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Women’s Voices in the Theory Classroom – Molly Murdock

Until very recently, I owned no classical music by women.  There may be a Clara Schumann lied in a collection I own, but that would only be by accident.  It’s like an urban legend that there is no quality classical music written by women – especially not in the styles we study in theory classes.  This message is reinforced in courses, led by men and women, which do not include compositions or writings by women.  It is reinforced every day in American music classrooms with posters of “The Great Composers” which feature only male images.  Although the more enlightened rooms may include Amy Beach (and Scott Joplin) on the posters, I never heard a teacher discuss Beach’s art.

My 9-year old niece is taking piano lessons and receives a plastic composer bust for each book she completes.  Staring down at her from atop the piano is a chorus line of old white guys.  She has not received any statuettes of women.

I’ve always bought into the myth.  I’m not sure what I thought women were doing until 1900, but they certainly weren’t writing music.  I’ve recently been discovering, though, this is not exactly true.  There have always been women composers.  Not all of them wrote pieces that I’d use as teaching material in theory classes, but the same is true of music by men.

In over 30 years of musical training, I’ve never seriously studied the work of a woman. How does this happen?  I’ve only ever heard a handful of musicians, all women, seriously raise this issue.  STEM education has been making a big deal of gender equity for decades.

I surveyed the required texts and course materials for all the undergraduate and graduate theory classes taught in a particular university.  The percentage of works, compositions and texts, by women in all those theory classes was  0.2%.  It appears that in theory classes at that university, as in most, theory students are 0.2% away from commenting only on the achievements of men.

Not many classes, other than undergraduate music theory, are required for all music students, both majors and minors.  In this position, music theory has the broadest spectrum of students of any music classes.  This unique position demands careful consideration about the information we disseminate to these students.  This is where students learn what is valued in academia.

The Society for Music Theory’s 2008 Nashville Summary Report, “Addressing the Gender Imbalance” urges:

Professors should be encouraged to include more work by women (composers, theorists) in their classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, as a further method of demonstrating the worth of female work, and the possibility for women to continue in the field… Individual professors should be aware of the role they can play by positively encouraging students early in their education.

I asked some undergraduate music theory students to share their thoughts about this issue.  Daniel K. surprised me with his thoughtful response:

Though I assumed women would be underrepresented in examples and textbooks, the degree to which their works are neglected is astonishing.  Under-representing women’s musical work gives students an inaccurate view of the progression of musical history.  If students are to have a strong understanding of the foundations of music and ultimately contribute to the musical timeline, they can’t pass through our courses oblivious to such a vast body of work. This is not to say that we need to forsake Felix for Fanny, but the inclusion of works by great female composers would be highly beneficial. Seeking out significant women’s compositions, papers, and other academic works would demonstrate greater historical integrity on the part of our department, and would provide students with a more accurate historical understanding.

On the other side of the coin, here are some thoughts from another male student:

I do not feel that academia should go out of its way to incorporate women into [the] general music curriculum. I do believe that there should be individual classes that focus on the amazing accomplishments of women in the field of music, and such a class could be beneficial to those conducting research on gender and music. At an institution which specializes in higher education, the option, I feel, should be available to those who wish to take it, but not required.

Is it likely that this student has studied enough music by women to have espoused such a dismissive attitude?  Is this a reflection of the music education he has received?  I believe this student’s comments further demonstrate the need to diversify our classroom repertoire.  Women are not a side-item to be included if there is elective time in the curriculum.

I solicited advice from Dr. Marcie Ray, musicology professor at Michigan State University:

Academia absolutely has a responsibility to “go out of its way” to include the histories of every marginalized population as best it can. If we only include women composers, say in a course called “Music and Gender,” then we have institutionalized this marginalization. That is precisely what we want to avoid because it reinforces for students today a kind of status quo. I believe academia should: acknowledge the marginalization of women and minorities in the Western canon and discuss why they are so absent; and include women and minorities wherever possible in the curriculum to change how people think of the Western canon and whom they think of.

We have the opportunity, resources, and expertise to change things now.  What are we waiting for?  The next generation to deal with this?

Selecting classroom repertoire can be quite a personal issue as teachers represent themselves through the music they select.  There is an absolute mountain of undervalued music by women just waiting to be discovered, performed, and respected.  We owe this to all our musicians.