On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone, by Philip Ewell (University of Michigan Press, 332 pp., $85)
Some arguments are best suited for t-shirts, not books: any attempt to expand on them weakens them. Rarely is this phenomenon displayed more starkly than in Philip Ewell’s idea of “music theory’s white racial frame,” now stretched to book length in his recently published On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone. Over the past few years, Ewell’s verbal, tweeted, and blogged broadsides against the “whiteness” of classical music have captured some hearts and minds with their missionary zeal and father-knows-best penchant for overstatement. But now, spelled out over 275 pages, Ewell’s thesis has been revealed for what it is: a giant sieve, leaking from nearly every evidentiary and logical orifice.
Few avocational music lovers are likely to know Ewell by name. Until the late 2010s, few musicians did. That was when Ewell, a newly tenured Russophilic music theorist at Hunter College, came down with a bad case of critical theory. He pivoted from analyzing Stravinsky’s octatonic harmonic language to proving that the high proportion of white academics working in music theory and performing in concert halls was proof of hard-wired white supremacy in classical music. Ewell referred to the thesis underpinning this argument, inspired by Texas A&M critical sociologist Joe Feagin’s “white racial frame,” as “music theory’s white racial frame.” (Ironically, considering Ewell’s stated goal of “diminishing [the] collective voice” of white scholars in his writing, his intellectual godfather Feagin is white.)
Ewell’s rise from obscurity occurred rapidly after he delivered a talk at a plenary session of the Society of Music Theory (SMT) in November 2019. One focus of the talk was the early-twentieth-century German Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose tools of large-scale harmonic analysis continue to inform much of Western music theory. In that plenary and his later writings, Ewell not only argued that Schenker was an antiblack racist (a fact borne out by Schenker’s personal correspondence), but suggested both that Schenker’s racism was inseparable from his music theory and that the continued primacy of his techniques of analysis was evidence of hidden white supremacy in music theory.
Unsurprisingly, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (JSS), an American music-theory journal that normally focuses on topics like the harmonic structure of Brahms’s Piano Quartets, did not take kindly to Ewell’s comments. Upon hearing Ewell’s remarks, University of North Texas-based journal editors Timothy Jackson and Stephen Slottow collected replies to Ewell from 15 music-theory scholars (five supporting Ewell and ten opposing him) and hurriedly published them. Some of the journal’s replies to Ewell—written by scholars who saw their lives’ work under threat—got personal. This included Jackson’s own reply, which suggested that Ewell’s denunciation of Schenker was part of a “broader current of “Black antisemitism.” Amid the media-charged firestorm that followed, Ewell found himself a standard-bearer for social justice in music. SMT issued a statement supporting Ewell, as did Yale University’s Music Department, where Ewell had completed his Ph.D. University of North Texas music graduate students circulated a petition demanding the dissolution of JSS and suggesting Jackson’s firing. Following a school investigation of the JSS issue that responded to Ewell, Jackson was removed from his editorship of the journal. He is currently suing the school in federal court for reinstatement.
Ewell’s David-and-Goliath struggle against the journal editors, from which he emerged far better known, had two other noteworthy effects. First, it provided him personal experience “proving” that music theory was white supremacist. After all, the music-theory establishment had recoiled just as strongly from his suggestions of white supremacy as White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo might have predicted. Secondly, Ewell’s narrative of personal victimization boosted his academic credibility. Crucially, it did so while distracting public attention from a major flaw in his “white racial frame” thesis: namely, the fact that it makes no sense.
Ewell’s thesis, and I don’t oversimplify, is as follows: there is no such thing as Western civilization. “Western civilization,” in his view, is a malignant fiction perpetrated by whites (particularly white Americans) to subjugate nonwhite cultures. Thus, the cultural proceeds of Western civilization—in Ewell’s area of expertise, the canon of Western music and the music theory that undergirds it—are illegitimate artifacts of the “mythologies of greatness contained in a falsely imagined and narrowly conceived western civilization.” The Western canon, whether in literature, art, or music, is not a celebration of the great achievements of our shared culture but a tool for keeping white stuff in and nonwhite stuff out.
The cornerstone of this argument is, of course, a falsehood. Western civilization exists, and we are all living in it. Ewell argues the opposite only by sleight of hand. In his purported debunking of Western civilization, he focuses on the debate over whether the field of “Classics”—historically focused on Greco-Roman civilizations—ought to include Egyptian or other nonwhite civilizations as part of the same cultural lineage. But while Ewell wastes time contemplating the ancient historical frontiers of the West, he almost totally ignores the real connective tissue that binds Western history and culture together: the advance of Christendom.
This omission would be hard to comprehend in a historian. But in a theorist of classical music, an art form whose inherited traditions of melody, harmony, and composition arose nearly entirely out of the Catholic Church and its adherents, it is shocking. When Christianity appears in Ewell’s book, it is as a mere pretext that “played an enormous part in creating the many mythologies of the west,” rather than what it was: the political, social, and artistic glue that holds the West together.
Why does Ewell so egregiously ignore the role Christianity played in creating the West? Because if he acknowledged it, it would be impossible for him to argue that the West is an invention created to justify “whiteness.” So, Ewell does what any scholar does who is unwilling to let a good conclusion go to waste: he changes the historical record. As we finish Ewell’s 12-page history of Western civilization at the beginning of Chapter 2, we recognize that we are proceeding based on a fiction—but since this is a review of the whole book, let us see where this fiction leads.
Unsurprisingly, the fiction leads Ewell to conclude that the canon of classical music is, like Western civilization, “a mythological human construct meant, in very large part, to enshrine white-male dominance in the academic study of music.” Certainly, no one would dispute the idea that hierarchies of artistic value are “human constructs.” But who creates these hierarchies and “means” them to “enshrine white-male dominance”?
Ewell suggests that these conspirators fall into two main groups: music theorists (on whom more shortly) and textbook-writing music historians. But he never acknowledges the fact that those scholars (including Schenker) mostly lived after the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms were comfortably “enshrined” in the canon and being regularly performed on both sides of the Atlantic. He cannot address that fact because he operates from the false premise that the canon is some sort of conspiracy designed by faux experts bent on passing off their white supremacy as taste. The truth, as usual, is more complex: the canon is not a centrally planned conspiracy but the sum of hundreds of years of audience and performer preferences. And while the Western classical music tradition’s European roots mean that its audiences and performers were once almost entirely white Europeans, they now represent every color, creed, and continent. (See here for a more nuanced definition of the canon.)
Ewell cannot grant this democratic aspect of the canon because it denies him the ability to insist that our culture venerates the music it does because its composers are white. Funnily enough, his concept of the canon crash-lands most spectacularly in an example Ewell pulls from his own purported area of expertise: Russian music. He references an episode in which he submitted an article about the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to a music-theory journal, and a peer reviewer objected to publishing the article on the grounds that Rimsky-Korsakov was not an important enough composer. The reviewer didn’t mention race or ethnicity in his feedback, but that does not stop Ewell from reading it between the lines. He tells us that because the “American white-male western canon” does not view the Russian Rimsky-Korsakov as sufficiently white—itself a ridiculous assertion in the twenty-first century—“there is no amount of evidence that could possibly establish Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatness.”
Ewell swiftly ushers us past the inconvenient fact that Russians such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninov somehow managed to overcome this bias and become perennial concert hall favorites, as well as frequent subjects of music-theory texts. In justifying the canonic inclusion of those composers, Ewell tells us that we have “expanded” the canon “with our mythologies of white-male greatness as necessary.” He does not tell us why these white-male mythologies demanded an expansion in Tchaikovsky’s case but not Rimsky-Korsakov’s.
While Ewell accuses the contemporary music theorist who objected to Rimsky-Korsakov of “gatekeeping,” he accords today’s theorists nowhere near the power enjoyed by their historical forebears. This despite knowing well that the field of modern music theory (and particularly Schenkerian analysis) arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s as an ex post facto attempt to understand the compositional techniques of masters like Beethoven and Mozart, whom audiences and performers had already designated as “great” and deserving of study. But this concept of music theorists as gatekeepers leads Ewell from finding instances of racism in historical theorists’ pasts to suggesting that our study of them today underpins the canon’s “whiteness.”
The connection between racism in music theorists’ social views and their theoretical frameworks—the part of Ewell’s argument that ought to be the most airtight—turns out to be the flimsiest. In his discussion of early-nineteenth-century French critic and theorist François-Joseph Fétis, Ewell cites Fétis’s opposition to racial miscegenation and his ownership of a book by scientific racist Arthur de Gobineau, but he makes no substantive link to Fétis’s musical theories.
Ewell accomplishes little more with his nemesis Schenker, asking us, with a suggestive wink and a nod, whether Schenker’s privately articulated belief in a hierarchy of races and his music theories’ reliance on a hierarchy of tones can possibly be a coincidence. And consider this spectacular non-sequitur: “Schenker believed that the fundamental structure must ‘govern’ and ‘control’ the middle-ground and foreground elements of the music composition. Similarly, Schenker believed that blacks must be governed and controlled by whites.”
Ewell protests that his work on Schenker has been misinterpreted. He claims that he is not arguing for universities to cancel Schenker but merely for them to acknowledge his complex legacy. “The linking of Schenker’s racism with his music theories,” he writes, “is necessarily speculative—this is obviously my interpretation. Further, I do not wish to imply that everything in Schenker’s music theories can or must be related to race. His music theories are complicated, come from many sources, and can be interpreted in many ways.” But later, he writes that “through Schenker’s manifest racism and sexism, music theory has created a subfield, Schenkerian theory, in which BIPOC and those who do not identify as cisgender men face hostility and hatred, insofar as Schenkerian theory is a racialized and gendered structure that values the work of white cisgender men above all others, and a structure that is still usually required coursework in graduate music theory programs.” One wonders how anyone could have gotten the wrong idea. (Almost all the evidence Ewell musters to demonstrate “hostility and hatred” in the music-theory field derives from his own interpretation of his professional experiences.)
Ewell fails to suggest any frameworks that might replace Schenker in the classroom, and he makes no attempt even to prove that Schenker’s theories are analytically unnecessary or unhelpful. The enduring prominence in academia of Schenker and other music theorists like Hugo Reimann arises from their analytical and explanatory power. But the musical knowledge we stand to lose by cancelling (or “decentering”) them seems not to concern Ewell. In one astounding passage, Ewell responds to Jack Boss, a music-theory professor at the University of Oregon who published an article in JSS using Schenkerian techniques to analyze a piano solo by the black jazz pianist Art Tatum. Boss purported to show that Schenker’s analytic insights were by no means limited to white composers, or even to classical music. Providing no evaluation of Boss’s analysis of Tatum, Ewell offers a disconnected rebuke: “Whiteness not only does not honor blackness by applying white-male analytical methods to black music, it does immeasurable harm, since whiteness only profits and benefits itself.” He adds that, by analyzing Tatum, Boss is presuming to “elevate” his music to the realm of the great (white) composers, as if Tatum were not there already by his own merits.
Ewell’s avoidance of musical evidence here is typical. In a book advocating the overthrow of music theory as we know it, he offers a grand total of two pages of music analysis. In lieu of such rigor, Ewell gives us critical-theory-based denunciations, like his reply to Boss. He also offers extensive tabular data—the proportion of whites among tenured music-theory professors, textbook authors, and composers of musical examples in those textbooks—with the implied conclusion that these proportions are too high.
While some of these data at least represent original research, Ewell establishes no causal links. He doesn’t tell us why the preponderance of white people in music theory makes the field inhospitable for blacks. And he ignores several possible explanations for why tenured professors in the field are 93 percent white. One could be that cultural values within the communities underrepresented in music theory (including both black and Asian Americans) tend to privilege performing music over writing papers about it. Another could be that, since many members of those minority groups have seen success as performers, more white musicians have settled for careers in academic music, which has long been a refuge for aspiring performers who do not make it professionally, including Schenker himself. One great irony of Ewell’s claim that “white” music theory keeps nonwhite people away is that the author’s own career belies it. Not only is Ewell black and a (now-famous) music theorist, but he is also a Russianist. And even as he tries to argue that his Russian interests position him academically outside the “white racial frame,” he never quite succeeds in making this case.
Ewell seems relatively untroubled by these contradictions. Indeed, the reader need not get far into On Music Theory before developing the uncomfortable feeling that the game is rigged—with one set of rules for Ewell and his acolytes and a different set for everyone else. While Ewell pats himself on the back for his reluctance to call colleagues racists, he frequently refers to their writings as white supremacist or antiblack, ascribing racial motives to them without evidence, which is tantamount to calling them racists. This makes it darkly amusing when Ewell registers operatic anger at Timothy Jackson’s “black antisemitism” accusation, coming as it does after 150 pages of Ewell’s racially tinged accusations against his colleagues.
If one theme runs through this book, it would be lack of self-awareness. The award-winning line on that score must be Ewell’s response to an editorial request that he revise and resubmit a paper he wanted to publish: “I certainly hope that [Music Theory Online’s] actions were, at least in part, racially motivated because, if they weren’t, that just means I wrote a crappy manifesto that didn’t deserve to be published.” Indeed it would.
One might wonder what the music academy would look like if Ewell were in charge of it. He saves us the need to guess by devoting his final chapter to the subject. His litany of recommendations for America’s music departments includes abolishing requirements for harmonic analysis classes in music majors—particularly those based on the theories of racially problematic music theorists like Schenker; removing requirements for piano proficiency; removing requirements for foreign language proficiency; removing placement tests in music theory or musicianship; and decentering Western classical music education in favor of new academic tracks like “sound recording and engineering, pop music studies, music copyright law (possibly in conjunction with a law school), music business (possibly in conjunction with a business school or MBA program), global music traditions, video and gaming music, or turntablism and beat making.”
Does this sound like a lowering of standards? Ewell anticipates that charge and is ready to remind us that “a lowering of standards is code for becoming less white and less male.” But what if we ask him how his policies would add to, rather than subtract from, the education of a student who chooses a more traditional track? Ewell suggests one subspecialty within music that such a student might take up: race. “There will always be a racial angle to any musical topic if you wish to make it part of the project.”
Finally: a thesis that On Music Theory might actually prove.