Race, Identity and Representation, but in Music Departments

I have often thought my music education is racist. There is a clear cut canon from which undergraduate students gain their foundational knowledge, and to deviate concerns what we conceive as entirely other genres. Most students at my liberal arts school utter disdain for the white male dominance of music theory and musicological course materials. And while it is true that the ability to recognize such power structures is necessary, the simple knowledge of them often soothes white discomfort into complacency. Overturning this form of dominance has its valid challenges, as we have seen in our musicology class, Race Identity and Representation in American Music. Adequate representation, however, is attainable. 

Philip Ewell, African American cellist, scholar, writer and music theorist articulates just how limited our music theory and musicology courses is his blog, Confronting Racism and Sexism in Music Theory. First, I think it bears repeating that 98.3% of the examples in the seven most common music theory textbooks are written by white composers, and only two pieces out of 2930 total were written by Asian composers. What music theory textbooks do include, however, are songs written for blackface minstrel shows such as “Oh Susanna!” by Steven Foster as examples for music theory concepts. (Indeed, you can find it on a webpage about binary form on Hello Music Theory). Ewell writes, “The inclusion of a white supremacist composer like Foster in our music theory textbooks represents the extraordinary insensitivity of music theory’s white frame—and of the textbook publishers I hasten to add—with respect to racial matters. It also points to our utter inability to recognize how whiteness has shaped the field.” 1 

Original sheet music for “Oh Susanna!” from the Christy minstrel troupe. See Edwin Christy

Trigger warning: The last page of “Oh Susanna!” with racist alternate verse text. 2










Whiteness has also shaped the design of music departments by compartmentalizing course topics and genres. For example, at St. Olaf we have multiple levels of music theory and musicology, but any other courses seem to fit into separate topics courses like history of jazz or world music. When considering that the core of our required courses is limited to mainly white theorists and composers, and supplemental courses consist of music mainly by person of color (POC) artists, I think it sends a clear message to students that music by white people is more worth studying, even if none of the individuals in the music department hold that belief themselves. It’s not just a subliminal message either, because our knowledge of music after graduation likewise privileges white people. Graduates enter school classrooms, higher education institutions or the workforce with their highly educated yet biased definition of music. 

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the existence of jazz courses and world music courses and their content is not the problem. In fact, I think these musics should be integrated into our entry level music theory and musicology courses. Ewell has a wonderful section on the future of music education in his blog which I intend to highlight in my next blog post. Stay tuned…

[1] Ewell, Phillip By Philip. “Music Theory’s Quantitative and Qualitative Whiteness.” Music Theory’s White Racial Frame. June 26, 2020. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/music-theorys-quantitative-and-qualitative-whiteness/.

[2 ]Oh! Susanna. C. Holt, Jr., New York, monographic, 1848. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1848.441780/.


Lowell Mason

In Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, the role of Lowell Mason as a composer of sacred and secular music in America is briefly touched on. What Crawford overlooks is the role Mason played in the development of music education in America. Aside from composing over a thousand hymns, Mason is widely considered to be the father of public music education in America. The addition of music into the standard curriculum was largely due to the efforts he made in Boston in the mid 19th century. In 1837, Mason made a proposal to the Boston public school district, saying:

“Once introduce music into the common schools and you make it what it should be made, the property of the whole people. And so, as time passes away, and one race succeeds to another, the true object of our system of Public Education may be realized, and we may, year after year, raise up good citizens to the Commonwealth, by sending forth from our schools, happy, useful, well-instructed, contended members of society.”

The board agreed to let Mason teach a class for one year. Thankfully, the experiment was a success, and the board decided to include music education into the standard curriculum. At this point, music was only studied in America in private singing schools. Mason maintained a teaching position within the Boston school district until 1851. In response to the growth of music in public schools, and drawing from his experiences teaching, Mason compiled a guide for future teachers, titled How Shall I Teach?; or, Hints to Teachers (1860).

The system that he presented was ahead of it’s time, and much of his practices are still used today. On the learning process, Mason wrote that there were 3 ways in which something can be learned. These ways are through the immediate senses, through reason, and through faith. Rather than having students conform to a mold, Mason wanted students to pursue their own interests. It is the job of the teacher to nourish their students creativity and curiosity. Reflecting on music teachers that had a significant impact on me, it seems that many of them carried similar mentalities to Mason’s. Realizing the impact that Mason had on following generations is an impossible task. Learning and spreading his ideas is the only appropriate way to honor him for the countless generations of music lovers he is responsible for.


Mason, Dr. Lowell. How shall I teach?; or, Hints to teachers. Ditson, Oliver, Boston, monographic, 1875. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1875.06030/. (Accessed October 23, 2017.)

Rich, Arthur. “Lowell Mason, Modern Music Educator.” SAGE Journals. 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2307/3385901