The first thing that stands out in Philip Ewell’s On Music Theory And Making Music More Welcoming For Everyone is how specific the music theory world is. His thesis concerns structural issues as he experiences them: the pursuit of tenure, the peer-review process for the Society of Music Theory, critiques of foreign-language requirements for graduate theory programs, and even the U.S.’s particular passion for Schenkerian analysis. Entertaining those critiques requires at least a cursory understanding of the legislative functions of Title IX and the First Amendment rights. Readers familiar with the American university system will recognize many of Ewell’s arguments, and be able to transpose them onto their own contexts. But for people living outside of those structures (which, let’s be real, is a fair amount of the population), the setting Ewell describes can seem like another land.
So, is On Music Theory simply a particularly niche trade book aimed at the American academy, or might it be something bigger? It’s not entirely clear. Due to the awful backlash he has received over the past three years for pointing out racism in his field (which has been covered by VAN), Ewell has earned the right to call himself “arguably the most recognizable music theorist in the country.” In the second half of On Music Theory’s title, there’s clearly an appeal to a readership that’s wider than an academic audience. It’s an idea reflected in his far-reaching aims: Ewell’s aspirational definition for music theory is “the interpretation, investigation, analysis, pedagogy, and performance of any music from our planet.” Rather than focusing on individuals, Ewell is “criticizing the entire enterprise of the academic study of music in the United States” (though there’s a fair bit of focused commentary on the people involved in the notorious Volume 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies). Still, On Music Theory feels like Ewell reaching for something epochal.
Yet the book is ultimately a monograph, of which Ewell’s central concern is the discipline of music theory and its structural inadequacies. If you’re looking for a close critique of Heinrich Schenker’s graphs, a counter-argument of antiracist musical analysis in practice (George Russell’s fascinating Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, and a recycling of Marc Hannaford’s PhD thesis on the theories of Muhal Richard Abrams, Yusef Lateef, Roland Wiggins, and Anthony Braxton, are floated as suggestions for existing rigorous theory outside of America’s love affair with Schenkeria), or even are open to the idea of 281 pages entertaining the theory that there might be something fundamentally wrong with the way we have traditionally analyzed an art form so transient and intangible in nature, then this not the book for you. There are only a couple of pages of close musical analysis—on antisemitism in Prokofiev’s opera “Betrothal at a Monastery”—with most of the analytic energy dedicated to structural and discursive explorations.
After quickly outlining why the idea of Western civilization is a constructed mythology, Ewell heads for Schenker, one of the fathers of music theory. Today, you’d have to be looking particularly hard in the other direction to conclude that Schenker wasn’t racist. More intriguing are the number of hoops that Schenkerians jump through in order to justify their line of work, especially the ways that Schenker scholars, wishing to contextualize his views but not disrupt their discipline, deploy the flimsy distinction between the permissible tag of “cultural racism” (which, they argue to various extents, Schenker probably was guilty of) and its relation, “biological racism” (which, in their view, Schenker couldn’t possibly have been). Ewell cites a Martin Luther King passage that speaks to this attitude best, where “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” is preferable to “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Ewell’s approach is one which returns to tension.
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On Music Theory is an uncomfortable read, for a number of reasons. Most noticeably, it’s a very personal book in a discipline which tries to eliminate the self more than most. Flicking through the long list of names in the opening acknowledgements, Ewell underlines this as a battle of people as well as structures, and the rallying round of a community in the face of some awful behavior. The fourth chapter, detailing the racism involved in Volume 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, is a bleak moment.
Ultimately, it’s Ewell’s story to tell, and as uncomfortably as he wishes. But the book is not without moments of discomfort that Ewell probably didn’t intend. The reason why composers from the Iberian Peninsula have been erased from existence is simple, Ewell writes: “because that is one place where European nonwhiteness has resided.” Twenty pages later, Ewell says it “should go without saying that there are numerous BIPOC groups that have inhabited Europe for centuries, millenia even.” Working on discursive and structural levels without much musical ballast—in Schenkerian studies, a subsection of music theory where musical “evidence” is everything—means passages like “Schenker believed that the fundamental structure must ‘govern’ and ‘control’ the middle-ground and foreground elements of the music composition. Similarly, Schenker believed that blacks must be governed and controlled by whites” have the tendency to jump out, or at least beg the question, “Citation?”
Things also become uncomfortable when arguments are squashed into tables and lists. Ewell has had enough bad-faith readings of his work, not least John McWhorter, in an op-ed titled “Is Musicology Racist?” in the New York Times. One of McWhorter’s attacks focused on Ewell’s approach to the piano in music theory pedagogy, which “enforces a commitment to whiteness and maleness.” Ewell’s argument is actually more complicated than that, and he does have a point—that “one can teach music theory quite effectively and never touch a piano keyboard in class”—though it’s hidden by a somewhat reflexive return to the “whiteness and maleness” couplet. Notwithstanding Ewell’s avoidance of a discussion that considers the prominence of the piano in, for example, the whole gamut of Black American musics from ragtime to bebop to hip-hop, the music theory sans keyboard part of his argument is lost when he squishes it into an action point. Ewell does the first step of reducing his arguments; people with axes to grind see that as an opportunity.
Other parts seem hasty. The inclusion of the final chapter (titled “On Classical Music’s Antisemitism”), colleagues told Ewell, was the weakest part of the book. Ewell doubled down, writing: “Confronting antisemitism in classical music is every bit as important as confronting antiblackness (or other forms of hate for that matter), and no one will convince me otherwise.” But, in a book about the structural inequities in music theory education, a section like this—which makes reference to classical music, but little to the music theory structures outlined in previous chapters—naturally stands apart from Ewell’s main argument. (Previously, Timothy Jackson, the editor of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, had accused Ewell of antisemitism for his critiques of Schenker. Might this be why the section is included?)
“Though it’s hard not to see how Prokofiev’s musical depiction of Jews and Jewishness can be considered antisemitic,” Ewell writes, “I don’t know much else about his antisemitism. But he was hardly alone.” Is this a helpful opening-up for further study, or an admission that he hasn’t done the work? Ewell doesn’t help the case against the SMT’s critiques that his writing reads more like a manifesto when he gives a bullet-point list of composers, each with a stub of text about their antisemitism that are drawn from citations that just so happen to be the top search results on Google. Though he says it shouldn’t be cited as authoritative in academic writing, Ewell later cites the “Controversies” section of Richard Wagner’s Wikipedia page as “representing a certain consensus” around the composer’s antisemitism. This methodology seems flimsy.
Where On Music Theory is strongest is as a guide to practicing antiracism within a structural setting. Though it’s from one particularly specialized perspective, it’s worth taking the points Ewell raises with a serious view to practicing equity and justice on a broader scale. There are lots of bold, brave starts here. I’d read a longer book that gives space to what at times feel like big ideas crammed into a too-small space.
Ewell uses a partially intersectional approach that links race and gender, but doesn’t extend that into the socioeconomic realm, because that would take “the focus off whiteness, and I have found that redirection to be one of the main goals of white persons in discussions about race.” It’s a fair decision, but one that accidentally reinforces some of the problems he critiques. In Ewell’s On Music Theory, the main objects of critique are the structures: tenure, journals, graduate programs, and institutions. And yet, in Ewell’s eyes, the arbiters of change seem to be… tenure, journals, graduate programs, and institutions. Ewell has already critiqued the idea of these hierarchical structures as self-replicating things, but also puts an undue amount of power in the hands of those structures to change themselves.
It’s only on page 265 that Ewell properly considers his students: “A note to students of all levels,” he writes. “You have power, more than you know.” I’d argue they have more power than Ewell allows them, too. And, while lamenting neoliberalism—which has ushered in one of the most profound structural changes in academia over the past 40 years—he acknowledges one good thing about treating higher learning institutions as corporations with “customers”: “students banding together to request and even demand action can actually lead to positive change.” Considering that structure earlier might have changed some of the book’s framing.
It’s a book hoping for change, but who has the power to do that, and will they follow through with it? It’s worth looking at the recent Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy statistics for the 2023-24 season for a comparison of where conversations around representation are at the moment in a related classical music space: “Most of the institutions that we track find it is more comfortable to stay with systems that are recognized as inherently unjust and inequitable, rather than take the risk of making a change,” they state. As music theory enters a similar conversation, will it risk change, or find further ways of justifying its unjustness? The latter looks more likely. ¶
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Ewell considered his chapter “On Classical Music’s Antisemitism” the “most important part” of his book. As clarified in that chapter, he considers it to be equally as important, not more or most. Additionally, the same paragraph mentioned that Ewell “strenuously denied” accusations of antisemitism made against him in 2020. This is also inaccurate. In 2020, Ewell wrote of these accusations: “To an extent, I confess to being racist. To an extent, I confess to being sexist. To an extent, homophobic, antisemitic, islamophobic, transphobic, ableist, among others. Regrettably, I am all of these, for I am human. But by reading, listening to, and hearing those who know more about these issues than I do, I vow to work at becoming the least racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, islamophobic, transphobic, and ableist person I can be. I consider this to be a worthy goal. Is this not also a worthy goal for music theory?”
We regret both errors.
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