Stories of Translation; or, Translation as Music Theory

Edwin K. C. Li

Translation plays a key role in the circulation of histories of music theory across the globe; yet stories of translation are often left untold. In this blog post, I recount two stories about my experience as a translator of music-theoretical texts. My goal is to show that stories of translation are part and parcel of history of music theory.


Three years ago I received the daunting task, together with Zhang Yan—Professor of Music Theory at East China Normal University in China—of translating Suzannah Clark’s Analyzing Schubert (2011) into Chinese. In Chapter 4 of her monograph, Clark discusses the use of the “negative-sounding words” such as “deformations,” “wrong,” “signs of decay,” “failures” in James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory.[1] I agonized over the word “deformation” for weeks. Initially I translated it into “變形,” which literally means “change in form/shape.” But the translation did not sound—literally and figuratively—negative at all; the linguistic context would be incoherent when the reader got to the point of “negative-sounding words” on the next page. Just when I was about to give in, Zhongyu Wang published an article entitled “On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory” in 2020. He translated “deformations” as “變異.”[2] The word (i.e., the combination of the two characters) literally means “change,” but the character “異” also harbors the meanings of “separated,” (分) “peculiar,” (怪) and “different” (別). His translation, I think, is successful on two fronts: first, it captures the meaning of the prefix “de-” (“off” or “away”) in “deformation”; second, it has the potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms with the character “異,” while my translation “變形” sounds more like an objective description of the change of form.

Wang’s translation, with its potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms, is a solution to two issues. First, it is a solution to a terminological confusion in English, because when Hepokoski and Darcy define “deformation,” they claim that the term “carries no negative charge, no negative assessment.”[3] They write, deformation “signifies only a purposely strained or non-normative realization of a musical action-space, a surprising or innovative departure from the constellation of habitual practices, an imaginative teasing or thwarting, sometimes playful, of expectations, presumably in order to generate an enhanced or astonishing poetic effect.”[4] Wang’s translation, if being interpreted in neutral terms, prevents such a potential confusion. Second, simultaneously, since Wang’s translation can also conjure up a sense of negativity, it maintains the coherence in Clark’s linguistic context.

Yet for all its merits, I hesitate to adopt Wang’s translation, because it has no implication of “form” whatsoever. While my translation “變形” might furnish a mode of listening that favors Sonata Theory over Clark’s critique of it owing to the word’s lack of “negative-sounding” elements, it does capture the process of moving away from a form, an important aspect in the etymology of “deformation.”[5]

In retrospect, my intuition about the Chinese language reveals my stubborn, perhaps culturally-conditioned, belief that while some characters or words can be interpreted in multiple ways, some of them can only contain a particular affective connotation. Is translation not, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, an act of liberating languages from their signification impasse?[6] If my translation “變形” can be “negative-sounding” in some unforeseen ways, where does my hesitation come from? The overwhelming feeling of the need to add a footnote to almost every word I translate? My lack of trust of the reader? My worry about my loss of control in the “afterlife” of languages, if not in the “afterlife” of modes of listening? To this date, the struggle has not come to an end.


I was writing a paper on Chinese Confucian and Taoist discourse about music (they are two major philosophical schools in ancient China).[7] The problem I encountered with translating Chinese into English was the way through which the two languages express meaning: if the English language can be construed as an unfolding of thoughts in a particular syntactical order of words, ancient Chinese is the condensation of thoughts into a single character. It was thus exceedingly difficult for me to translate a Chinese character into an English word, because no English word can possibly capture the polysemy embedded in a single Chinese character.

A challenging Chinese character to translate was “樂.” In the Book of Music 樂記—which is generally considered to be the culmination of Confucian thought of music in ancient China—“樂” has two meanings, each of which has a different pronunciation in Mandarin: first, when it is pronounced yuè, it refers to a conglomerate of art forms performed in an appropriate manner, context, and in accordance with certain rituals and dances; second, when it is pronounced , it means joy or to rejoice. More often than not they are presented as one in the Book of Music. But how could I translate it into a single word in English? I consulted many scholarly writings on this topic, and every scholar, as one could expect, translated the two pronunciations in their own way. For example, Scott Cook translated yuè as “music” and as “Music,”[8] while Park So Jeong chose first to adhere to Cook’s translation in 2013 but decided to retain the Chinese original in 2016.[9]

One important thing that I did not address in the paper is how translatability and untranslatability of the character can shape our understanding of what “樂” and “music” might mean, and how they come to mean anything. The semantic difference between “music” and “Music” is obscure, and Cook, I think, intended this to be so because, as he wrote, “ and yuè are essentially two moments of the same thing.”[10] To translate the character “樂,” for Cook, is to hide its meaning so that the obscurity can demonstrate the untranslatability of the original. Park’s decision to retain the Chinese original is a clear statement of untranslatability, which lures the readers into immersing themselves in the linguistic cultures and listening practices. The signifier-signified relationship between a word and its meaning breaks down in the declaration of untranslatability.


 Examples such as these abound in my translation processes over the years, but sadly, in this short blog post I cannot illustrate them at length. What I would like to share, however, are two humble observations: first, translation of music-theoretical concepts between languages exposes modes of listening in various cultures. The translation process does not only activate language renewal, but it also reinvigorates what a musical-theoretical concept might sound like, and sensitizes the reader’s listening within a particular worldview vis-à-vis their own. Second, the act and the refusal of translation constitute a history of music theory in and of itself. I noticed that the process of (not) translating and transforming music-theoretical concepts across languages and cultures has not received much scholarly attention. Perhaps translation has become such a habitual practice in a globalizing world that its everydayness papers over its hermeneutic power of revelation and its visualization of the translator’s self-positionality in the liminal space between the original and the translation. And perhaps translation is often regarded as a mechanical work, rather than as a knowledge-producing enterprise. Stories of translation await to be told as histories of music theory.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, 69–82. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. The original is published in Charles Baudelaire, “Tableaux parisiens”: Deutsche Übertragung mit einem Vorwort über die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, von Walter Benjamin [“Tableaux parisiens”: German Translation, with a Foreword on the Task of the Translator, by Walter Benjamin], 1923, trans. Harry Zohn.

Clark, Suzannah. Analyzing Schubert. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Cook, Scott. “Yue Ji 樂記: Record of Music: Introduction, Translation, Notes, and Commentary.” Asian Music 26, no. 2 (1995): 1–96.

Hepokoski, James and Warren Darcy. Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Li, Edwin K. C. “Mysticism as Philosophical (Non-)Foundation: Reconstructing a Daoist Critique of Confucian Discourse of Music in Early China.” Paper presented at the Music and Philosophy Study Group, Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Boston, 2019.

Park, So Jeong. “Musical Thought in the Zhuangzi: A Criticism of the Confucian Discourse on Ritual and Music.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12, no. 3 (2013): 331–50.

––––––––––. “On Sound: Reconstructing a Zhuangzian Perspective of Music.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2015): 1–11.

Wang, Zhongyu. “詹姆斯.赫珀科斯基与沃伦·达西’奏鸣理论’创新探究.” [On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory] Journal of the Central Conservatory of Music, 1 (2020): 53–65.

[1] Clark 2011, 204.

[2] Wang 2020, 55.

[3] Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] A further complication is that Plato’s “form” is often translated as “型” rather than as  “形.” The former denotes a “mold” or “type,” while the latter a “shape” or “form.”

[6] Benjamin 1923.

[7] Li 2019.

[8] Cook 1995.

[9] Park 2013; 2016.

[10] Cook 1995, 25.

Reimagining Formalism for an Antiracist Music Theory (Part II)

Jade Conlee and Tatiana Koike

[…] Continuation of: Part I

In order to theorize high-level relationships within musical structure, music theory as it is currently practiced in Western academia has presupposed the ontological stability of its basic building blocks— notes, scales, and chords exist. Although the definitions of these terms have changed over time, the primary task of music theory has traditionally been to understand the ways in which these concepts interact, not to interrogate the philosophical underpinnings of their being. Unfortunately, we argue, the ontological stability theorists presume in order to study musical systems is not only unwarranted, but sits within a legacy of epistemic imperialism. As many critical race theorists have shown, during the Enlightenment episteme of reason, intellectual technologies such as abstraction and taxonomy instituted a generalizable understanding of truth that continues to dictate the realities of societies around the globe, irrespective of social particularities. These intellectual technologies have historically been implemented to invalidate and replace other forms of knowledge. In this post, we discuss a structural feature of music-theoretical discourse that has sustained the immanent positioning of music-theoretical terminology. We call it “the priorness axiom.”

            The priorness axiom posits music-theoretical systems as existing prior to both music and people’s perceptions of music. The presumption of priorness allows the theorist to circumvent the need to specify how their claims about musical structure relate to other people’s knowledge, because they situate music theory as something that people already have intuited. An example of priorness can be found in Heinrich Schenker’s appeals to nature, when he writes: “Music is the living motion of tones in the space given in Nature: the composing-out of the Nature-given sonority. The law of all life, the motion which, as procreation, issues forth beyond the boundaries of individual being, penetrates into man in this sonority which Nature has preordained in his hearing.”[1] For Schenker, the bridge between his theory of musical structure and human involvement is that musical structure’s a priori location in man’s ear. The music theorist then becomes a neutral conveyor of a naturally-arising phenomenon rather than a socially-contingent figure in histories of human knowledge production. Music theory is seen as ontologically preordained, prior even to the theorists who interpret it, rather than circumscribed by the theorist’s contingent and partial vantage on the world.

            We argue in our introduction that the priorness axiom continues to pervade more contemporary American music-theoretical writings. One example we analyze is the response to the New Musicology critique of formalist analysis in the 90’s, in which music theorists defended the discipline as being unapologetically about “the music itself.” These defenses hinged on positioning a deeply personal analytical engagement with the music through priorness, as these theorists often presumed that an individualized and unmediated engagement with music is elemental to the human experience of music more broadly. In this case, the experience of “the music itself” is positioned as prior to modes of musical experience other than the concentrated, autonomous listening experience on which music-theoretical formalism is built. Ultimately, we argue that priorness in American music theory is a colorblind position on music analysis: it enables theorists to cast musical structure as their object of study without taking into account how race (as a construct) shapes the question of access when it comes to modes of listening. Concentrated listening is acquired through training in conservatory settings of classical music pedagogy, which unevenly favors middle and upper class family upbringings in ways that are deeply scored along racialized and gendered lines in America. Moreover, community formations around other modes of listening are integral to how individuals express their sense of belonging. These modes of listening do not always involve the same attentiveness to “the music itself,” but can be informed by social and embodied musical meanings. Although defining the discipline as knowledge about “the music itself” may appear innocent on the surface, music theorists who ground their knowledge in colorblindness unwittingly help to sustain the present power relations that position Western universities as privileged producers of knowledge about the world.[2] The defense of “the music itself” fails to recognize the theorist’s privileged identification with formalism. Music theory can only address the diversity of human experience once it calls into question how its formalism has long been grounded in the universality of a particular white experience of music-loving. The priorness of concentrated listening positions formalist analysis as the only one worthy of study in music theory, while other kinds of subjective engagements with music are rendered outside the field of knowledge.

            The priorness axiom is undergirded by the idea of “natural law,” an ontological presupposition that everything is always already rationally ordered.[3] Reason, for Enlightenment thinkers, provided the link between man and God, epistemology and ontology: men produced knowledge about the world through reason, even as the world was already ordered by reason. Sylvia Wynter has shown that the Enlightenment episteme of reason instituted a racial epistemology by producing two categories of the human: those who possessed reason and those who did not. For Wynter, the modern idea of race came about at the dawn of European colonialism as a transformation of the older archetype of the “Other,” the infidel. But while infidels could convert to Christianity, race absolutized human difference because there was no way for racial Others to opt in to reason.[4] Summarizing the views of Renaissance philosopher Pico de Mirandola, Wynter writes, “While reason is not a god, ‘it partakes of some of God’s functions’ in that it is intended to rule over a ‘lower order of reality.’ The fundamental separation for Pico was one between two orders of creation, with man placed by God at the midpoint between them.”[5] In practicing reason, European men performed their privileged epistemic intimacy with God. By conflating the epistemology and ontology of musical structure, theorists could increasingly understand musical structure to be rationally prior to individual musical acts.

            The connection between natural law and reason justified colonization and enslavement, Wynter argues, as European imperialists constituted inferior races as those who “defied” natural law and behaved without reason.[6] The phrase “racial epistemology,” then, describes a situation in which a hierarchical conception of the human is implicated in the ways knowledge is produced and legitimated. As critical race theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva puts it, “As a signifier of irreducible and unsublatable mental difference, the racial is relevant only to mark the difference between post-Enlightenment European and other contemporaneous, coexisting social configurations.”[7] Reason’s bifurcation of the human is still at work in contemporary scholarship across disciplines. Ferreira da Silva observes that “the racial emerges in projects of knowledge that presume scientific universality, for which universal reason plays the role of an exterior determinant.”[8] Tautologically, it is Man’s unique ability to “discover” a reality ordered by reason that substantiates his superiority within that reality. Meanwhile, because of their estrangement from reason, racial Others cannot author their own reality within dominant, legitimated realms of knowledge. For Ferreira da Silva, “an analytics of raciality” is at work when authors of knowledge make other people into objects of a knowledge that does not belong to them.[9]

            Within music theory, priorness and formalism co-produce a racial epistemology in which the knowledge historically produced by white men is institutionally legitimized and allowed to speak for all. For this reason, we advocate in our volume for a definition of music theory that invites a plurality of different discourses. Discourses are viewed as culturally-acquired semiotic systems that situate people as subjects of knowledge in relation to the objects of the world, as well as in relation to sources of power. Music-theoretical discourses would be understood to systematize music in ways that render certain aesthetic relationships and parameters of knowledge legible vis-à-vis the theorist’s subject position, but no single discourse can speak for any other. To eliminate priorness is to allow for music-analytical discourses built around other subjectivities in our field.

[1] Heinrich Schenker, The Masterwork in Music, Volume I, ed. William Drabkin (Mineola: Dover, [1925] 2014), 46.

[2] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel HoSang, and George Lipsitz write, “Behind the colorblind façade of the existing disciplines is the historical role that knowledge production has played in creating and fortifying racial projects ranging from slavery and segregation to imperialism and genocide. Historically situated against this backdrop, colorblindness thus becomes a series of moves and investments that conceal the fingerprints of the university in constructing the very conditions that colorblind frameworks refuse to name.” “Introduction,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines, ed. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel HoSang, and George Lipsitz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 5.

[3] As T.J. Hochstrasser writes, natural law as it appears in the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Enlightenment-era philosophers “was viewed as a set of eternal verities presented by God to humanity in finished and perfect shape, and found embodied in the moral and civil order as evidence of its divine fashioning.” T.J. Hochstrasster, “Natural Law” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005), 1607.

[4] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument,” The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3, Fall 2003: 266.

[5] Ibid., 287.

[6] Ibid., 297.

[7] Denise Ferreira da Silva. Toward a Global Idea of Race. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 29.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] For example, in the wake of Darwin’s theories, Ferreira da Silva writes, members of “inferior races” are “apprehended as exteriorizations or actualizations, effects or products of the temporal play of the exterior power that regulates and produces them” (Ibid., 112).

Reimagining Formalism for an Antiracist Music Theory (Part I)

Jade Conlee and Tatiana Koike

If music theory is a kind of worldmaking, what world, what political matrix, does music theory imagine? Right now, music theory is in the process of confronting the racist worldviews embedded in our field’s foundational texts and methods. In blog posts below, both Thomas Christensen and Alex Rehding comment on the need to “rethink” the relationships between people, ideas, and taxonomy in music theory. Our in-progress edited volume Key Terms in Music Theory for Antiracist Scholars: Epistemic Disavowals, Reimagined Formalisms takes up this task. Our book evaluates music theory’s constitutive claims to formalism, autonomy, and abstraction, showing how they have structured the discipline such that access to legitimate musical knowledge is deeply scored along racial, gendered, and geographic fault lines. 

The idea for this volume came during Yale’s 2020 graduate student conference, which we co-chaired along with our colleague Taryn Dubois. Kwami Coleman delivered a keynote lecture questioning the original distinction drawn between heterophony and polyphony by Carl Stumpf and Guido Adler. In contrasting the “illogical” multivoice singing of the folk in and out of Europe with the logic of classical polyphony, this distinction disguises differences of race and class as musical difference. Unaware of this academic distinction, mid-century French critics attempted to understand the work of American free jazz musicians through the lens of polyphony, prompting Coleman to ask, “What might it mean for us to ‘hear’ non-Western and improvised multivoice music with a principal melody as polyphonic instead of heterophonic?” 

In response to Coleman’s keynote, we began to reflect on our field’s own problematic history and how this history has been addressed to date. While many music theorists writing the history of our field have called out the racism and sexism of canonic thinkers, the standard responses have encompassed either calls to cancel the figure in question or to apologize for the thinker’s beliefs but to otherwise continue engaging with their work as before. These responses have done little to effect institutional change. As Philip Ewell has argued, racist music theorists remain integral to the definition of music theory through a whitewashing of the discipline’s history, which dissociates the claims of music theory from the racism of the figures who wrote them (Ewell 2020, 4.1.3). Ewell has convincingly illuminated the field’s white racial frame and the problematic writing of the discipline’s history that this frame legitimates. We see our intervention in this volume as being different from Ewell’s, though it is a complementary project that is highly indebted to his work. Our idea is to redefine the predominant discourse that presently constitutes music theory as a form of knowledge production.

Our central premise in this book is that music theory is presently a centralized discourse that is built from the workings of Western art music. Music theory has defined itself around a particular set of methodologies that have historically been used to elevate this canon of music, and these methods idealize the interpreter who engages in the concentrated, autonomous listening experience typically associated with musical works. This discourse also works to naturalize the music theorist’s subject position. Music analyses are typically posited as demonstrating either the workings of “the music itself” or a given fact of everyone’s hearing, which effaces any possibility for the music theorist to be a contingent and partial knower of the world (this is a structure we will explain in our second blog post in greater detail). While the field has significantly worked towards decentering the Western art canon as the only object worthy of study, the same centralizing discourse has remained intact. Music theorists have continued to employ the same methods of concentrated listening to an ever-increasing number of musical repertoires from throughout the world, and they have continued to trust in the idea that music-theoretical knowledge is authoritative and generalizable. Our volume asks: what would it mean for music theory to consist of a multiplicity of discourses that are each built around particular subjectivities and relationships to sound? The focus of our intervention in this book is to reconstruct our field’s analytical terminology in order to move the field towards this discursive shift. If terms such as pitch or scale presently have one centralized meaning because these terms are overdetermined through music theory’s predominant discourse, what if there was a way for music theory to allow for other meanings of these same analytical terms—meanings that would arise through discourses built around subject positions other than that of the authoritative Western academic?

Music theory’s fascination with “the music itself” has prevented the field from theorizing listening as a relational act imbricated in constructions of human difference. While historians of music theory have eloquently relayed the transformation of concepts like pitch and scale across centuries of literature, music theorists rarely account for the ways in which these concepts fail to honor the vast multiplicity of listening experiences that exist among different people today. In the classroom, scales and chords are positioned as things students must learn in order to “understand” music, regardless of the other forms of musical knowledge they may have brought into the room. To adequately account for music theory’s historical and present influence within a racialized global order, it is essential to view music theory as a form of worldmaking— as a field that produces knowledge not only about “the music itself,” but about people, nature, politics and power. Taking seriously the understanding of music theory as worldmaking requires redefining formalism to embrace variable subjectivities and listening relationships as constitutive elements of musical structure. 

To this end, we reimagine music theory as any mode of formalizing culturally acquired relationships to sound. This reformulation of music theory sees musical cultures as fluid and communicable, and it places the social transmission of knowledge at the center of musical analysis. Issues of power, race, and subjective relationality would then be integral to discussions of musical meaning because they structure the transmission of knowledge in today’s world. The chapters included in our volume work towards this goal by reevaluating the historical entanglement between music theory and racist ideologies, offering critical perspectives through which to evaluate music-theoretical epistemologies, or coining new terminology to describe perceptions of musical detail in specific cultural contexts. 

(to be continued)

Continuation: Part II

Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality (Part II)

Thomas Christensen

[…] Continuation of: Part I

I have to admit it was a rude shock when I learned of Fétis’s virulent racist views. It was especially deflating as I had invested so much time working on my study of his theory of tonality and its reception only to belatedly discover that my protagonist ended his life as an out and out racist. To be sure, there were unsavory moments in many of his earlier writings. But for reasons that I try to outline in my book, his earlier writings were tempered by Kantian liberalism. His full-frontal embrace of the most aggressive tenets of biological racism in his final writings was truly an alarming change of heart.

So what was I to do? I was not ready to give up my book project and simply “cancel” Fétis (as the expression seems to be today). My book was a historical sketch of an undisputedly important music scholar from the 19th century, even as the picture I was drawing became increasingly more complex and disconcerting. And I did not want to turn my story of Fétis’s Faustian choice to embrace the darkest corners of racial biological thinking into a didactic morality tale for our times. Anyway, as far as I know there are no statues of Fétis to take down. (Well, check that; there is a bronze bust of him to greet visitors in the lobby of the Brussels Conservatory of Music, which he helped to found.)


But what about his key concept of tonality? That is something that certainly still lives on in our discipline of music theory, even if we may not have always recognized its burdensome legacy. To be sure, few of us use the term tonality in the aboriginal way in which Fétis conceived it. Nonetheless, it may be that the term to this day contains something of its 19th-century DNA even if we may not be aware of it. Certainly, traces of its biological “frame” often seeps into the metaphors with which we sometimes speak of tonality.

Think of how we often trot out clichés about tonality using images of ontogenetic growth and decline: the 17th century saw the “birth” of modern tonality, the 18th century witnessed its full “maturation,” while in the late 19th and  early 20th century we see the “decay, ” “crisis,” or perhaps even the “death” of tonality. (Much of this rhetoric has been brilliantly analyzed by Brian Hyer in his New Grove entry on “Tonality.”) Fétis seemed to be ever vigil about policing the boundaries of tonalité moderne. It was one reason he was so obsessed with finding its precise birthdate (he arrived ultimately at 1605 for this happy moment); but he also worried about its degeneration with the increasing encroachment of the ordre omnitonique  and all its many affective affinities and vertiginous modulations. Even more objectionable, in his view, were the attempts of some modern composers to write hybrid varieties of tonality that combined features of modern tonality with antiquated modal resources, or worse, tonalities of the Orient. It was a sin of tonal miscegenation. It’s no surprise, of course, that in the 20th century, music critics within Nazi Germany condemned almost any deviation from the most conservative models of harmonic tonality as degenerate art (while at the same time claiming tonality as the exclusive musical patrimony of the Aryan race). Yet anxieties of the “borders” of tonality continue to be raised in theoretical literature. Schoenberg may have mocked the question of “Tonal oder nicht Tonal?” with a canon; but arguments over its answer became a veritable killing field in the world of 20th-century music aesthetics and analysis.

It’s surely unrealistic to say we should just jettison the term. If we didn’t have the word “tonality” we’d have to invent something as a synonym to describe a tonal practice that covers a huge swath and timespan of  Western music in which most of us intuit common salient features, even if we might disagree on the precise physiognomy of these features. No, we are probably stuck with the term.

But that doesn’t mean we need be insensitive to how we think about and use the concept of tonality in our theories and analyses. On the contrary, our increased awareness of its fraught origins in Fétis’s writings could inspire us to greater care in how we go about distinguishing  norms and varieties of tonality as well as defining their boundaries (if that is indeed what we want to do). For that matter, maybe the whole regime of our taxonomic-centered discipline might be due a good rethinking. In any case, as historians of music theory, perhaps we can play a salutary role in teaching our colleagues a little of the history in which some of the terms by which we analyze and teach music originated—and have become our own.  That kind of historical and cultural positioning is a frame that we all could use.

Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality (Part I)

Thomas Christensen

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Philip Ewell’s SMT plenary talk last year on music theory’s “White racial frame”—and also including the expanded essay he published this past summer and the recent issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (devoted as a response to Ewell’s SMT talk)– has ignited a debate within the music-theoretical community that is unprecedented, a debate that has spilled over the boundaries of our publications and chat lists into the wider public sphere. (When was the last time the name of Heinrich Schenker or a mention of the Society for Music Theory has appeared in the news section of the New York Times or the Economist?)

As we know, the aspect of Ewell’s argument that has provoked the most impassioned response—both in support and in opposition—was his searing indictment of our discipline for harboring deeply embedded racial biases in the repertoire, tools, and language with which we study and teach music.  So ingrained are these racial contaminations, Ewell argues, that most of us are scarcely aware of their presence. Whether one agrees or not with his diagnosis of this condition and his prescription for cure, I think all of us should be grateful to Philip for the prod he has given us to face some uncomfortable questions honestly and fearlessly. 

It is not surprising that Ewell focused much of his essay on the writings of Heinrich Schenker, since Schenker’s writings have long been known to harbor some notorious moments of racial and nationalist commentary. But I think Ewell is right when he suggests that the problem goes beyond Schenker, as obvious a target as he is. And this is where the history of music theory might be useful to test that hunch. As scholars of historical music  theory, we have a particularly good perch to survey the history of our field and see what other skeletons might be hiding in our discipline’s closet. Thus we might have a useful role to play in confirming—or perhaps qualifying—Ewell’s indictment. For me, it is a charge that hit home personally.

In my own recently-published book on François Joseph Fétis (Stories of Tonality in the Age of François Joseph Fétis; University of Chicago Press, 2019), I stumbled upon a few of these skeletons as I read many of Fétis’s later—and lesser known—publications. And what I found was that it was not simply that Fétis expressed strong racial prejudices. (For a Belgian national writing at the dawn of Belgium’s infamous colonialization of the Congo, such prejudices were hardly unusual; on the contrary, they were ubiquitous and quotidian.) But what was truly startling, I found, was how these prejudices seeped into a key theoretical concept with which he is identified today: tonalité. As tonality is one of those “frames” by which music theorists have long used in their studies and analyses, it may come as something of a surprise to discover its deeply racist genealogy. 

I won’t try to rehearse the entire history here. (For those readers who are interested, I’d refer them to the fifth chapter of my book, where the whole sordid story is told.) But I can reduce Fétis’s essential conclusions to a series of bullet points: 

  • For Fétis, tonality was a patchwork of scale systems that have varied over time and space.  
  • Each civilization, people, and race have had a tonality that was uniquely suited to their character and needs based on the pitch content and tuning of its chosen scale system (the ancient Greek modes, Indian rags, Arabic Maqam, Chinese and Celtic pentatonic scales, and so on).   
  • The tonality used by a given people determines—but also limits—the kinds of music that can be created with it.
  • Only the European white race, with its advanced system of the diatonic scales of the 12 transposable major and minor keys, possesses a tonality that allows for true musical art. 

The following quotation from the first volume of his Histoire générale de la musique of 1869 illustrates Fétis’s racist views bluntly:

The true history of music begins only with the general history of this privileged [white] race, one which never has known the state of savagery, and who, upon making their first appearance in the world, showed themselves relatively advanced, cultivated, and of such great superiority over all other races that no comparison between them can be made. The white race alone is endowed with the faculty to modify itself perpetually, to present itself in history in a thousand differing ways. Contrary to the other races, one of which [the black race] remains in servitude and stays in a permanent state of social infancy, and the other [yellow race] which has attained a certain degree of civilization but one that it can never surpass,  the white race has developed over time all the consequences of its moral organization. It perpetually adds to the knowledge it has already acquired. It possesses a sentiment of beauty, of grandeur, and it is to it that we owe the creation of pure art and the progress of science.

(Histoire générale de la musique depuis les temps les plus anciens jusqu’à nos jours.  5 vols. Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, 1869-1876. Vol. I, 108) 

And what is the reason for the superior development of the white race and consequently the music that it has produced over time? It turns out it can be attributed entirely to biology. The very opening sentence of his Histoire makes this clear: “The history of music is inseparable from the degree to which the special faculties of the races were cultivated” (HGM, Vol. I, i). If there was any doubt as to what Fétis meant by those ”special faculties,” he cut to the phrenological core in the opening sentences of Volume 2: 

The sentiment for music, among nations as well as individuals, is due to the conformation of the brain. . . . The relations of sounds do not affect people of races in the same way; what charms one displeases the other, precisely because the organs of the brain are not of the same dimensions.

(HGM II, i)

And let there be no mistake as to which race has won the prize in the lottery of brain size: it is the race blanche—the white race, “which alone has produced music that may be elevated to the dignity of art” (HGM I, vi). 

This last point should turn some heads with its obvious nod to the discredited “science” of phrenology. But Fétis was actually relying here upon the fashionable writings of Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, whose four-volume book “Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines” (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853-55) he had devoured—and annotated–with enthusiasm. (Again, details and references to this information may be found with some further contextualization and elaborations in my book in Chapter 5.)    

(to be continued)

Continuation: Part II

Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part V – Some FAQs (and not-so-FAQs)

Alexander Rehding

[…] Continuation of: IV. Pros and cons […]

What are the dangers of this plan? What if it is taught badly?

This is undoubtedly unchartered territory for most of us, and yes, there are some vagaries that can seem terrifying even to seasoned teachers. To a certain extent, we all have to be ready to plunge into the unknown. Most of us are not trained to do this. I think it’s completely legitimate to seek help where we can. Invite an expert over to Skype into your class. Explore new territory together. Even working through difficult passages together, and exploring these difficulties together, is an opportunity for a teaching moment. Learn to formulate good questions and seek answers together. As the old adage has it, the path may be the goal.

And yes, there may well be a few treacherous cliffs ahead. Here’s an example that I encountered in planning this course. For the longest time my draft syllabus ended with the American experimentalist Henry Cowell—I was hoping to include at least one representative of the LGBTQIA+ community, and I had long been interested in Cowell’s theoretical ideas. Cowell lived at a time, not too long ago, when deviations from heteronormativity were criminalized. In 1936 he was arrested on charges of Section 288a of the California Penal Code.[1] His loyal wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell, whom he married soon after his release from prison and who maintained his legacy after his death, was reluctant to comment on this aspect of his life.

But the more I tried to imagine what this particular discussion would look like in a teaching situation, the more I came to the conclusion that Cowell was not the right figure in this scenario. The terms we use nowadays don’t map cleanly onto the legal situation in the early twentieth century—the specific crime Cowell was charged with was oral sex; the other party was a seventeen-year-old male. A discussion dissecting the distinctions between a modern perspective on gay identity and what would now be considered statutory rape might be interesting, but it just harbored too many risks in this context. If the discussion somehow ended up reinscribing the false prejudice that homosexuality and pederasty were somehow connected, then this lesson would have spectacularly backfired. I considered other music theorists, who might provide a less conflicted picture. But in the end I decided with regret that my syllabus would have to remain without an aspect of LGBTQIA+ history for the time being. Perhaps others will be more successful.

Who exactly is this course for?

Or, asking more pointedly, are the criteria for inclusion in the course based on INS guidelines? The answer is—all hyperbole apart—yes, to a certain extent that is the case. The task of representation that is front and center here is shaped by the particular makeup of contemporary US society. There’s an undeniable civics component here. (The issues surrounding Cowell in the previous question similarly indicated that the issues are determined by twenty-first-century debates.)

The make-up of the syllabus may not be an exact match, but it’s useful to think through the history of music theory within different parameters. This is the subtle difference between the purposes of a global outlook and a diverse syllabus that I am proposing here. It is less relevant that the syllabus cover all world cultures than that diverse groups of students see themselves reflected in these figures—or, turned around, that the history of music theory is not an exclusive white male affair.

Follow-up question: if this comes down to civics lessons, why not go further down the road of actual representation? Where are the African Americans and the Indigenous Americans?

This is where the syllabus, like most syllabi, ends up being a compromise. Most syllabi try to tell a more or less coherent story. I just haven’t found materials—and I probably have to plead ignorance to some extent—that would bring in those cultures in a way that would allow us to tell a more or less coherent story. As far as I can tell, there are probably other ways in which these particular issues that arise from African American or Indigenous Americans can be better addressed. I am eager to hear what others come up with. After all, this should ideally be a collective project.

Isn’t five cultures in one semester a bit much? Won’t this be superficial?

Yes, that’s probably true. There is definitely an It’s-Tuesday-today-so-this-must-be-Paris aspect to the journey taken in this syllabus. But then again, I would argue that this is a broader problem of the American educational system. For one, it seems to me that this criticism would equally apply to most History of Theory surveys, whether culturally diverse or not.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the Five-Classics structure I wound up with in my thought experiment is the result of the particular constraints of our program. If we had two (or even four) semesters at our disposal, the syllabus would look quite different. Other programs may have more flexibility in this regard.

In any case, we should definitely make use of any help that we can get. If this were to become a teaching reality, I would absolutely invite specialists from other departments in my institution, or invite guest lecturers from elsewhere to talk to us on Skype or Zoom, to help us with specific figures or contexts.

This is quite a responsibility. Are we ready for this?

To begin by stating the obvious: diversity and inclusivity cannot just be proclaimed, and then everybody moves on with their regular business. That would be a sure way to fail. The responsibility comes with the specific ways in which such ideas are implemented. The next answer makes a few further suggestions on this topic.

Must we do this? What other models might work?

To answer along similar lines to the previous question, no one should feel forced to do this. This blueprint is, after all, nothing more than a thought experiment at the moment. I believe this syllabus, or something like it, would quite work well for our program. But that’s not to say that this would be true for other graduate programs. There’s nothing sacrosanct, for instance, about the focus on “Five Classics” (unless you’re an orthodox Confucian). This was simply a canvas on which this alternative plan could be designed.

There are various ways in which a more diverse HoT could be implemented, and I know that there are some exciting syllabi in existence that include elements of diversity. Some people might feel, for instance, that focusing on five marginalized figures might be confusing or overwhelming. They may decide that the inclusion of one non-European theorist offers enough contrast. And they may be right. Even one figure who interrupts the white-male predominance will go a long way in inviting diverse thinking. Or they could focus the entire semester on certain specific aspects of HoT that invite cross-cultural thinking. The question of tuning in different cultures and at different times may be such an angle.

The most important aspect in all this is that this is a collaborative and open-ended project. My perspective, like that of any one person, is limited, and others will likely have had ideas that haven’t occurred to me. I share this draft with the wider community in the hope that it might spark some further ideas with others, and to launch a wider discussion on how ideas about diversity and inclusiveness can be implemented in our teaching of HoT.


[1] See Michael Hicks, “The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 44, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 92–119. Available, free of charge, here.

Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part IV – Pros and cons

Alexander Rehding

[…] Continuation of: III. Some Consequences […]

One possible criticism of the design I sketch out here is that it provides an outline that is still largely oriented by the concerns of a traditional western HoT, even though it populates its syllabus with women and POCs. This is a legitimate point: the selection of figures still allows a coherent story, but this story is only possible—more or less—against the tacit background of the figures from the white male syllabus. In studying Ptolemais, for instance, we have to study the broader harmonicist tradition, in studying Johanna Kinkel we also have to study broader notions of chromatic relations. In the story that the new syllabus outlines, then, students would still learn about modes and tetrachords, about the need for and problems of temperament, the questions of harmony and tonality, and so on.[1]

A syllabus that curates the figures that represent certain predetermined questions—isn’t this the definition of tokenism? Pedagogy should not be reduced to a diversity checklist, which would simply reproduce the hierarchies and hegemonies lurking under the narrative surface.[2] But there is more going on in this syllabus: even if we change our story by choosing different people through which we tell a similar story, we do actually change quite a bit about the story itself: we position the issues between different cultural nodes and open up new connections that had previously not been accessible.

The tale of equal temperament, for instance, was told in my old syllabus through Daniel Chua’s highwire act of bringing together Vicenzo Galilei and Max Weber. But there is no reason that Zhu Zaiyu couldn’t also be used to explain the calculation of equal temperament, and to do so in a musical context that does not deal with the problem of triadic harmonies. This approach would raise all sorts of interesting questions: How do specific concepts relate to different musical contexts? What problem exactly did Zhu Zaiyu’s equal temperament solve in the context of Ming-dynasty yayue?

If the task is to open the students to other possibilities, then teaching other cultural and musical contexts is a plus. When the students learn how Arabic and Persian music theory utilizes the oud, they don’t only learn how the Greek tradition was absorbed by the Islamic world, but they also establish a point of contact on which later studies into South-Western Asian music[3] may build in a different context. When the students learn, with Johanna Kinkel, about Chopin through enharmonic microtones, they learn about a way of listening through new ears (and new politics) to a repertory that may have seemed all too familiar. When the students learn about Julián Carrillo’s vision of the future of music, they learn about changing conceptions of consonance and dissonance, and conceptions of musical progress. Schoenberg’s story is an important one here, too, but—and this is the critical point—it’s not the only one.

This is one way in which diversity manifests itself and spreads outwards. Far from just paying lip service to academic fashions, we will have actually created a structure that offers old and new points of contact, in ways that the old syllabus did not support.

Is it a problem that the cultures represented here are mostly drawn from the most notable cultures of the world, as even the crustiest European cultural mandarin would acknowledge? While the syllabus includes an important Mexican composer-theorist, there is no representation of several central minority groups of contemporary American culture: Indigenous Americans and African Americans. (This point is what I flagged earlier when I noted that global music theory is not the same as diverse theory.) This is a more serious concern and should be considered. If the list were longer, and if the semester had more weeks, there is no reason why both could not be included. I should also work harder to include more African American scholars—a problem that Phil Ewell discusses at length. Indigenous Americans present, as so often, a separate and possibly more protracted issue that absolutely deserves attention. So far I have not found a solution that would satisfy me, and I would be interested to hear from others who have tried.[4]

Perhaps the most important aspect of this thought experiment, certainly to me, is the thought that we need to rethink the relationship between people and ideas in the history of music theory. I sometimes joke that I teach music theory because I am not terribly interested in people. This usually gets a laugh, and there may be a certain kernel of truth to it. But I realize that this joke is not totally harmless, because the professed lack of interest in people is tantamount to accepting that our established histories continue to be peopled by heteronormative white males, which can somehow pass as neutral. As Phil Ewell reminds us, this indifference amounts in practice to a tacit diversity quota, and it’s currently set at 0%. Not every music theory student has the luxury of blithely ignoring ethnic and gender makeup.

One incentive that I hope students would take away from such a diversified syllabus is that they also recognize its opportunities. I am specifically thinking here of unrealized potential. The English secondary literature, say, on Zhu Zaiyu is still pretty sketchy, to say nothing of Johanna Kinkel, who is virtually unknown even in specialist circles. There is plenty of scope for exciting dissertation topics. The additional benefit is that as the research becomes more robust, these figures will automatically become more central. New nodes and points of contacts emerge. In a word, our story is beginning to change.

[…] Continuation: V. And finally, some FAQs (and not-so-FAQs) […]


[1] My colleague David Damrosch would call this a “countercanon.” He points out that the major figures of traditional canons are relatively unaffected by the diversification of the field and in fact form a “hypercanon.” (This would be our Schoenberg–Boethius syllabus.) Rather, he continues, it is the “shadowcanon” of the minor figures of traditional canons (the Marchettos, Morleys, and Marpurgs) that lose cultural capital in this process. See his “World Literature in a Postcanonical, Hypercanonical Age,” in Haun Saussy, ed., Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 43–53.

[2] Or, to make this point more emphatically, there is always the danger of the McDonaldization, of constructing a canon from the perspective of American hegemony, an act of colonization rather than globalization. See Djelal Kadir, “Comparative Literature in an Age of Terrorism,” in Saussy, ed., Comparative Literature, 68–77. Thanks go to Lester Hu for pointing me to this thought-provoking article.

[3] Thanks go to Siavash Sabetrohani for pointing out the problems with the standard label “Middle Eastern.” I have followed his advice in using a more adequate geographic term, but since this label is not (yet) very common, it seems useful to add this short explanatory note.

[4] Ongoing or very recent work, such as Danny Walden’s provocative work on the early generation of comparative musicologists [paywall] working with Indigenous Americans, or Jennifer Bain’s work on chant transmission among the Mi’kmaw, offer promising starting points here.

Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part III – Some Consequences

Alexander Rehding

[…] Continuation of: II. Five Different Classics […]

Writing a diverse HoT will require an embrace of the limits of what one person can do as a teacher. In conventional HoTs, the standard languages German, French, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek can be expected; they would—ideally—be needed to follow my old syllabus. It’s remarkable that for a number of the texts we look at—despite their much-invoked centrality to the field—there are no published English translations.[1] For practical purposes, I let my students work on translations as a group. There is usually at least one person with decent French and another with good German, occasionally someone with Latin or Greek, and among all of them, they can figure out most of the texts in the original language. Sometimes we work through originals in parallel with translations to tease out nuances wherever possible.

Would something equivalent even be possible for our diverse syllabus? Realistically speaking, we have to kiss goodbye to the expectation of comprehensive language skills.[2] Of course, my syllabus is still pretty moderate and focused on themes that resonate well with some central themes of European discourses.[3] What if we were to add, say, Sanskrit, Zulu, Russian, Nahuatl, Japanese, Omahan, Turkish, Javanese, and Tuvan? (Phil Ewell’s blog has much more to say on language skills.)

Some might argue that good historical work cannot be done without thorough language skills. These ambitions are understandable, but if we want to be serious about the global demands of music theory, or rather its diversity tasks—the two are not quite the same thing—then we have to be realistic. As historian Jürgen Osterhammel, a leading authority in global history and the author of several monumental volumes on world history, argues at length, it is simply not possible to do close-reading work with primary sources in multiple languages at the same time. Reliance on dependable translations is a precondition of a more diverse HoT. A global and/or diverse approach must have the courage to let go of the old language requirements. It doesn’t mean that the work is inferior. It just means that we place our priorities elsewhere.

Languages aside, I’d be deluding myself if I pretended that a diverse syllabus can be taught in the same way as the old syllabus. We know far less about Ptolemais than we do about Boethius; material about Johanna Kinkel is much harder to find than material about Helmholtz. Zhu Zaiyu and Al-Fārābī have amassed considerable secondary scholarship, but mostly within their own language groups. (There are no translations of Zhu Zaiyu or Al-Fārābī available at the moment, though Alison Laywine has been working on a translation of al-Kitāb.) Teaching these figures would require a lot more groundwork, a lot more contextual work, a lot more reliance on the existing secondary literature (some of which is, how to put it, less than up-to-date), and frankly, a lot more informed speculation. In all likelihood, it will require a certain amount of pedagogical finesse, as the students will have to synthesize a vast amount of material. It will also require putting my cards on the table and explaining that I am not in full control of the material, and rely—as the students do—on whatever material is available to me. We will, quite literally, all be learning this material together.[4]

In fact, this teaching model might well provide an alternative to Osterhammel’s individual synthesis of vast amounts of (secondary) material. His model, which retains the individual authorship of traditional humanistic scholarship, runs the risk of solipsism. The alternative is to harness the many diverse specialisms of scholarly collectives, each bringing their own thoughts to bear on a project.[5] Publications might well come to resemble seminar discussions.

[…]Continuation: IV. Pros and cons […]


[1] While I’m at it: Calvin Bower’s translation of Boethius has been out of print for a long time, and goes for about $500 on the second-hand market. Yale University Press, if you read this, please consider reissuing this book, perhaps as print on demand.

[2] Lest I be misunderstood: what I am talking about here is specifically a teaching scenario (or even more specifically, the qualifier “comprehensive”). In fact, this situation makes the need for published translations of the highest scholarly caliber even greater. In parallel, I hope we will usher in a new golden age of scholarly translations of music-theoretical texts, as we saw in the 1990s.

[3] One aspect of its moderation is the extent to which notions such as “History,” “Theory,” or “Music” are left unchallenged.

[4] In 2012, I offered a class that was structurally similar, which explored the Enlightenment reception of Chinese music and culminated in a group exhibition—in this I was as much a student as the graduates, in that before the start of the semester I didn’t know where exactly we would end up. It was a valuable experience for all involved.

[5] I thank Lester Hu for pushing me further along in this direction. There is plenty more to say here. Our current academic institutions, for instance, are typically geared toward incentivizing and rewarding individual scholarly contributions over group work.

Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part II – Five Different Classics

Alexander Rehding

[…] Continuation of: I. Prequel: Five Classics […]

But there was no resting on laurels. No sooner had I completed the syllabus than I started reading some recent inquiries into critical race theory and music theory—especially Phil Ewell’s series of blog posts “Confronting Racism and Sexism in Music Theory” and Vijay Iyer’s analysis of recent theorizing on improvisation [paywall]—and what I read gave me pause. What our syllabus didn’t do was to step outside of the heteronormative white-male framework. It reinscribed the same canon of sanctified figures that is apparently gender- and race-neutral, but is in fact simply white and male. Forget omitting Fux, Koch, and Marx—what this syllabus didn’t have was any women, any people of color, or any LGBTQIA+ persons.

Why this is noteworthy:

  1. Representation matters. (As a gay white male, I confess that I sometimes forget this point. It’s easy to argue that we should be interested in the ideas behind the people. But if all the theorists look like me, it’s only fair to acknowledge I am plenty represented, and that others might not feel that way.)
  2. If we don’t work toward representation ourselves, then it will never happen. The pretext that we cannot change history—that certain figures were simply more central than others, that certain figures brought new ideas to the discussion—is irrelevant. If we select five figures from a timeframe that spans one and a half millennia, we make massive omissions however we slice it.

Would such a goal even be achievable? What would an equivalent syllabus look like if it tried to add this level of diversity? What if it included no white males and instead elevated a canon made up entirely of women and POC persons? To plan this out, I decided to stick with our five-figure structure. Here is what I came up with in my thought experiment:

  1. Ptolemais of Cyrene (3rd century bce?)
  2. Al-Fārābī (c. 872–950/51)
  3. Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611)
  4. Johanna Kinkel (1810–1858)[1]
  5. Julián Carrillo (1875–1965)

There is a fairly coherent story around these figures as well. It is a story of tuning and consonance, and the various larger units that can be created out of our decisions to divide tones in particular ways and not in others. (For what it’s worth, other figures I considered but ultimately did not include are the Japanese scholar Shohe Tanaka, on whom Danny Walden has written in his dissertation, and the American experimentalist Henry Cowell, on whom I will write more later. There are doubtless plenty others who are not even on my radar.)

In putting together this alternative “Five Classics,” I was looking for a number of different factors at the same time, and it’s worth laying out clearly the kinds of calculations that went into this.

  • What are the topics worth covering? Specifically, what key concepts will students be able to further explore in other contexts?
  • What historical timeline will provide us with a relatively coherent narrative that could, ideally, span the entire semester?
  • How can we cover a reasonable range of different historical and cultural constellations and periods? What arguments and issues from any one debate can we build on in future topics?

As a side note, I have been quite interested in the kinds of instruments that music theorists use in order to demonstrate their ideas, such as the monochord and the piano. The affordances and constraints of these instruments can tell us quite a lot about the musical universe in which the theories operate. The diverse theorists also introduce a new range of music-theoretical instruments: the oud of the Arabic world and the Chinese twelve lü.

Most of the concerns and considerations here are not fundamentally different from the earlier syllabus. In our effort to cover a large timespan, we aimed to find connections and coherence wherever possible.

Of course, certain things that we assume in conventional (let’s just call it heteronormative white male) histories of music theory cannot be carried over into this conglomerate. In this conventional world it is possible to write history as a series of dialogs, in which later theorists critique earlier theorists. In my old syllabus, we can read Helmholtz picking up ideas from Rameau, Rameau taking issue with Zarlino, or Zarlino referencing Boethius. We can be fairly sure that each theorist on the old syllabus was familiar with the works of the earlier ones, at the very least certain works of the previous generation. This syllabus can easily be read as a meeting of minds in timeless space in which heteronormative white male theorists discuss music-theoretical issues and illuminate them from all sides.

Such a meeting of minds is more difficult to construe for a more diverse group of theorists. There is no evidence that, say, Johanna Kinkel read Zhu Zaiyu, or was even aware of his groundbreaking work in Ming-dynasty China. Al-Fārābī pays, as far as I am aware, no particular heed to Ptolemais’ work, just as Julián Carrillo, while trained in Germany, does not shed any light on Johanna Kinkel. Any connections between these figures must remain imaginary and imaginative. But this is not to say they cannot coexist—in theory.

We will simply have to try a little harder to uncover such connections. It may not always be possible to make links on a person-to-person basis, but the links exist on a discursive level, in which Ptolemais—whose work we only know obliquely, through Porphyry—becomes the figure through whom we explore the world of ancient Greek music theory. Once we broaden out in this way, it is no problem to link Ptolemais’s work with that of Al-Fārābī, who expanded Greek principles into the Islamicate[2] context of the tenth century ce—or rather, the third century ah in the Islamic calendar, to further decenter our sense of chronology. The famous story of Zhu Zaiyu, who calculated equal temperament in China in 1584, some years before Simon Stevin made the equivalent calculation in Europe, using his own methods and technologies, offers its own global context.

[…] Continuation: III. Some Consequences […]


[1] Thanks go to Danny Walden for introducing me to Johanna Kinkel, the female composer and music theorist in the circle around Karl Marx exiled in London, and her remarkable call to Emancipate the Quartertone!

[2] With thanks to Siavash Sabetrohani, I adopt this term from Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: 1. The Classical Age of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1975), 59. “I have been driven to invent a term, ‘Islamicate’. It has a double adjectival ending on the analogy of ‘Italianate’, ‘in the Italian style’, which refers not to Italy itself directly, not to just whatever is to be called properly Italian, but to something associated typically with Italian style and with the Italian manner. One speaks of ‘Italianate’ architecture even in England or Turkey. Rather similarly (though I shift the relation a bit), ‘Islamicate’ would refer not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.”

Can the History of Theory Be Decentered? Part I – Prequel: Five Classics

Alexander Rehding


Until fairly recently, Harvard’s History of Music Theory exam was rather free-wheeling.[1] It allowed our graduate students to focus on any period or topic in the history of theory. But my colleagues and I eventually came to see this model as unwieldy. An overhaul was needed. To make the exam more manageable for all sides, we decided that the questions should be drawn from a sequence of five central music theorists from across the ages.[2]

In general, our qualifying exam tries to strike a balance between teaching the things that “belong in the music theorist’s toolkit” (i.e. are important for the job market) and letting students explore their personal interests. While keeping requirements to a minimum, we aim to fill this toolkit with skills and research areas that future employers tend to expect. By being canonical in some areas, the exam structure opened up greater freedom to explore in others.

The “Five Classics” (to go full-on Confucian[3] for a moment) of our HoT exam were one of those canonical areas. It covers a range of different periods, topics, and approaches that would give students a basis for further exploration. The current list includes:

  1. Boethius
  2. Zarlino
  3. Rameau
  4. Helmholtz
  5. Schoenberg

So far so good. Gradually, though, it dawned on us that now we have to somehow teach all these figures. Taking into account other required courses, we realized that we could only afford to dedicate one semester to HoT. And this semester would need to cover all fifteen hundred years between Boethius and Schoenberg.

Every challenge is an opportunity. After some experiments trying to do these five theorists justice in one semester-long syllabus, I realized that none of my schemes were working. There was always too much to know—too much musical repertoire, too many texts, too much intellectual history, too much cultural background, too much historiography. In no way could all this be squeezed into one semester. I was about to give up when I finally hit on a solution that I thought would work: instead of starting with the profound alienness of Boethius, it would make much more sense to start our story from the end. Why not begin with Schoenberg, whose musical world is much closer to most of our students, rather than with the war-ravaged Late Antiquity of Boethius?

By working in reverse chronological order, starting with the trope of the “end of tonality,” we could capitalize on the knowledge of music history that many students would bring to the course. This way we could start by delving into the trajectories of musical evolution that were so commonly invoked in the late nineteenth century, and that were retrofitted[4] so as to explain why Schoenberg’s atonality was either a historical necessity, or a terrible aberration that led to the irrecoverable loss of a once-flowering tradition. These discussions would then allow us to introduce various historiographic topics, and would lead, almost imperceptibly, to the next topic on our list: the issue of tonality, and the challenges that Helmholtz’s scientific example offered to traditional music theory.

It did not take long to realize that the actual problem I was facing was less about the material itself, but about the ways in which a coherent story could be told in one semester. (At the other extreme, I had taught seminars before that focused exclusively on a single historical figure, such as Rameau or Riemann, or on a selection of topics within a given century.) Going backwards in time was not really a problem as long as we thought of it as a succession of topics rather than a succession of people. While the exam structure still focused on the works of five central figures, there was no problem if the seminar told the story of theoretical concepts. And, in the service of one coherent red thread, we could definitely do worse than to choose the old story of pitch relations, talking about changing notions of key concepts such as consonance, scales, counterpoint, harmony, and tonality. A reverse chronological order would, at least, ensure a different perspective that does not replicate the well-worn tropes of progressive complexity leading toward the present age. By moving backward in time, we would have to confront—in what I was hoping would be a striking realization—that the numerical structuralism of the Pythagorean tradition has never fully disappeared, but merely faded into the background because of our reliance on equal temperament. So complex is the numerical reality of our music that we have taken a collective shrug and directed our attention to other issues.

To tell the full story, I ended up modifying the syllabus in one major regard: We moved backward to Rameau, and then inserted a hard break. The second (shorter) half of the semester began with Boethius and his adaptation of Greek modes, and moved forward to Zarlino. This had the advantage of avoiding the complexity of introducing the concept of modes within a contrapuntal framework. It had the additional benefit that we could close our overview with further historiographic questions, circling back to the issue of tonality, into whose service Zarlino had been pressed by the likes of later commentators such as Riemann and Matthew Shirlaw. By putting Zarlino at the end we could close the circle of the semester, and connect the broad historiographic questions that we had raised at the beginning of our journey.

I was pretty happy with the structure of the semester. Sure, it was not perfect. There was no Formenlehre, no Affektenlehre, no rhythmic theory. There was no Koch, no Kirnberger, no Fux, no Mersenne, no Gaffurius, no Marchetto, no Guido, no [insert your favorite theorist here]. As with any syllabus, mine had holes. Yet it offered cohesion and reasonable coverage. Moreover, the warped chronology did a pretty good job of reframing canonical figures in a way that would nudge them (and the students) out of their comfort zones.

[…] Continuation: II. Five Different Classics […]


[1] This blogpost would not have been possible without the many invaluable conversations and exchanges that preceded and accompanied its writing. Thanks go particularly to Will Cheng, Phil Ewell, Roger Grant, Drew Hicks, Lester Hu, Nathan Martin, Carmel Raz, Siavash Sabetrohani, and Danny Walden, as well as the students in my current Music 220: History of Music Theory.

[2] A tip of the hat goes to Henry Klumpenhouwer here, who first suggested a five-book structure to me.

[3] Thanks go to Lester Hu for pointing out the irony that a sixth Confucian classic, now lost, was a volume on music.

[4] Historians have come up with the useful term “backshadowing” here. See Michael Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).