On Tonal Stability and White Fragility: Music Theory’s Gift to the Right


1. Introduction:  Who is Heinrich Schenker?

I’ve been asked by a few people to say something about Phillip Ewell’s article which is roiling the field of Music Theory-nominally my field, something I’ll say something more about later.

Of course, the overwhelming majority who read this blog will have no idea about any of this or have even heard of the major figure in the field against whom Ewell is directing his attacks, Heinrich Schenker. To give you an idea, the folllowing passage Ewell cites in his text should be taken as extreme but by no means unrepresentative of Schenker’s views.

“Hitler’s historical service, of having got rid of Marxism, is something that posterity (including the French, English, and all those who have profited from transgressing against Germany) will celebrate with no less gratitude than the great deeds of the greatest Germans! If only the man were born to music who would similarly get rid of the musical Marxists; that would require that the masses were more in touch with our intrinsically eccentric art, which is something that, however, is and must remain a contradiction in terms. ‘Art’ and ‘the masses’ have never belonged together and never will belong together. And where would one find the huge numbers of musical ‘brownshirts’ that would be needed to hunt down the musical Marxists?”

Those at all familiar with my politics will probably recognize that I am, to put it mildly, unlikely to be sympathetic to Schenker. I’m far from a card carrying Marxist. But the Nazis tended not to be overly concerned with such distinctions and so there is little doubt that I would have found myself included among the “musical Marxists” which Schenker is cheering on Herr Hitler to liquidate.

What the passage reveals is familiar enough: ultra elitist aesthetics rooted in an ultra right politics committed to violently suppressing the aspirations of “the masses,” deemed unable to appreciate works of artistic genius.

2. Racism, Elitism and the Reactionary Mind

Schenker’s aesthetic elitism is one of many frequently encountered manifestations of the broader worldview Corey Robin identifies as The Reactionary Mind (2011). Following Robin’s line of analysis, elitism is not the disease but a symptom of a social pathology: what is decorously but inaccurately referred to as the “political philosophy” known as “conservatism.”

It is therefore disappointing to find Ewell confusing cause and effect in focussing almost exclusively not on the underlying ideological condition, but on another common symptom, namely,  what Ewell correctly refers to as Schenker’s “ardent racism.”

Disappointing but not surprising given a cultural climate now dominated by anti-racism with the performative style of the Black Lives Matter protests having exerted an influence up to and very much within the halls of academe.

Reflecting this set of priorities, Ewell’s piece focusses on three main areas: 1) evidence of Schenker’s racism in his published and unpublished works, 2) the desperate measures undertaken by Schenker’s numerous acolytes and disciples to suppress evidence of Schenker’s racism, and 3) the manner in which Schenker’s racism was and is reflected in the Schenkerian analytical method.

3. Was Schenker Racist? Yes. 

The first of Ewell’s objectives is easily achievable as the bulk of Schenker’s writings are now on line. A simple text search will, as Ewell informs us, turn up 57 “hits” on phrases such as “less able or more primitive races,”“inferior races” and the necessity for the “white race” to “annihilate” the Japanese “animals.” These are, of course, vile but will not shock anyone aware of, for example, the documentation in volume 1 of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) of what were then prevalent attitudes of the German academy of Schenker’s epoch.

The second requires only slightly more exertion though plenty of examples are easily available. For decades, distinguished scholars have embarrassed themselves in ignoring or explaining away words, sentences, paragraphs and indeed entire essays attesting to Schenker’s repulsive social and political views. In their response published in their own professional journal, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, the Schenkerians managed to heap further ridicule on themselves by completely abandoning the most minimal trappings of scholarly objectivity, denying Ewell the right to respond and allowing for anonymously published smears of Ewell’s scholarship. This led to further denunciations including from the lead professional organization in the field the Society of Music Theory.

4. On Racial and Perceptual Hierarchy

Of Ewell’s three objectives, it is the third which rests on the shakiest foundation though this will not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the basic subject matter and procedures of the field of music theory. Suffice to say that Schenkerian analysis is a technical discipline involving the manipulation of a relatively well defined formal system applied to the objective, quasi numerical specifications of a musical score. Key to this is the notion of a “reduction” which specifies the hierarchical relationship of strings of musical events.

Ewell cites theorist Carl Schachter’s observation that “Schenker is hardly the first to think of tonal music hierarchically.” Schachter is of course correct. But it is also the case that Schenker was the first theorist to attempt to fashion an analytical method capable of revealing the full complexity of these hierarchies.

With this recognition it is necessary to discuss a key but widely misunderstood fact having to do with the hierarchies which Schenker’s method detects. Contrary to Schenker’s belief, these are not inherent in the structure of musical masterpieces, but in shared human psychology. Specifically, they denote the psychological representation of all musical structures-from the most culturally elevated to the most socially reviled.

While profoundly at odds with Schenker’s underlying agenda, this re-interpretation of Schenkerian reduction is entirely consistent with a fully established result attested to by countless studies cutting across numerous domains of cognitive science: core properties of cognition are based on the creation of hierarchies, likely through a domain specific application of what linguists have identified as the operation “merge”. It is unclear to me how many music theorists subscribe to this dissident, cognitivist reading of Schenker, but as recognition of the close connection between musical and syntactic analysis has become better understood in the field,  a gradual drift towards locating the core empirical domain of music theory in shared capacities of the human mind as opposed to in the unique character of the “masterworks of music” has been clearly apparent.

It is with that in mind that Ewell’s claims for Schenker’s dominant status in the field should be understood. Perhaps it is so that “If Beethoven is our exemplar of a music composer, Schenker is our exemplar of a music theorist.” This, I should say, has not been my experience of nearly thirty years teaching undergraduate music theory where Schenker has assumed little to no role, at least nominally. But if it is so, the variant of Schenker understood and promoted by many music theorists has little to do with elevating the unique “German genius” solely capable of producing “musical masterworks” still less with a German “race” situated at the top of an all-too-familiar pyramid.

For me, and I imagine others, it is about fundamentally *subverting* the reactionary, racist and elitist assumptions on which Schenkerian ideology (as opposed to Schenkerian theory) is based. Rather than taking “Such hierarchies (as) reflective of hierarchies of human races” we take them as reflecting the profound commonalities of all members of the human species, all deserving of a decent existence “according to their needs” contributing “according to their abilities.”

5. (Music) Theorizing the White Racial Frame

While little of what he relates comes as a surprise, we owe Ewell a debt of gratitude for having explored some of the darker recesses of the Schenkerian mind and for having exposed or “called out”, to use activist terminology, some of the more regressive elements still active within the profession of music theory.

This is particularly the case now that far right ideology, sometimes self-identifying with the Third Reich, sometimes not, is on the ascendant having elevated to power figures ranging from Brazil’s Jair Bolsinaro to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Great Britain’s Boris Johnson, exponents of what economist Mark Blyth has referred to as “global Trumpism.”

The problem is, needless to say, profoundly serious and as suggested, is one whose causes needs to be attacked.
It is a matter of some concern, therefore, that Ewell’s proposals for solutions as these would need to be expressed within the field of Music Theory are directed far from the causal source and towards a periphery which, rather then ameliorating the symptoms, is likely to intensify them.

These are conspicuous in the main anti-racist figures which Ewell invokes as the apparent foundation for his critique, namely, commercial best selling authors Ta Nehisi Coates, Ibram X Kendi, and Robin Di Angelo. All of these are cited, but it is the latter who is both the most problematic and appears to exert the most influence on important elements of Ewell’s perspective.

6. Conversations About Race

Before discussing what these are, it’s worth correcting a minor error in Ewell’s text with respect to the misidentification of Robin di Angelo as “a scholar”. In fact, Di Angelo has not held a full time academic position since resigning her post at Westfield (MA) State University in 2015 and her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism being conspicuously deficient in citing peer reviewed academic work is far from a scholarly study, as others have pointed out.  Furthermore, Di Angelo functions as a corporate diversity consultant compensated by mostly Fortune 500 firms presiding over mandatory anti racist employee training sessions. More recently, the massive popularity of While Fragility has created a market for her public appearances and it appears that the bulk of her income is now derived from these.

This latter capacity is brought to mind by Ewell’s fourth suggestion in section 6.5 for addressing music theory’s “white racial frame” to “Invite an antiracist speaker as a keynote for your music theory conference.” Ewell’s stipulation that this person need not be “directly involved in music theory, or even in music” leaves open the possibility that Di Angelo herself could appear, though her high fees would preclude most conferences obtaining her services with lesser known anti-racist figures having to assume the role Ewell envisions.

What this role would be is hinted at by Ewell’s repeated invocations imploring whites “to have frank conversations about race, racism, whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy.” These require “stamina” which Ewell, citing Di Angelo, defines as “the ability for whites to sustain frank, dispassionate conversations.” Why considerable “stamina” is necessary becomes apparent in the description of one these “conversations” within one of Di Angelo’s training sessions contained in a largely favorable NY Times profile.

This was launched by “a designated co-facilitator proclaim(ing),” ‘There is white toxicity in the air, and we all breathe it in.’”
The Times reports continues:

The trainees were instructed to . . . list qualities of white culture on a sheet of poster-size paper . . . (including) values that were critiqued at previous sessions: “individualism,” “Protestant work ethic,” “worship of data,” “worship of the written word,” “perfectionism,” “ideology of whiteness,” “denial.”
(One participant) told her group that she wasn’t going to take part; this derailed the table’s effort, and they wound up displaying an almost-empty sheet of paper. A young, white assistant principal at the table started to cry . . . and announced to the room, “I don’t want to be affiliated with this poster.”
(When this participant) told everyone that she took responsibility for the barren sheet of paper . . (a) Black principal at another table called out to her, ‘I feel you’re a horrible person.’”

7. On Corporate Anti-Racism: (Anti) Solidarity Forever

Stamina is one word for what is required of participants in this cult like ritual. Others would be more likely to describe it as lunacy–a dystopian experiment with the express purpose of fomenting rage and ill will among its subjects. When we realize the identity of these, the purpose of the experiment becomes clear: they are, after all, all employees who should recognize that their similarities as workers are far more significant than the racial categories imposed to divide them. Given the lavish corporate sponsorship of these “anti-racist training sessions”, there’s plenty of reason to view Di Angelo and Ewell’s fashionable anti-racism within the centuries long tradition of capital’s efforts to use race to divide and obliterate what they have always understood to be their main enemy: working class solidarity.

But even if we ignored this likely explanation, there is the simple fact that these trainings fail in their stated purpose. As the Times reports, empirical studies indicate that “anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people.” This is so “because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, ‘activates stereotypes (particularly) if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.”

It is painfully clear that Ewell’s proposals have even less chance of success applied to the academic workplace. Unlike in corporate america, “worship of data,” “worship of the written word,” “perfectionism,” and the “Protestant work ethic” have constituted the foundation of the academy for two millennia. It is hard to see what would remain of it were they to be abandoned, or, for that matter, why anyone would want it to remain if they were to be.
Ewell does not specifically reference Di Angelo’s skepticism about even more core notions “such as scientific research and scholarly rigor, and what we venerate as objectivity” viewing the main function of these as “preserving white dominance.”

8. Recapitulating “Left” Anti-Science 

Ewell does, however provide something close to a complement by advancing the claim that within music theory, “functional tonality is also racialized as ‘white’”. Ewell then goes on to confidently assure us that “it could be nothing else—and is a fine example of a racialized structure.”

While Ewell appears to be entirely unaware of them, the most elementary facts about perceptual psychology cited in 4 above supply “something else”. Namely, rather than being white, tonality, not only could be, but almost certainly is, a psychological universal. Hearing music according to a perceptual hierarchy of stability is a species property, deployed in organizing the pitched sounds we hear in much the same way as a “beat” is assigned by all members of our species to sufficiently periodic unpitched sounds. Our doing so is no more “a direct result of the power of colonialism and hegemony” than the attribution of three dimensional structure by our visual cortex, the semantic features of words, or predicate argument relationships and phrasal categories in all languages of the world.

It is true that what Ewell refers to as “functional” harmony tends to be associated with cultures which have been forcibly integrated into the global capitalist system via centuries of imperial conquest. But this is so only in the narrowest sense. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the conception of functionality in post-colonial musical genres renders their common practice source effectively unrecognizable. To take the most familiar case, the triadic organization of blues derived musical genres resists functional figured bass analysis most conspicuously by largely forgoing dominant-tonic cadential structure to achieve phrasal closure.

What is most troubling and depressing about these views is their resuscitation of attitudes frequently expressed during the so-called “science wars” of the eighties, in particular, the then common gendering of science as male while projecting onto it an inherently white “racial frame”. I will not revisit these controversies here except to reiterate the obvious: viewing scientific theories solely with reference to the essentialized race or gender of the individual or individuals advancing them is a conceptual twin to the infamous Hitlerian dismissal of the theory of relativity as “jewish science.”

And so Ewell has come full circle. What begins as a legitimate and timely critique of lingering reactionary, indeed Nazi tendencies within his field, ends up endorsing one of the fundamental pillars of the reactionary mind.

9. Conclusion: Gifts to the Right which Keep on Giving

Those still able to access memories further back than a few hours or days will recall some months ago when enthusiasm evinced for violently confronting the far right was common among many sectors of the left.

It is a unnerving that the appearance of de facto Nazi ideology parading under the banner of anti-racism is being greeted by some of these same groups with either a decorous silence or at worst cheerleading.

This element aside, there has been an increasing recognition of the deeply toxic roots of the ideology subscribed to by Di Angelo and Ewell though most has derived from the fringes of the left or even the mainstream center.

Among the latter is linguist John McWhorter whose Atlantic piece focusses on “elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people” in Di Angelo’s White Fragility. McWhorter, who is black, punctures the illusions of those “falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer” justifiably fearing that they have “been taught how to be racist in a whole new way.”

Further on the left, journalist Matt Taibbi has cogently reduced Di Angelo’s “corporate wisdom” to a “simple message: “there is no such thing as a universal human experience, and we are defined not by our individual personalities or moral choices, but only by our racial category.”

This he accurately categorizes as an article of faith of “Hitlerian race theory,” the same category into which Ewell’s “white music theory” and hostility to rational inquiry should be consigned.

The largely favorable reception accorded to Ewell supports Taibbi’s assertion that these attitudes constitute an “orthodoxy across much of academia.” And in this connection, it is worth noting an additional reactionary tendency deriving from the same source, namely an increasing hostility to basic civil rights and civil liberties.

This has long been visible in so-called cancel culture having taken the form of actual physical assaults directed at suppressing, or “no platforming”, the campus appearances of those who are accused of holding unacceptable views.

Ewell’s piece has unleashed the most recent instance, with demands for the firing of a University of North Texas faculty member who, in his capacity as editor of the Journal for Schenker Studies, responded to Ewell’s charges.

It was not long ago that a left committed to civil liberties would have understood that demanding the firing of a faculty member for expressing her views is as transparent an attack on free speech rights as could be imagined. Then it was taken for granted that we had the most to lose from sacrificing the principle of free speech. It follows that “an attack on one person’s freedom is an attack on everyone’s freedom, and the only possible way to defeat the rising tide of repression on campus and beyond is to fight with everything we have, each and every time.”

But now defenses of free speech rarely emanate from our side. This one comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum-from The National Review. founded by the ardently racist McCarthyite William F. Buckley,

Yet again, the right cashes in yet again on “gifts” from the left which will remain marginal and irrelevant for as long as it continues to provide them.

Ewell’s text, and the response to it are ultimately little more than one more reprise of this depressingly familiar spectacle.

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9 thoughts on “On Tonal Stability and White Fragility: Music Theory’s Gift to the Right”

  1. I have some issues with your analysis of the situation here, but I’m glad someone is objecting on principled left-wing grounds to the feckless sort of liberal anti-racism represented by Robin DiAngelo. The American academy skews heavily right-wing, so DiAngelo is widely seen as a Marxist insurgent rather than what she really is–a corporate lackey and an entrepreneur on the make.

    Regarding Timothy Jackson, I don’t know that anyone important is calling for his firing, which is in any case extremely unlikely to happen. Many do want him formally censured byt the SMT and removed as the head of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies–a different kind of “firing” which, in light of the highly suspicious handling of the Ewell symposium, seems entirely reasonable on purely procedural grounds. And many are understandably angry that such a nobody has a cushy tenured gig while so many music theorists who are much better as scholars and people struggle through the miserable life of adjuncting.

    1. A principled left defence of free speech is a good thing, but that does not mean music theorists shouldn’t face social and professional sanction for what looks like a clear case of editorial misconduct. It also doesn’t mean music theorists have to tolerate just anything being published in our journals. If Jackson wants to baselessly accuse a colleague of antisemitism, he is welcome to do so. But that doesn’t mean we have to let him do it in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. That damages the credibility of the whole field for no obvious music-theoretical benefit. The real fallout of this controversy is that a once-respected journal will probably have to cease publication because of Jackson’s incompetence and stupidity.

      1. Thanks. While it might be true that no important person criticizing Jackson is calling for his firing, Coleen Flaherty’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article from today mentions that some of the UNT protesters were making that exactly that demand. In any case, there’s enough of that tendency on the academic left so that concern is warranted-something I wrote about here and here

        As I mention in the piece, and as should be obvious but no longer is, it’s the left that has the most to lose from free speech rights being curtailed or diluted. Which is why I’d be inclined to defend Jackson’s defense of a prominent Nazi just I’d defend Ewell’s right to promote his version of Hitlerian race science when the ultra woke hordes realize they should, by their logic, be coming for him as well.

  2. Predictably, I heard about this blog from someone who dismissed it tout court. You make important comments here about a kind of “throw the baby out with the bath water” approach to reform whose only possible end will be a new regime of taste-makers and thought-shapers, with no room for other voices. Beethoven, Prof. Ewell tells us, is an above-average composer. The many music-lovers outside of the academy would scoff in response. I particularly enjoyed your giving context to Robin DiAngelo’s work. At the very least, the reform that Ewell calls for should be discussed by people with a variety of viewpoint with the idea of reaching consensus, not some sort of manifesto or purity test for who is the most woke among the upperclass (and often white) academics who seem to be guiding this train.

  3. If Schenkerians are not racists, then why do they think that anti-racism proposals are an attack on Schenkerism?

  4. It seems like you largely concede Ewell’s point about music theory’s white racial frame with your example about the blues. If undergrad music theory is really so committed to insights from cognitive science that apply to all human cultures, then why are so many music theory textbooks devoted entirely to the same white Europeans that Schenker was trying to elevate? How can a class that is supposed to be about “music theory” justify such an exclusive focus? Even if we’re only teaching “Western music theory,” why do we implicitly (or explicitly) omit African-American vernacular? Why is it so unusual for music theory classes to ever touch the blues when it’s such a foundational element of the past hundred years of Western music?

    Like you, I don’t see many music theorists working to advance Schenker’s repulsive political goals intentionally, but their passivity and reluctance to question their assumptions ends up having the same effect. Ewell is right to focus on the white racial frame as a problem unto itself, not just a symptom of something deeper.

    1. Thanks. Several questions here all having more or less the same answer having to do with the status of what Taruskin called the “literate medium” in his Oxford history. Can the narrow focus around works transmitted via the literate medium be justified? That’s a big question which I addressed years ago in this essay. The short answer back then was provisionally yes. It’s one I still defend though some of the obvious qualifications I registered might require a bit more reinforcement/reconsideration. I wish there was more serious discussion of this topic. Can’t say I’ve seen much over the years.

      1. We can debate whether university music theory should stick to notated works or not. I think it’s an artificially narrow focus that leaves out too much, namely, everything significant that’s happened since multitrack recording was invented. But even if we agree that music theory should only focus on “literate” works, we still need to challenge its white racial frame. Ellington and Strayhorn wrote mountains of blues-based scores–I recall reading that between them they wrote over a thousand works using the blues form alone. And while improvisation was an important component of those works, more of their music was through-composed than is commonly realized. And those two represent the tip of the iceberg. Where’s Thelonious Monk in music theory class? Where’s Coltrane (John and Alice)? A focus on “literate” works is no excuse for music theory to omit the blues, or all the other masses of African diasporic music that followed it.

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