The primary objective of the SMT Analysis of World Music Interest Group is to provide a unique interdisciplinary platform from which to explore the panoply of global musical traditions, both past and present, that lie outside the purview of Western art music from the broadest possible array of theoretical, cultural, historical and analytical perspectives. This group is allied with the SEM Special Interest Group on Analysis of World Music and the organization Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM).

The Ethical Imperatives and Snares of Diversifying Music Theory Pedagogy

This collaborative document is an extension of the conversation we began in Columbus at our 2019 Interest Group meeting. If you are new to the discussion, welcome! [Note that you must be a member of the SMT Analysis of World Music Interest Group to edit this document–feel free to click “Join Group.”] Below, we encourage you to add your response to the prompt: 


What are the ethical imperatives and snares of diversifying music theory pedagogy to include repertoires and theories from beyond “the West”? 


We believe this is a timely question for the broader SMT community, especially in light of recent trends in analytic research on world musics and an insurgence of calls for a more diverse and inclusive field (see Project Spectrum and the 2019 SMT plenary session papers). Pedagogy has an important role to play in both expanding the cultural scope of music-theoretical research and diversifying the ethnic representations of future SMT membership rosters. This discussion is our collective effort as an Interest Group to advocate for inclusion and diversity in music theory classrooms, a task that includes foregrounding the challenges that we must be prepared to encounter along the way. 


Your contributions to this discussion will be woven into a collectively authored, multi-angled introduction for a special volume on the pedagogy of diverse musics–which we’ve recently heard will be published with Engaging Students! The issue will consist of short pedagogical modules that other music theory teachers can easily import into their own classrooms. More information will follow on ways to contribute to this planned special volume.


Guidelines for this Doc:

  1. Please start new points with a number, as shown here. This will help keep this document easily navigable.
    • Responses to existing points should be indented from the parent comment and start with a bullet, as shown here.
  2. You are welcome to sign your name at the end of your contribution, but you may remain anonymous if you choose to do so.
  3. Please be tactful when responding to one other’s points and expressing your own. We acknowledge that there is a diversity of viewpoints on the prompt. The work of the envisioned introduction will likely not be to propose a unified and conclusive statement on best practices, but rather, to hold in tension the complex nuances that the task of diversifying music theory pedagogy entails.


*Note* The first eleven points stem from the 2019 Interest Group meeting discussion. Some of these points are currently anonymous because I was not able to take down the name of the author. Please feel free to attribute the comment to yourself and to reword the comment as you see fit if you recognize your contribution. Please accept my sincere apologies if your point was misrepresented. —Anna W.

  1. Diversifying our music theory curricula will help us dismantle the “universal music theory”/ “ethnic music theory” binary that currently pervades the representation of music theories. For example, North American music theory classes are typically named “Foundations of Tonal Music” or “Theory and Analysis II,” which give a universalizing sheen to their contents despite the reality that their cultural parameters are almost always confined to the West. Meanwhile, the music theories of other cultures are typically named with an ethnic qualifier (e.g. “Chinese Music Theory,” “Indian Music Theory” etc.), which gives one the impression that they are not central to music theoretical discourse. – Anna Wang, inspired by Nancy Rao’s talk at the 2019 SMT Committee for Race and Ethnicity Panel
  2. Encouraging critical classroom engagement with unfamiliar musicalities and cultures can be a means for music scholars to respond meaningfully to nationalist trends in global politics. –Anna Wang
  3. There is a risk of reducing diverse musical traditions into objects that are coldly dissected for concepts that fulfill a Western music-theoretical agenda, rather than giving these musics and their communities the agency to reshape the dominant frameworks and narratives of our field. –Anna Wang
  4. There is a risk for extreme cultural relativism, a framework that negates the possibility for the discovery of musical universals. Moreover, the rationale of relativism was instrumentalized by colonialists to assert the cultural inferiority of colonized peoples. –anon.
    • Relativism is a charged word and its manifold implications should be unpacked in the introduction. –Gavin Lee
  5. What are the ethical implications of having a predominantly white professoriate represent these diverse musical traditions in the classroom? –Toru Momii
  6. Given that approaching music analytically is a Western practice and may be foreign to the musical traditions of other societies, we might consider the ethics of subjecting these other musics to the apparatus of “analysis.” Who is benefiting and who is being left out? –Toru Momii
  7. Both in teaching and in research, how do we negotiate between angles of cultural similitude and cultural difference when we grapple with diverse musics? How do we decide whether to emphasize similarity or difference? –Liam Hynes
  8. I have not examined the music of my own background. Indeed, many people haven’t examined the music of their own cultural identities, perhaps because music theory has ingrained in us the subconscious belief that non-Western musics are not worth talking about. –anon.
  9. We must address the question of what to cut and what to keep in curriculum shifts; if we do it right, we’re not teaching content tied to a particular culture, but productive and thoughtful modes of question asking and thinking that promote critical engagement with any musical culture. –anon.
  10. When we teach analysis of world music, are we teaching students how to interact with music of the world, particularly music unfamiliar to them, in an ethical/intercultural way? Does it then follow that we are also teaching students how to interact with cultures and individual people of the world, particularly cultures and people unfamiliar to them, in an ethical/intercultural way? –Robin Attas
  11. How much of our own biases and ways of knowing/doing/believing/hearing do we bring as analysts and pedagogues of world music? Do our teaching methods reflect those of the cultures and communities whose music we’re sharing? Does that matter? –Robin Attas

Discussion (0)

There are no comments for this doc yet.

Comment posting has been disabled on this doc.