Diversifying Music Studies


Researching in Music Studies

Subject-specific Information

This resource contains:

  • Literature reviews and bibliographies on specific topic areas outside of Western Art Music
  • Literature that addresses diversity and archival studies
  • Stories from affiliates of the Yale Music Department who decenter traditional canons and methods in their teaching and research

This resource will be continually updated and maintained by the members of the Grant Hagan Society. These resources are intended to assist new teachers in gaining familiarity with subjects they have not previously taught or studied. We recognize the inability to be comprehensive of all topics and genres, and we do not claim to be experts in these fields. However, we aim to provide a resource that serves as a starting place in which teachers can then navigate for further reading. The wealth of materials on this site demonstrates the possibility of creating entire units or courses on particular subjects. We welcome suggestions and improvements to our resource; these can be directed to the co-chairs of the Grant Hagan Society via email.


University music curricula remain at their core the study of theories and histories of the Western art music canon. Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of academic music studies have come to the fore in recent years, as scholars across the subfields of music theory, musicology, and ethnomusicology have increasingly pointed towards the implicit biases and prejudices embedded in the field. In recognizing problems with continuing to center Western art music, scholars have challenged academic institutions to think critically about how to dismantle, restructure, and reframe curricula to reflect widely-held values around diversity. However, such reform often results in token gestures that represent diversification but that ultimately remain shallow, leaving institutional structures that privilege whiteness and maleness untouched. As Loren Kajikawa has asserted, classical music and whiteness have come to structurally reinforce each other, creating a thinly veiled form of segregation: “The fetishization of classical performance standards… impedes an institution’s ability to recognize the full humanity and artistry of the world beyond its doors” (Kajikawa 157). While many music departments have made curricular changes geared towards decentering this classical music bias, it is important to critically examine predominant solutions to diversity in music studies for how they might inadvertently reproduce the same problems that they seek to address. After surveying some common issues in music curricula, we pose questions for music departments to consider moving forward and offer guidance for how this resource might be used to facilitate more equitable curriculum structures in music studies.

A common revision to diversify music studies has been to invoke alternate repertoires alongside the Western art canon within the otherwise unchanged music theory sequences and music history surveys that undergraduate music majors are typically required to take. However, such changes do little to address the underlying power dynamics upon which these courses are founded. As Alejandro Madrid has noted, these courses are built to reinforce the kinds of knowledge production that the canon of Western art music prescribes, and the inclusion of other musics in theories and histories of this canon merely utilizes this music in order to perpetuate the canon’s ideology (Madrid, 125). Madrid calls this type of revision “tokenism” because it “seeks to open spaces because it is the politically correct thing to do; it is about quotas and not about the challenging nature that diverse experiences may bring to the very structures music academia has taken for granted for decades.” (Madrid, 126) Palfy and Gilson have shown that a “hidden curriculum” persists through this repertorial expansion, which they define as “a concept or idea that is implicitly taught through the way courses are structured, content is communicated, conceptual examples are chosen, or by the personal biases of the professor.” (Palfy and Gilson, 81) The authors found that students of traditional music theory and history courses, although exposed to a diverse array of music in the classroom, nevertheless perceive Western art music as the foundation of their music studies. (Palfy and Gilson, 81) The presence of this hidden curriculum indicates that the mere presence of other kinds of music in the classroom is not enough to decenter the canon and its ideology that marginalizes music outside the canon. As Philip Ewell writes, “The problem of our white frame in our music curricula concerns not only the repertoire that we study, but also the music theories behind the repertoire… To “diversify” our repertoire by adding a few POC composers actually reinforces our white frame” (Ewell, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame”).

Music departments have increasingly addressed these limitations by expanding their course offerings to include classes that focus on genres of Western popular music, as well as popular and traditional musical practices from different cultures around the world. But this revision of the course catalog alone is not enough without restructuring the core requirements of the undergraduate music major. By leaving the requirement of traditional theory and history sequences intact, music curricula marginalize music outside the canon by fostering the idea that studying these musics is “elective” or “supplementary.” Loren Kajikawa has explained that while music departments might claim to offer holistic studies of “music,” faculty specialties and course offerings typically reflect an emphasis on Western European Art Music. When “music studies” as a discipline is allowed to remain synonymous with studies of Western Art Music in this way, the result is an Othering effect; music that stems from traditions of Blackness must be labeled as Black, while the (typically) white Western Art Music remains on a pedestal.

Sara Ahmed has argued that invoking “diversity” reinscribes the same power structures that first created its need. She writes, “Diversity becomes something to be managed and valued as a human resource… the institutional preference for the term ‘diversity’ is a sign of the lack of commitment to change and might even allow organizations such as universities to conceal the operation of systemic inequalities” (Ahmed, 53). Claiming to “improve diversity” can allow institutions to avoid implementing radical changes within the structure of the classroom and the department. Rather than reproducing the same processes of imperialism and colonialism in our curricula and classrooms, scholars should continue questioning what meaningful changes to university music curricula would look like. University music departments might utilize the following set of questions to begin evaluating their music curriculum:

  1. What percentage of our courses are about the Western Art Music canon?
  2. How are topics outside the canon handled? Are they individual units within Western Art Music canon? Do these topics constitute individual classes?
  3. If they are nested within broader classes, what topics do these classes seek to address? 
  4. How do course enrollment numbers and student interest affect course offerings? What kind of courses and subject areas are students interested in?
  5. What background knowledge do students have coming into our department, and how much background knowledge should they have for department-required courses?


We can look at Harvard’s and Yale’s Departments of Music as case studies for these questions. These music departments have restructured their curricula such that the Western canon is no longer the singular mandated focus for their music majors. Philip Ewell calls Harvard’s restructuring as “constitut[ing] a reframing of music theory’s white racial frame” because Harvard has removed the mandatory requirement to take the traditional theory and history sequences that focus on the Western art music. The only required classes are 97T (Thinking about Music) and 97L (Critical Listening); students then elect their remaining courses from the full catalog offered by the department. Their Fall 2020 undergraduate course catalog features a wide variety of topics and methods, including courses on the 1960’s music scene in California, music and social justice, and hip hop studies. Similarly, at Yale, music majors are no longer required to take a set core of music theory and music history courses that are based on the Western canon; however, Yale has structured the major so that two intermediate and one advanced course are required in each of the following four categories: music theory; practices of composition, technology, and performance; history of the Western art-music tradition; and studies of popular, vernacular, non-Western traditions of music. This restructuring allows courses in jazz theory and history, commercial and popular music theory, and theories of sound recording and digital musics to be substituted for the traditional theory courses that center Western Art music. Harvard and Yale departments have therefore addressed the five questions above in differing ways. Harvard, for instance, has addressed questions 1-3 by effectively eliminating the subdivisions of music theory, musicology, and ethnomusicology alongside the traditional sequence requirements, which allows their diverse course offerings to sit on a level plane. Yale on the other hand has left this subdivision and the requirement to engage with Western Art music intact. However, Yale has recently promoted Dr. Konrad Kaczmarek to a tenure track Assistant Professor, thereby bolstering their course offerings around sound recording and digital musics; faculty hires can help address questions 1-3 by expanding the department’s range of specializations. Both departments have addressed questions 4-5 by eliminating prerequisite knowledge in Western art music and music literacy from their curricula.

Addressing some of these problems can also be accomplished at an individual level. We hope that those who use this resource will acknowledge the hidden curriculum and identify the pieces of content or core structure that communicate an implicit system of valuation. This acknowledgement is an opportunity to be self-reflective in teaching, and it encourages transparency at the beginning of a course, offering students an opportunity to think critically about historiography and the organization of knowledge. We also want to encourage a melding of theoretical and historical approaches to teaching, in line with expanding the understanding of what counts and can be considered “music theory” or “music history.” In his blog, “Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory,” Philip Ewell argues that “the field [of music theory] has been defined exclusively by, of, and for whiteness and maleness,” resulting in an exclusion of the people who are also actively working to expand the field (“Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” Blog, “New Music Theory”).

Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Ewell, Philip A. “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame.” Music Theory Online 26.2 (2020).

——. “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory.” https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/.

Kajikawa, Loren. “The Possessive Investment in Classical Music.” In Seeing Race Again, edited by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, 155-174. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019.

Madrid, Alejandro L. “Diversity, Tokenism, Non-Canonical Musics, and the Crisis of the Humanities in U.S. Academia.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 7.2 (2017).

Palfy, Cora, and Eric Gilson. “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 32 (2018).

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