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Can You Hear Gender? – Trevor Nelson

If you mention to enough people that you study music and gender, you will inevitably be asked the question “But like, can you hear gender?” I know I’ve been asked this question so many times that it makes my head spin. I typically prod my questioner a bit for clarification, trying to figure out what’s their real concern. Nine times out of ten, they really mean “Does music written by a woman sound different? Can you tell the gender of a composer by simply listening to their music?”

The answer: not really.

Let me explain. Many music critics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries believed that you could hear a difference between music written by men and women. A doctrine of “gendered aesthetics” developed around this time. “Feminine music” tended to be in smaller forms (lieder, piano works), be extremely lyrical, and feature delicate, graceful, and sensitive emotive content. In contrast, “masculine music” took the form of symphonies and operas, using advanced theoretical structures denoting deep and powerful emotions. These terms were applied to composers regardless of gender. Chopin and Schubert were feminine; Beethoven and Wagner were masculine.

The situation was even more complicated for women writing music. Because of these associations between gender and musical qualities, female composers were in a double-bind: should they write music associated with their gender, in forms and styles considered to be lesser? Or should they “betray” their gender and attempt to write in the masculine style, a move which critics would undoubtedly lampoon?

For some, music was simply too technical for women. In his 1880 polemic Woman in Music (yes, that is the singular), George Upton wrote, “[Music] has every technical detail that characterizes absolute science in its most rigid forms. In this direction woman, except in very rare instances, has never achieved great results. Her grandest performances have been in the regions of romance, of imagination, of intuition, of poetical feeling and expression, or in those still higher duties which call for the exercise of religious ‘faith and works.’” When Upton does note the compositional prowess of certain women, like Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, it always falls short when compared to the work of artistic relatives.

Enter the music scholars! Due to the tireless work of musicologists, historians, music theorists, and ethnomusicologists over the last three decades, music composed by women throughout history is getting the attention it deserves. It is becoming clear that, in many cases, music written by women was passed off as being composed by a male relative; this is what happened to Fanny Hensel, whose Easter Sonata was attributed to her brother, Felix, for over 150 years! This proves the point that you really can’t hear gender, no matter how much you think you can.

Our goal here at MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com is to make music written by women as accessible as possible to educators around the globe to use in their classrooms. There are and always have been women who compose music.  We hope you’ll enjoy exploring their art.

For more information, see:
Christine Battersby. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Marcia J. Citron. “Gender, Professionalism and the Musical Canon.” The Journal of Musicology 8, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 102-17.

Matthew Head. “‘Like Beauty Spots on the Face of a Man’: Gender in 18th-Century North-German Discourse on Genre.” The Journal of Musicology 13, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 143-67.

Judith Tick. “Women as Professional Musicians in the United States, 1870-1900.” Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical 9 (1973): 95-133.

Ethel Smyth. Female Pipings in Eden. London: P. Davies, Limited., 1933.

George P. Upton. Woman in Music. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1880.