Why music theory and white supremacy put together feel so wrong?

It’s a question that is all the rage at the moment. It seems that there is a huge pick-up in questions of racism in all aspects of our life. Maths has been impacted (some people even saying that requiring the right answer is racism, but this is over the top!) and so does now music.

I also had some epiphany myself while reading books on white supremacy last year, but no work on the subject can be considered done after one step. It’s a tough journey. So why music theory and white supremacy put together felt so wrong to me?

I watched recently two videos, and I’m only going to talk about the first one, a fantastic video from Adam Neely:

The reason is that the other one really shows the lack of knowledge of lots of people. Music cannot be racist, so music theory cannot be either. That’s their premiss. Which is of course wrong.

My musical background

My initial reaction to that video, without even watching it was “what’s this again?”. I’m not going to hide this. I had a bad reaction even to the title (and I don’t think anyone in the comment section of the French video tried to understand the problem). But Adam has a thread that he follows until the end and delivers the gutter punch: yes, music theory is racist. But this is actually really summing up too much of the issue.

I started music when I was 6 years old in a communal music school. These are far less organized than French “Conservatoire” which is where you learn the better music theory, the classic music theory. We did have some small more advanced concepts (like commas) sometimes, but to be fair, it was not necessary for what we were doing!

We didn’t learn counterpoint, we didn’t learn chords either, but that was not required to play the trumpet in the town’s orchestra. I had to wait until around 18 to learn more about music theory with a young professor, also trumpet player, pianist, and there I started reading about jazz improvisation.

What is music theory?

In France, we use a different system than in the anglo saxon world. We don’t use halves or quarters, but “blanches”, “noires” which are also represented as white and black notes in music sheet. But that’s not the racist part.

As I’ve said, in France, we really see the conservatoire as the highest place for music learning. And it’s very much all abut the 18th century music and all the theories behind. You won’t have jazz there. You don’t learn the guitar (you can learn the Spanish guitar though, which can be very helpful for lead guitar, but not for rhythmic guitar). You don’t learn the drums, only percussions. You may hear about different temperament though, and that’s good.

Even as a teenager fascinated with music, I felt that the higher class in the conservatoire were missing something. It was only about classic music and it didn’t have any connection with the music I listened to at home, which was rock and heavier rock. Nothing in them is about classic music, really. It’s drums, bass, guitar, keyboard, but no music sheet, only chords, and rhythms that you couldn’t get in classic music (because there are no drums there!!).

So yes, when we talk about music theory, there is a bias, we really talk about 18th century classic music theory. And it’s very good to talk about and study 18th century classic music and how it evolved from and to that point. But is is relevant to study classic jazz songs? Or even songs themselves? Most definitely not.

How about racism then?

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s racist. But as I’ve said, there is a feeling of superiority in classic music theory, and it’s still distilled to young people: go to the conservatoire, and you will learn music, real music. Elsewhere, it’s just lower quality music.

And you cannot separate classic music theory from what we call “solfège” in France. They are the same. Of course just as with languages, the latin alphabet allows you to write different languages, but you cannot study Chinese in latin alphabet, you need to use their alphabets (especially since they have several of them). And classic music theory is NOT actually our mother “music” like English, French… can be our mother tongue. It’s almost closer to Indo-European than our real mother tongue, and not that many people are studying Indo-European, except for linguists. There are still some aspects that are good to know, of course, I know how to read music sheets, but they are slightly different than 18th century music sheets as well.

Don’t get me wrong, we need linguists just as we need people that study classical music theory.

But this feeling of superiority actually comes from a darker place. As Adam indicates it in his video, most of the prism that studies classical music stems from Heinrich Schenker. But Wikipedia doesn’t say anything about racism or his pangermanist views. But the row that started a troll war shows one thing: yes, he was a white supremacist. And he did right the music prism by which we analyze classical music nowadays.

Now, I agree, a theory is not on its own racist. So I’m answering my own question right now, no, classical music theory is not racist. Period. But wait. It depends on what you use it for. If it’s use to analyze classical music, it’s probably a very good tool.

But if it’s used to analyze modern music or non-classical music in general? Then it’s probably NOT the right tool. And it’s surely not appropriate if the goal is to keep classical music as the best music on Earth (which is what French conservatoires are doing).

Now what?

The original controversy is 6 months old now, but it got heated again because of a Telegraph article. First, I cannot really consider the Telegraph as a great journal. You can do far better in the UK with the Guardian (in France, don’t read only the Figaro…).

But I do see the point of Oxford university. It shows courage to say that indeed, we have not been good enough and considered our classical music as the epitome of good music. And that we need to get deeper in analyzing different music theories from different cultures and not require people to know classical music theory before they analyze these different types of music. What’s the point of knowing Ancient Greek or Latin if you need to analyze where Cantonese come from and its relationship to Mandarin?

It’s still the same problem than what I was feeling when I was a teenager: classical music theory is not enough to analyse all music. It’s only one tool, and more often that not, it’s not the right tool for the job.

So good job Oxford, keep on the good work.



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