Misrepresentation of Indian Music


[Portrait of Mr. John Comfort Fillmore]. Photographs. Place: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.1

In his article, John Comfort Fillmore presents his analysis of a set of songs collected by Alice C. Fletcher. Aside from the conclusions that Fillmore draws from his harmonic analysis, he provides us with much more information that alerts us to his biases toward Native American Music. He recalls Fletcher’s request of him to analyze the songs to determine “the scale on which [they] were built,”2 but the existence of this article alone proves that this simple request made by another scholar quickly ballooned into something much more presumptuous and declarative than it deserved to be. 

Fillmore presents the scales of these songs in Western notation on the ignorant basis that, “the Indians have no musical notation, no theories of music whatsoever.”3 His deprecating comments continue when describing how he felt obligated to harmonize the versions of these songs since, “the harmonic sense of these peoples is underdeveloped.”4 Fillmore’s imposition of Western notation and harmony onto these songs is an excellent example of “colonial imposition,”5 which is a term used by Beverly Diamond in Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America to describe inadequate documentation of Native American music through the use of Western notation.

Fillmore’s intentions and biases are made clear at the end of the article, where his initial intentions of using the music of Native Americans to “test the naturalness of our own musical perceptions”6 lead to his far-fetched conclusion that Native American music contains a “noble religious feeling [akin to] the central idea of Christianity.”7 Contrary to popular ideas of the time, he does advocate for Native American music as being “worthy of comparison to some of the best [music] we possess ourselves,”8 but only after his unwelcome imposition of Western notation to create versions of Native American music that “the Indians couldn’t have produced unaided.”9

Though much of ethnomusicology has changed over the course of its existence, some things remain the same, both positive and negative. Browner notes that the employment of fieldwork as the main method of ethnomusicological research has remained the same throughout history.10 Similarly, although the field has advanced greatly over time, the misrepresentation demonstrated through Fillmore’s article and research methods remains something to be aware of within ethnomusicology today.


1 https://library.artstor.org/asset/NMNH_125725565.

2 John Comfort Fillmore. “A STUDY OF INDIAN MUSIC.1.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 02, 1894, 616, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/study-indian-music-1/docview/125524446/se-2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Diamond, Beverly. Music and modernity among First Peoples of North America. Edited by Victoria Lindsay Levine and Dylan Robinson. Wesleyan University Press, 2019.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Music of the First Nations : Tradition and Innovation in Native North America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Accessed September 18, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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/.