DEI Talks: An Interview with the Music Theory Examples by Women Project

I am a woman pursuing a PhD in music theory, and even in 2021, I am something of an anomaly.

In my sophomore year, when I declared my music theory/composition major, four well-meaning professors warned me that my chances for success in the field were low because, as they put it, it’s just a masculine area of expertise—a “sausage-fest,” as one called it. Despite these warnings, I continued on to earn that degree, one of only three that year (the other two, not surprisingly, were men). While I felt a certain sense of defiant pride as I walked across the stage to collect my diploma, I couldn’t forget the way those warnings had affected me.

A few years later, after a difficult first week of teaching undergraduate classes during my master’s program, I went to a trusted faculty member for advice. I had one student in particular who treated me with less respect than my fellow TAs, and I wanted to know if there was something I could do to remedy the situation. That faculty member, without missing a beat, told me that, unfortunately, it was likely because of my gender—I didn’t have the same “authoritative presence” as my friends. 

Unfortunately, my experiences are anything but anomalous. The sentiments conveyed by my trusted mentors, through their apologetic but matter-of-fact statements, are borne out across the whole field of music theory. 

According to statistics compiled by the Society for Music Theory (SMT), despite their “commit[ment] to foster diversity, inclusivity, and gender equity in the field,” in 2019, 64% of members identified as men, while the remaining 36% was made up of people identifying as women, transgender, or non-binary (or preferred not to disclose their gender identity). While the trend of incoming theorists seems to be slowly evening out (40.2% of graduate students identified as women, surpassing the overall 32.9% in the Society), the percentage of women who have earned the rank of full professor still sits at a dismal 24.6%. For context, according to the Survey of Doctorates Earned (SED), which provides annual data from doctorate recipients from U.S. colleges and universities, 51.2% of the people who earned terminal degrees in the arts and humanities in 2017 were women—a statistical equality that far exceeds what the field of music theory has been able to achieve.

So this all begs the question: Why is music theory such a “sausage-fest?” 

There are likely many reasons for this gender inequality, but the creators of the Music Theory Examples by Women database believe (like many others: see Tansill-Suddath, 2019; Heinz, 2021; Service, 2015; Reason, 2021) that one of the basic problems leading to women feeling excluded from music—theory, performance, musicology, composition, conducting, etc.—is one of representation. When one’s objects of study, they argue, are all men (specifically, all dead, White, European men), women have a harder time relating to the field and carving out their own place within it. Indeed, as Jessican Duchen wrote back in 2015, “if there’s a widespread perception that classical music lags behind the other arts in terms of women’s representation, that is probably because so much of its work is dominated by compositions written in past centuries, which, inevitably, were mainly by men.” So, by providing an easy-to-use website chock-full of compositions by women to use in the classroom, the founders of MTEW hope to start encouraging more participation by women through advocating for equal representation.

The following interview with Molly Murdock, Co-Creator and Project Supervisor, and Ben Parsell, Co-Creator & Webmaster (see their profiles here), was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Anna Rose Nelson. 


What inspired you to start work on the Music Theory Examples by Women project? 

Molly Murdock (MM): When I was at Michigan State, I was a graduate teaching assistant. In the classroom, my professor had started doing a “self evaluation” every day, where the students would be asked to rate themselves—like an “exit ticket” kind of thing. The questions they’d have to answer would be things like, “We covered secondary dominants today. How do you feel about your grasp of that topic?” Of course, I was the one that got to tally them all.

Well, I found consistently—it just popped out to me, it was so significant—that the females were rating themselves lower than the males. On a 4-point scale, no women gave themselves a 4, no men gave themselves a 3, and the rest were all in the middle. Now, if it were such a situation where we just so happened to have more experienced young men in class, well, I could see that. But it just didn’t play out in the rest of the class: it didn’t play out in their test scores, it didn’t play out in even the questions answered in class, or how quickly they did the class work. 

So then, when it came time—I was a music theory pedagogy master’s student—we had to do a final project, I knew: “Well, it’s gonna be that.” I decided that, since there weren’t any musical examples by women at all—in any of the textbooks, in any of the lectures—I would just make an anthology. 

It ended up being so easy to do, using just IMSLP and Spotify, I got two entire volumes! So, when people say “I don’t know any music by women!,” it’s like, OK well, here: take one of these, just do it tomorrow in your class and now you’ve got a work by a woman! 

Ben Parsell (BP): Molly was my teacher in high school—that’s actually how we know each other. She approached me with this project while I was still an undergrad, working through those fun theory courses that all music majors take. And, of course, I’m sure you experienced this, too: the examples used were mostly works by dead white males. I was also in education classes and a gender and sexuality class at the time, and we were studying lots of relevant works. At that particular time, we were focusing on Emily Style’s “Curriculum As Window and Mirror,” and it dawned on me: this is exactly what this is! 

Now, Molly’s the theorist, and I come from more of an education background—I’m a K-12 vocal teacher, and I had the web expertise. I don’t really see myself teaching undergraduate music theory any time soon, but I was thinking that this is beyond relevant to what I do as well. I was reflecting on some of my colleagues and what they teach and prioritize, even in the elementary classroom: all of our listening comes from the same canon. So, I was really interested when she came with the idea to me, both on the theory side, but more generally in education, exposing students to these female composers, even in the classroom here, which I do all the time. When she came to me, I thought it was a great idea.

ARN: What are the main goals of your work, and how have you accomplished them thus far?

BP: The overarching goal is just advocating for the visibility of this body of music by women composers. We are doing that in a couple of different ways. 

We have the big theory side, which is super important: it’s been utilized across the country. We look at our data usage on the site, and it’s just crazy the number of individual clicks! We can also see service providers around the country—even around the globe! 

We also have the poster series. With that, we are trying to expand that visibility in classrooms throughout all ages. We have people ordering posters from college libraries, we have people ordering from musicology departments, we even have people ordering for entire school districts!

ARN: I hadn’t actually thought of the posters in that way before! I had seen that you had them for sale, and I had assumed that it was more about raising funds for the project. But I really like that: If kids can see that there are female composers as they walk into a classroom, that really is effective! 

MM: And the reverse is also true! If you just unknowingly put up the classical composers posters and it’s all dudes, and you walk into the room, that says it also! Or, who do you have a marble bust of in the corner?

ARN: Right!

How do you see the future of this project? Do you foresee changing anything, and what do you hope those changes or additions will accomplish?

BP: We are currently in the midst of a major rebranding project. It’s been a year so far, and we’re still not done. 

We’re aiming for a total reworking of our website to make it more user-friendly. We’re also redoing the way that we are providing materials for use in the classroom to make it more direct and clear for teachers. We’re also moving away from the “theory” in our name to make it more general so that we can increase the other areas that we are working in. So, we are hopefully going to be done with that soon, but it’s a massive undertaking.

MM: We’re also expanding our section on female theorists. We shouldn’t just study works by women—we should try to study theories by women, too! Of course, education has historically been a place for women to be, so to see that a woman is writing a theory textbook isn’t too far out of the norm. But, what is she, the author of the textbook, reporting on? Do they include theories also written by women, or is it just Schenker? You know? Where are the serious female theorists? Not just the ones we see today, because you know, we’ve got all kinds of amazing women in our organizations. But what about before them? When we don’t include theories by women in our curriculum, it raises questions like: Who is a theorist? Might there be other women we haven’t identified yet, and what significant contributions have they made to music theory? 

ARN: As a female theorist myself, I think that this is really important work! Ben, you mentioned “making examples more clear.” What does that look like? 

BP: We’ve been downloading the scores off of websites that are generally just scans, and we’re either going to typeset them or clean them up (get rid of stray marks, get rid of files that haven’t been scanned properly, things like that). Then, our goal is to have a blank copy on our site of each piece, an analyzed copy (handwritten), then from that handwritten analysis we will pull excerpts into a document where, say, if you’re looking for a raised leading tone, you can go to that section and it will have the one-measure excerpt and a little explanation.

So, we’re moving away from sorting strictly by concept to having more full pieces and then everything that the full piece can exemplify. So you can still search and filter by concept, but instead of just listing by that, we’ll have more full pieces broken down into each of the parts.

MM: We want this to be accessible to teachers and yes, wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could all sit down and learn all of this music? Well, that’s just not probably going to happen, given how busy we all are! So, the goal is to be able to need something specific, like a modulation to A-flat, and be able to search for one and find it easily. 

In the interest of doing both those things, we have decided that for the moment, I’m doing analysis by hand on an iPad, writing it out with a marker in different colors, and then Ben’s role is to organize it with an eye towards educators.

ARN: Wow, that’s amazing, but that seems like a lot of work! That leads nicely into my next question: Have you encountered any (other) obstacles in going about this project? 

BP: I mean, our two biggest challenges are lack of man-power, woman-power, people-power; and money.

So, I mean, right now, it’s just the two of us pouring our heart, soul, and free time into it. We are trying to get other people involved with the minimal budget we run on. We are essentially self-funded through poster sales and donations.

MM: Well, as you know, we both teach and we both have lives outside of teaching (though sometimes not much), so the question of fundraising as a means to find people to help is a big issue. If we have to sit down and write a grant application, who’s going to analyze the pieces, especially if we’re asking them to do it and give up their time for free? Who’s going to finish up the web design? 

ARN: What are some things that the thousands of readers of this little blog could do to get involved, to help out? 

MM: If your readers want to volunteer their services, we could definitely use their help! We could assign them music to analyze. Or, if you’re not confident in your analysis skills, we need people to clean up PDFs, too!

BP: And not just theorists, we need musicologists, too! We have bios of all the women on our site that we need help writing, so anyone interested in music and gender equality should reach out.

MM: Even just people who listen to music: listeners who could put together YouTube playlists Spotify playlists! Oh, and translations! If you know a foriegn language and could help there, that would be great!

BP: If any of those tasks sound appealing to a reader, tell them to email admin@mtew.org and tell us how you’d like to get involved!.

ARN: Great! Well, those are the questions unless you had anything else you wanted to say about the project, moving forward, or anything you need from us?

MM: I think we’ve said it all. I hope that we demonstrated, without trying, that we’re passionate about this project, that we are not doing this for ourselves. Because, I mean, I could use all those extra hours we’re currently using to analyze pieces to sit on the beach in Tahiti, or whatever. We’re not doing this for ourselves, we really are devoted to making this happen. Since we have the skills, we really want to do some good with them. It really is such a small operation that is bursting at the seams, and we need people-power to make it go. 

ARN: Great, that’s awesome! Well, I was joking about thousands of readers of my blog, but heck, if we get one extra person doing some of that work, that’s 30 minutes on a beach in Tahiti!

This interview is part of our DEI Talks series, which endeavors to showcase resources and initiatives dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Western classical music. To read other features in the series, click here. If you have suggestions for other initiatives we should feature, or if you would like to write a feature yourself, please contact us at mpinthemoment@umich.edu.

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