Citation, Gender, and Music Theory

Besides consistency and repetition, reading is perhaps the most important part of writing. Much like learning to speak, we glean stylistic tendencies to incorporate or avoid, whether consciously or not, and accumulate new vocabulary, syntactic strategies, and modes of engagement by submerging into the writing of others. In a reflection on her analytical methodology, Marion Guck lays out a model of listening that seems just as appropriate for reading:

I had to listen to the individuals, and discover the “system,” so to speak, from what they gave me—I had to be receptive, watchful of my own preconceptions, respectful of their intentions. (p. 39)

In so doing, we open ourselves to new ideas and concepts, to new modes of thinking, that affect how and what we write. Other people’s hard work gives many of us (especially in the academic community) much of what we use/critique/explore/augment/bash/elevate in our own endeavors, and citations are an acknowledgment of this indebtedness. I wouldn’t be writing my dissertation if I hadn’t read Eric Drott, Deleuze and Guattari, or Robert Hatten.

This is all standard citational and readerly stuff, of course, but I hadn’t really thought all that hard about who I cite until reading a provocative essay by my colleague and friend, Elizabeth Newton. (You should go read everything she’s written.) Among her myriad convincing arguments, inspiring thoughts, and challenging points, two struck me most directly.

The first, which seems so blindingly apparent in retrospect, is that a bibliography is not simply an act of credit, of thanks, or of influence; it’s conventionally an act of power, part name-drop and part reification of authority of both the referenced and the referrer. Any field will have some central texts that need confronting in order to avoid reinventing the wheel or crossing bridges deemed structurally unsound, and it’s important and inevitable that, to have a community of any kind, some knowledge need be widely shared. But citations often act as closures, re-routing potential lines-of-flight back to the widely read and accepted while blocking potential avenues of novel thought. References act as arbiters of discourse, policing whose writings or thoughts matter enough to include in authorized and public lists of texts that accompany one’s own work.

Second, and more troubling, is the historical precedent for further marginalizing certain authors in academic discourses built on the very critique of power structures. As Newton points out, right as new voices began to enter the academic discourse in earnest, (mostly French Continental) philosophers and literary critics (who I really enjoy reading) started poking holes in the long-held Romantic and Modernist conceptions of author-genius and Great Men histories. The idea seems great! “Let’s reconsider the contexts in which these authors wrote rather than slavishly kneel before their unique, individual intellectual prowess.” It gives the present analyst agency in the process, allowing esthesic readings to supplant (or at least flourish next to) poietic ones. What’s wrong with that? Newton:

For example, Roland Barthes’s famous 1967 essay “Death of the Author,” which questioned assumptions of literary criticism such as the importance of authorial intent, came at an inconvenient time. Its circulation coincided with the emergence of feminist and postcolonial studies in the academy. The essay’s argument emphasized the way historical dynamics circumscribe an author’s agency, delimiting what they write — a reasonable claim, that no one writes in a vacuum. In practice, though, this line of thinking ended up taking authority away from authors who had fought for many years to claim it; many women, for example, finally found their voices just as poststructuralists began to say voices were passé.

Given my own predilections for “death-of-author” esthesic analyses, this passage has given me pause. As a humanities scholar whose work is built upon or around the work of authors, I had to reflect on the moral quandaries of silencing or critiquing the creators of the objects of my analyses. Maybe this is fine for your Beethovens and Mozarts, but surely the ethical prerogative changes when discussing current artists from continually marginalized demographic backgrounds. (More on the relationships between demographics, artists, and genres in an upcoming entry…)

Regardless, Newton persuaded me to more carefully consider who and what I cite, and also to understand others’ citational practices. I became interested in who gets referenced in academic conference papers—a space that’s less formal than a journal article, usually including a “Selected Bibliography” rather than a “Works Cited” list. Authors, then, have direct agency over who they choose to put into their constellation of influence and authority without being tied to editors and peer-reviewed precision.

The genealogies of discipline-sanctioned collections that weave their ways into the “Selected Bibliographies” of these conference papers, however, don’t necessarily reflect the most pervasive or most influential strands of thinking in a talk. Often, they simply serve as a cover: “Of course I’ve read Schenker, Adorno, Hepokoski and Darcy, or Walter Everett because the discipline expects me to have.” But more crucially, when they do reflect the virulent strains of theory in the field, “Selected Bibliographies” embody a restricted portion of music theory in terms of author demographics.

As one simple measure of the demographic disparities and power structures inherent in the Selected Bibliography, I tracked how many male and female authors get cited. It’s no surprise that women get cited less frequently than men; in SMT, the membership is overwhelmingly male. The graph below indicates the difference in the field at large, which remains at about a 65% to 35% male to female split as of 2016.


Gender in the Society for Music Theory from 2009-2011. The current ratio is roughly the same, at about 65% male to 34% female.

When coupled with data on rank, the disparity grows further:

Rank of SMT members by gender in 2011.

So, women make up roughly 35% of the field as a whole, but far less of a share of the positions of institutional power.

This is reflected in my (admittedly) small sample of 15 Selected Bibliographies from 3 music theory conferences that I’ve attended in 2017, in which women make up 12.5% of cited authors. 2 bibliographies included no women, 6 included one woman, 3 included two women, and only one had more than 2. (6 women to 19 men in that bibliography.) The median number of total sources per bibliography was 10. The median number of citations of women authors is 1 per paper. Out of 10.

You might say, “well actually, Tom, since music theory has been so male-dominated historically, it makes sense that there is just more scholarship to cite by men.” To which I respond, “Sure. But that’s no excuse.”

I recently told a senior scholar that I was trying to design my popular music analysis seminar to include at least an equal number of readings by female authors as male authors, to which this person said, “It’s really hard, isn’t it?” It turns out, it is a challenge—and our week on harmony really skewed the resultant bibliography male—but I think my course has turned out much more successful because I put in the effort to not recycle the same old authors. Of course my students still know what Covach means by “contrasting verse-chorus” and why Capuzzo thinks Neo-Riemannian analysis might be a useful tool to analyze certain rock harmonies; form and harmony are traditional aspects of music theory I feel obligated to cover in a music theory class. But my students have also grappled with how (homo)sexuality can influence a narrative analysis and how female rappers like Salt-N-Pepa have been prone to violent misreadings despite their cultural authority, along with a whole host of analytical tools often ignored in conventional, male-dominated pop music analysis syllabi. Every student has found something to latch onto, and I’ve avoided the dreaded if expected resistance to theory and analysis that tends to arise in our classrooms.

Course syllabi and Selected Bibliographies both act as inroads to our field, showing our students and our colleagues whose work we deem important and central. If we’re defined by our actions, then music theory is the embodiment of gendered inequality, the ever-present glass ceiling limiting both our informal and conscious choices of citations. There has been a lot of writing over the years about gender in music theory, and I’m not proposing anything all that novel in this post. I’m simply pointing out how the issues of gender disparity continually manifest in the mundanity of our references.

How do we fix this problem? I’m not totally sure since it’s a complex, society-wide, systemic, structural issue. But, a first step is simply to acknowledge and consider the disparity. The second is to actively engage with the work of more scholars from marginalized communities. As another friend and colleague has argued, citing is necessarily a political act, and everyone in academia has the moral imperative to consider their references:

Returning and closing with Marion Guck, I urge music theorists to directly confront the biases and ideologies that permeate our citational practices. They have been with the field for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they need to remain endemic.

I have argued, with Fred Maus, that music-theoretical practice and discourse is gendered. The sort of theory that Maus, some other women and men, and I do can be gendered feminine. What is gendered feminine is also usually valued less than what is gendered masculine. Most men aren’t going to do it; those who do risk having their work overlooked, marginalized because it is subliminally taken as feminine. Women who do such work take an even greater risk because the fact that they are women reinforces the feminine status, and therefore the devaluation, of the work.

I’ve talked about my work as different from traditional or conventional music theory and about being an outsider. I may sound bitter about it, but I don’t think I am. I would like to see inroads made from the margins to the center, not to replace the old center but to create a more integrated and balanced music theory for the sake of refining and enriching what we can notice and take pleasure in. (p. 39–40)

TL;DR: Music theorists should cite more women scholars for lots of reasons. Our work and the field will be better off for it.

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