Whither (traditional American) music theory?

Adam Neely’s recent video on the white supremacist origins of music theory (or, to be more particular, “music theory” as it is colloquially understood by most Americans, an important caveat since there is a much more interesting breadth of music theory discussed on Lines) solidified a bunch of vague thoughts that have been floating around in my head. I was trained in the exact tradition he discusses – started piano at age 6, was a piano major for part of undergrad before realizing I don’t enjoy live piano performance, continued playing “the classics” (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin) well into my 30s – and I’ve only recently begun to comprehend how limited my learning actually was for creating and analyzing music I like (Merzbow, Subotnick, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Sonic Youth, etc).

I’m still grappling with what, if any, place this “classical” training has for me – not to mention the fact that I grew up as a straight white cis male in an upper middle class family (ALL of the privilege!) which intersects in uncomfortable ways with the issues Neely raises. What do other people think about this stuff?


The unfortunate consequence of history is we’re all a little bit complicit in things with brutal origins and the effects of which continue to present day and surely will into the distant future. It would be incredibly naive to assume one can extricate oneself from anything problematic while enjoying the comforts of technology, global trade, banking etc. As an example, the modern banking system was built on the slave trade, particularly on the breeding of slaves (an investment with guaranteed growth); and we arent even talking about environmental politics yet!

In my opinion, understanding is the most important thing, as it is what allows any possible change. But I also dont’t think it is worthwhile always to abandon tools with a problematic history - because all our tools are like that. Make positive change whereever you can, promote this kind of dialogue, and try not too waste too much energy feeling guilty for things outside of your control.


i found adam neely’s video wonderful and eye opening. the concept that “music theory” has evolved to mean “western music theory of a few 18th century white guys” is one of those truths that once you hear it, you instantly grok and can’t go back.

i’m committed to sharing and discussion concepts like this and creating as inclusive of a space as a i can for all my music and art.


unnnffff adam neely is extremely knowledge daddy. there are so many terrible white jazz men, and he is working overtime to redeem the title.

I like jonatron’s frame–– the big change that’s happened since the advent of the synthesizer is a change in listening to accommodate all of the things that contravene the hegemonic interpretation of what music is or should be. it’s happening everywhere! art isn’t technical mastery anymore folks, and that conservatory model was just a way of recycling cultural hegemony.


Thanks for posting, just watched, great stuff.

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Was a great video.

One thing I found pretty disappointing was his overlooking of “class” in the argument. I mean, he mentions it towards the end to point out how education(/theory) = privilege, but that doesn’t do nearly enough.

I mean, even the frame of it in a racial context suuuper overlooks the fact that “music theory” ignores all folk music. So it is not like a bunch of “white” folk music, or non-classical music’s get the same cultural cache and support that “music theory” affords. So while I agree that Schenker is surely a racist POS, as are a bunch of the people in that world, for me the clearer dividing line is class vs race.

I also think that the overall framing of “having a theoretical framework” meaning something is worthwhile (like Adam’s examples with Indian music et al) seems to push forward that “music” is something that is rigorous and deserves/requires a theoretical framing and understanding to be “good” in the first place.

Which, again, overlooks lots of folk traditions, in particular, but also “low brow” art in general.

So just because an art form doesn’t have (or need) this kind of analytical framework doesn’t make it any less real. So even the framing of the question is super charged for me.


was waiting for someone to touch on this

ignores or tries to reframe within their boundaries


so true, however, i think it’s good to prioritize: fighting classism doesn’t necessarily uproot racism, but fighting racism does inherently call to question classism(maybe i’ve just seen more racism in my life, though).
So i’m glad Neely focused on racism first and foremost(it’s about time someone did in this realm).


I agree with this. I’m not entirely comfortable with considering racism as a subset to/adjunct of class. There’s a reason that Neely focused on B** S****** and his dismissal of rap as “not music.” There’s a clear stream of racism that flows through music theory outside of the classism (which is also certainly there). The way that the American music theory establishment has explicitly marginalized POC musicians is a really important thing to think about, at least for me, and the reasons for this are not class-based.


I agree 100%. The US has a very specific and terrible history with race, and how that lines up with economic factors.

I primarily took issue with how class was completely disregarded in the video as what falls under “music theory”.


it’s also great that Neely put this out at this moment in history, when the Black Lives Matter movement has made such a heavy resurgence(it’s been around for at least a decade now, but people are finally giving it the attention it deserves). Someday, once we can defeat the systemic racism that threatens Black Lives most(and not just in the U.S. but everywhere in the world, especially in countries which participated in the Atlantic slave trade long ago, but never made reparations for all that harm, this racism has grown too unconsciously entrenched), then I’m all for talking about how ‘all lives matter [equally]’, but for now, i think sexism and racism are more pressing issues(simply because they form a more primitive kind of neurosis and leaving them unchecked is causing a massive disease of ignorance and harm to everyone, everywhere).


The music theory field has made a lot of strides with jazz, rock, and even hip-hop, but you would never guess it from the high school and college core theory curriculum. The required theory sequence in a typical music department hasn’t changed in any appreciable way in 100 years.


I’m sure you don’t mean harm but a statement like this seems wildly dismissive of a whole way of organizing sound

If any music other than what is dominant and forced on billions globally (even hardware/software are designed with western theory in mind) were as pervasive, you really think composers would suffer drought of ideas???

I’ll comment more but am kinda curious whether you employed hyperbole or really believe this


Shall we completely ignore the massive influence of Afro-Caribbean folkloric music on US popular music starting in the late 19th century and still going (very) hard today? Leaving rhythm out of the discussion of music theory, how very European.


I did a bachelors in music theory.

The 18th century harmony part was just the foundation, or history, for a broader dialogue. Once you had the western context down everything at the next level was “can you find any pattern at all that helps other people think about how this music works”.

The limitations of our western & white histories around what the “canon” is and how to conceive of and constructively discuss music was a near daily subject.

most of the time when I hear musicians or music enthusiasts refer to music theory they’re talking about that first step.


Yes. My point was that those books and articles and “tries by the academic crowd” came after the effect on US and European popular music. And further, these analyses are incomplete, partly due to the insistence on translating them into the music theory system of white male composers of the 17th century.

I hear pop musicians as taking some of these academic innovations and making them sound musical. Like, there’s Stockhausen, and then there’s In A Silent Way; there’s musique concrete, and then there’s Public Enemy; there’s sprechtstimme, and then there’s Kendrick Lamar. It’s like, the academics are doing basic science, and then the pop musicians turn that into iPhones.


sorry to interject, but i’m a little confused by this read of ICM theory.

i’ve studied tabla for many years now and have gained so much from getting into the rhythmic structures and “rules,” in my playing as well as writing - but definitely never felt the rigidity of some concepts as a trap. now, like i said, it’s tabla… i know karnatic music is far stricter with its rules, but hindustani music - and my gurujis - always encouraged invention within the structures given, at least from my understanding.

as a system of improvisation, hindustani music is incredibly rich in generative ideas. sure, the tihai has strict rules - but it’s up to you to decide how it all falls into place. yes, there’s very specific language to use in kaida versus rela versus peshkar, but apart from understanding the vocabulary and syntax, there’s just so much room to make it your own.

i don’t doubt at all your experience in the music or your connection to your gurujis! it’s just really interesting our experiences are so different.


in case the post is deleted let me just say…dang that is awesome!


indeed. they exist for the ‘conservation’ of tradition(just my observation, though, nothing else meant by that here).