How Eurocentrism in Classical Music forces Black Composers Out of Work

Many Classical musicians are already aware of the Eurocentric nature of the field. What not every Classical musician understands, however, is how Eurocentrism forces Black composers out of work. There are many factors that push Black composers out of work, but I want to focus on how academia institutionally fails Black composers.

To begin to understand, let us take a look into academic expectations of musicians:

If you have received a music degree, chances are that you have received training in music theory and aural skills classes. Think back upon those days. What music did you study? What composers seemed to crop up frequently?

Upon reflection you may realize that a lot of them were white and from 4-5 countries in Europe. Because of the sheer exposure to Eurocentric music, these aesthetics are internalized and superimposed when interacting with other forms of music.

This is damaging because every piece of music we come across from now on is subconsciously compared to European art music, since we are only provided tools to understand European-style art music. Pieces of non-European origin are not given the opportunity to stand on their own. We analyze them and interact with them in ways that they are not supposed to be analyzed or interacted with.

This otherizes music that does not follow Western musical standards because students do not have a background to understand or interact with it. The internalizing of European aesthetics and otherization of non-European music can make Black musicians feel alienated while they are still undergraduate students, because they are shown that Black composers are easily disregarded by the academic field of music. These aesthetics are internalized by performing musicians, as well, and can lead them to gravitate toward performing only music of European aesthetics because they are not taught how to connect with non-European music.

In addition to music theory classes, many composition students must take counterpoint classes to complete a degree requirement. Unfortunately, these counterpoint classes only visit the history of composition practices of European males from, again, 4-5 countries. We are taught extensive, rich histories on compositional techniques of the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe, but this same treatment is not given to music of non-European origin. This excludes the rich histories of music that have non-European origins. This further contributes to Black composers being pushed out of the artistic musical world before their careers can properly begin.

Another class that composers may have to take is Schenkerian Analysis, which is a form of musical analysis designed in a way that really only allowed white composers from the 17th- early 19th centuries to be analyzed meaningfully. Schenker himself was a fervent racist, believing that all Black people were inferior. His music theory became what a lot of modern undergraduate music theory leads up to, which itself is another problem worth exploring another time. Here’s a peer-reviewed academic article that discusses that.

Composers, however, are not the only ones failed when it comes to Eurocentrism in classical music. As alluded to earlier, performers are failed as well. They are usually not given the tools to interact with non-Eurocentric art music unless they are given opportunities to perform jazz music. In their undergraduate careers they are only given tools to understand western tonality, rhythm, and meter, when in fact, these “common practices” are not always the basis of music in other parts of the world, making it difficult to shift perspectives when given non-European music. The other way performers are failed is that they are not given opportunities to understand other notation forms that are non-Western, which limits the music performers can read and play.

In their lessons this is reinforced by the repertoire that is assigned to them. They are expected to pull from pieces that are a part of the Western canon -- a pre-curated array of music that rarely includes non-white composers. This pedagogical mistake, which can easily be rectified with a little research, does not allow students to become aware of any active Black composers. The act of not introducing students to Black composers pushes Black composers out and contributes to their marginalization.

Ensembles (both academic and stand-alone) are equally guilty when it comes to repertoire choices made by leaders. In orchestral settings, it is common practice to favor works by composers that are white males who have been dead for a long time. This does not create any opportunities for living composers to showcase their works, thus remaining unknown. While this does affect all composers, it affects Black composers disproportionately. The world of wind bands is marginally better, as the tradition does not go as far back as orchestral traditions; however, it is still not equitable.

Oftentimes, when music by Black composers is chosen, it is because they are Black and only because they are Black. They are treated as token composers, pigeonholing their music to be used for extremely specific purposes. They are not always approached as just composers, but as representatives of Black identity, no matter what their musical background is. Their background can be similar to that of a white composer, and they will not be approached the same way. It puts a lot of unwarranted expectations on Black composers. It makes Black composers feel unwelcome.

Once they are done with school, they still have to face a myriad of stereotypes existing as Black musicians. In the Americas, a lot of popular music genres (such as rock, R&B, hip-hop, etc.) have roots in African music, so Black composers have to overcome that obstacle when making a name for themselves.

Composer and Pianist Muhaul Richard Abrams once said that “We know that there are different types of Black life, and therefore we know that there are different kinds of Black music. Because Black music comes forth from Black life.” The perception that there are only a couple of ways Black music can be expressed is detrimental to the livelihood of the Black composers trying to create classical music.

Composer Eleanor Alberga was also quoted saying, “The perception of Black music as jazz or reggae or coming from a roots background is still with us and probably leads to a hesitancy or even condescension in welcoming Black people as part of the classical music family.” This stereotyping disallows Black composers from creating their own space in the classical music community because the non-Black part of the community is too busy creating a narrative for Black composers.

Black composers have to fight their ways through an education system that favors Eurocentric music and then fight their way into the classical music world. It is no surprise that Black composers are pushed out of the classical music community, because the institutions responsible for training composers do not celebrate Black composers. They are pushed out of work because they are not given a space to work in.

So what can we do to change this? At the academic level, institutions need to look inward and reevaluate program and degree requirements. First, we should take the focus in theory classes (which act as a curated set of music to aspire to) away from European-based music. It is not necessary to get rid of all music by European composers, but we should be sensitive to other traditions in music. In aural skills classes, students should be exposed to different ways of approaching tonality, rhythm, and meter so they are better prepared to interact with music that is non-European in origin. One way could be introducing TUBS, which is an intuitive non-Western notation system that works well with polyrhythmic music, which is a mostly non-Western tradition! We should also not make counterpoint classes compulsory, and instead offer other alternatives that are non-European in origin.

In addition, performers (both solo and ensemble) should start re-exploring what music constitutes as canonical. There is plenty of preexisting music by Black composers that is not performed. There is a lot of music being created by Black composers that is not being performed. It is not that there is no music by Black composers available; it is simply laziness. By implementing these changes at the institutional level, Black music students feel more recognized, and non-Black students are familiar with Black composers of art music. Once music by Black composers is exposed meaningfully enough times, this music will start to enter the classical music canon. This will create additional opportunities for Black composers, as well.

At professional levels we need to acknowledge that Black composers are Black -- color blindness solves no problems -- but not let it dictate how we perceive the composers. It does everyone a disservice to stereotype and pigeonhole Black composers when they have musical stories that are just as vast, rich and varied as their non-Black counterparts.

Additional Resources to implement music by Black composers in and out of the classroom:

Music By Black Composers

Institute for Composer Diversity

Anti-Racist Music Theory Examples

UNC Anti-Racism Sources

If there are any other resources that would be helpful, please share them in the comments!

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