Whither (traditional American) music theory?

Which side of the clave should this phrase fall on? I’m working my way through The Clave Matrix right now, which is by far the most thorough treatment of the subject. First published in 2009. It’s the first book in a series which is not even complete, and acknowledges it’s own incompleteness. Didn’t stop the habanera or Daddy Yankee or anything in between though.
What is the ritual language phrase being spoken by the bata? How do you notate that? Serious players of this instrument all end up having to be initiated in order to continue their studies.
That’s not even getting into more obscure stuff like Abakua or Palo, and those are all in Cuba which is the most thoroughly studied.
I have the best text on Haitian drumming in English and it’s like a tiny pamphlet. And also acknowledges its great deficiencies.

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The video and Ewell’s article never says this; it’s more a call to recognise that what gets called “Music Theory” is the theory of a particular music. Treating a particular as a universal and dismissing other experience is a hallmark of colonialism and patriarchy.

Ewell does talk a little bit about the theory itself being racist, but I found that part of the argument unconvincing. To my mind the white/male supremacism is in the privileging of a particular music as the most worthy of study, and the structural/institutional reinforcement of this idea. He’s speaking I think mostly to others in his Music Theory world to try and widen their focus, but his piece got picked up as part of the culture wars.


Man, sign up for a forum after ordering a norns, think to myself, “this looks like a fun place to tinker with exciting hardware, no way would my first post be about the racist origins of western music theory.” It’s a failure of my own imagination.

I share a bit of a path with some here, receiving an education at a US music school (University of the Arts in Philadelphia) before promptly not making music professionally for many years. The curriculum was jazz heavy and really, focused on bebop as the foundational element.

What I don’t see really being elevated here is the colonial vs racist underpinning that makes a certain type of notation and theory dominant. Maybe this is just semantics, but I think that’s an equally valid and important lens to view this under. We’re on a forum written, largely, in English, despite an international collaboration of creators with a shared interest. This might be unfortunate as English isn’t a particularly wonderful language to be an international standard, but it’s where we are. The violent history of colonialism and dominance that brought us here is understood and well beyond a forum post.
Still, I think learning “western/traditional american/white supremacist racist” music theory is useful is in an understanding that a large number of people have been trained to hear music in 4/4 12 tone equal temperament as ‘normal.’ This makes learning the patterns and concepts that begin there and extend through the 20th century and intermingle with American music history (not necessarily contemporary symphonic, but jazz, hip hop, rock, blues, modern folk, country, pop, experimental, basically everything in a post-historical context) useful as a language rather than as a theory. It also provides a framework to begin to understand styles and traditions that fall outside of that core and to notate where those differences are for personal education and group discussion. It’s problematic, just like communicating in English as a “standard,” as there’s an inherent bias in it: if 12 tone notation is right, then anything outside that is “wrong.” I don’t think that anymore than, from what I gather, anyone with the intellect to approach this subject. I do think, if you were raised on pop, rock, jazz, or “classical” music, you’ll likely be at least somewhat tuned to those rules, and would probably hear other traditions for their differences from your core understanding, so the utility of those “rules” probably will get you to a better understanding of other traditions more easily if you use that framework as a jumping-off point.

I agree wholeheartedly that western classical music theory (even when it’s mislabeled as contemporary music theory) is a framework for a particular kind of music. But, it’s raw tools that were developed for that purpose (notation, tuning and terminology) have significant utility in letting a diverse group of people use a language that can be modified to talk about other kinds of music.

The entirety of our lived experience, particularly as others have pointed out in the US, is a history built on racism and colonialism. It’s a brutal history, and in an age of split-second news cycles, it’s one that so many people are so quick to forget, or willfully reject. Being deeply self aware of where you are in the system, and acknowledging your privilege if you have it, and using that privilege to lift up others who need your help is a noble path. I don’t think that should include rejecting the language you know or the utility or beauty it may have. You do nobody any good if you blink yourself out of existence on realizing the weight of the history that brought you to be.

This is an amazing and important conversation. Western music theory is a system, and it’s a system that has produced amazing works of art, but it is not “music theory,” nor is it necessarily (like English) the best framework to analyze music. Still, there is no reason to feel guilt for being trained in that framework.

Anyhow, I hear norns is cool. Looking forward to checking it out :slight_smile:


It seems to me that Phil Ewell and Adam Neely are both deeply invested in western music theory. I think this is important - they are being self-critical of their own field.

I find Indian classical music extremely generative, I can’t overstate this. I’m not formally trained in music, but have read a little bit around the topic, and got into Bernard Bel’s amazing papers around the time setting in the Bol Processor https://bolprocessor.org . This was/is a major influence on TidalCycles and I think is probably the main reason why people find it interesting.

Western classical music is partly interesting because it is written down, making it possible to analyse and share on the page. This also is what makes it uninteresting, when people mistake staff notation as representing the whole music experience, for example by thinking you can understand dance music without dancing to it, or by thinking the standard pattern is in 12/4 because it’s easier to write it down that way.

I see a lot of human culture go out of the window this way - rich processes develop, some aspect of those processes get formalised and written down, and this creates a huge blind spot for what doesn’t get written down. This is why we’re left with such an impoverished idea about what a ‘pattern’ is in music tech, for example. It happened with the Jacquard device in weaving too - some aspect got formalised and automated, and the majority of weaving techniques gets lost.

But then you almost never see staff notation in music technology. Even though people go on about ‘music theory’ all the time, western classical music theory doesn’t really have anything to do with the vast majority of contemporary music practice in the west, which is far more influenced by the many musics of the African diaspora. Furthermore I think the flexibility of the music environments we have now make them much more like orally transmitted traditional music, than brittle score-based music and the hierarchical/patriarchal structures of music schools.


I grew up in a European country with its own (or a multitude of) non-12tet tradition(s). Both Western tradition and non-Western tradition were and are prevalent. To the best of my understanding and experience “normalcy” is mostly brought by the context and not from any particular training or just plain exposure.

Unless you have perfect hearing, which is should be called hearing memory or hearing obsessiveness.

Especially in a time and age when our access to a vast amount of different sounds and music is the standard, I honestly don’t see how Western tradition can be anything but “one way of looking at things”.

I’ll refrain from saying more on the subject for now, as I’m interested to read more of what other people have to say.


I think any piano roll based sequencer is a very modest distinction from traditional notation. I’m actually very interested in studying other methods of noting modern electronic music and wonder if a modified version of staff notation could be exciting. Even tracker interfaces convey much of the same information but are adapted to provide additional information about playback. We have scala files and other ways of losing alternative scales and we have plenty of ways of generating music with rhythm and harmonic structure that extends beyond the piano roll, but it’s hard to say that notation at least, from western theory isn’t alive and well in music tech.

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I don’t think western classical music theory has any monopoly on grids!

Not in the least. I’m being reductive in conflating notation with theory. There are two threads, one much more significant than the other. But most grids are symmetrically distributed which *favors chromatically tempered music. Doesn’t mean that it’s the only path or even the right one, but I think a large chunk of modern sequencers favor 12 tone chromatic music that rhythmically snaps to those grids. Not all

I agree that the kind of Music Theory discussed by Neely (capitalized to avoid confusion with “music theory”, which could be any theorizing about music) is certainly useful. I use it all the time! On its own, without any cultural context, it is not white supremacist. If we existed in a cultural context where people generally said “hey, Music Theory is just one of many tools that we can use to analyze music, and let’s use the correct tool when looking at music made by POC” – well, then there would be no issues.

However, one must also consider cultural context; and in that context Music Theory is unquestionably white supremacist for a series of reasons: (i) when most americans (including many academic theoreticians) talk about music theory they mean Music Theory alone (i.e., no other additional theories); (ii) when most americans talk of Music Theory they believe it can be used as a metric to objectively judge the quality of music; and (iii) Music Theory explicitly excludes the music made by POC (as well as many other modes of music).

That’s why Neely brings up pop-culture thinkpieces that use Music Theory to “prove” that certain pop songs are great. Because Music Theory cannot be used in the same way to analyze, say, rap (I mean, you can try, but it won’t work well; it is the wrong theory for the job), the unavoidable implication of the dominance of Music Theory in our cultural discourse is that rap is inferior because it does not lend itself to the same analysis. Thus Music Theory, when placed in its cultural context, is inescapably white supremacist.


I don’t understand how that could be.

I really hope I’m misunderstanding you here… You think we have a Music Theory, capitalised, that’s explicitly only for white people? … and you see no issues with this?

My point is (a) yes, Music Theory as discussed by Neely (i.e., a very particular kind of music theory developed to study a small group of white 18th century composers) is explicitly only for studying white people and (b) I have a huge problem with this being the dominant mode of music theory! I don’t see the theory itself as being white supremacist; it’s the dominance of the theory that makes it white supremacist, in a cultural context. That’s the thrust of Neely’s video, which I agree with.

I’m struggling with this one… There were Black composers around Europe in the 18th century. There are Black western classical music composers and music theorists around now.

I don’t have any interest in western classical music theory personally but saying it’s only for white people seems to be missing the point? Different musics have different approaches but also often has a great deal in common, and so Western classical music theory can be applied to whatever you like (cf Kofi Agawu)…

Schenkerian analysis is explicitly white supremacist. As far as I understand it, it’s also unscientific/unformalised and so useless for any kind of computational approach to music theory.

But going from that, to saying that western theoretical understanding of classical music can only be applied to music written by white people just doesn’t make sense to me.


I like the convention of capitalizing it, that’s great for clarity.

I don’t think it makes things clear at all, unless the context is already clear. Why not just say which music theory you’re talking about?

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Maybe it should MUSIC THEORY for the Eurocentric kind

To my mind, the music theory is a product of the repotoire. The hegemony of European classical music repotoire in music education leads to a preponderance of musicians equipped to perform, teach and theorize about it. Looking at what is taught in kids music lessons, grades and exams might be a good place to effect change.

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I’m writing in the UK, but based on my experience, I think this is total bollocks, really. If the works at the International Computer Music Conference are anything to go by (I admit I haven’t been for a few years), academic electronic music is in general profoundly stuck… There’s some weird, passive-aggressive rejection of anything that doesn’t conform to a narrow aesthetic, for example any form of repetition or even regular pulse is shown as an amusing sideshow to the serious ‘art music’. The scene has ossified, and it’ll stay that way while the conservative patriarchy keeps outside influences out.

Labels like conditional records are bringing together real forward thinking stuff, and I’m sure there’s influences from and crossover with the academic scene, but like everything else, the real influences are from hip-hop, house, techno, etc.

“When you trace the historical development of jazz harmony, it is always lagging behind the “legit” composers by a decade or two.”

Now I’m not a music theorist, but is there any basis in this at all? This seems a prime example of what Phil Ewell is talking about - putting an extremely limited frame on what music is, and then declaring anything that doesn’t fit that frame as degenerate. Lumping “Jazz” in with “Pop music” is a classic example of this blinkered thinking.


I see there are some concerns about the tone of the thread happening. I’m not overly concerned myself at the moment—my take is that we’re having brave conversations about topics where it’s easy to put your foot in your mouth unintentionally and then be called on it. Something that might be useful to keep in mind when writing here is that while everyone here is intelligent and excited to contribute and learn from the conversation, not many people at all are right there with you and your experience of music theory.

Just to take a random example, this quote is secretly a missed opportunity for several posts in the thread, right? like “what is Schenkerian analysis,” “why is it white supremacist,” “who are the people who made it explicitly so,” and even “given that, why is it so relevant?” are all great questions that I’d love reading the dialogue around.

Anyway, sorry to be mod-y, I was and am really excited to watch this conversation develop, and maybe next time I’ll share something actually on-topic!


Thanks @alanza, I’m a bit puzzled about what these concerns could be. I just saw something from @electricanada about this thread needing some “positivity”, but honestly have no clue about what posts have been ‘negative’ apart from one saying that they didn’t like a piece of music that was shared. I think everyone is discussing in good faith, but I also think white supremacy in music is an important topic, that needs to be dealt with in a critical way.

Re your questions on Schenkerian Analysis, I think the video in the top post answers them very well.


hahahaha you got me! I had yet to watch the video