal music in general: having spent my formative years as a pianist, my left hand is actually bigger than my right, due to having perpetually to reach wider spans with it.

This is both relative and absolute. In both male and female barbershop textures, you’ll generally have the tenor tucked in tighter to the top of the chord, and the bass a bit further away in open voicings, and you’ll tend to avoid closed voicings in lower tessituras.

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