DEI Talks: An Interview with Paula Maust on “Expanding the Music Theory Canon”

In my experience teaching core music theory classes, I’ve found that it’s only too easy to introduce harmonic concepts using the same musical examples I used the last time I taught, which are in turn the same examples that I studied as an undergraduate music student. This practice of recycling examples—usually pieces by white, male composers—results in reproducing implicit narratives of whiteness and maleness that permeate Western music theory: it is no surprise that, in all 2,930 musical examples in the seven most widely used theory textbooks in the United States, only 1.67% of them were written by BIPOC (Ewell 2020) and only 2.15% were written by women (Maust 2021).

In February, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Paula Maust, the creator of Expanding the Music Theory Canon, and hearing her ideas about representation in the music theory classroom. Expanding the Music Theory Canon—which was launched in late January, two weeks prior to our conversation—is a wonderful, easy-to-use resource that compiles musical examples by composers who are typically left out of the Western art music canon, such as women and BIPOC. The examples are categorized by music-theoretical topic, making the site easy to navigate and useful for the purposes of quickly finding examples for the classroom, and each excerpt is available in an easily printable format that instructors can download and distribute directly to their classes. It’s therefore an excellent resource for any busy music theory teacher.

This interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Sylvie Tran.


Sylvie Tran (ST): How would you describe your project?

Paula Maust (PM): My project, Expanding the Music Theory Canon, was born out of my desire to have a greater variety of representation in my own class work. I teach in Baltimore at three different schools, and I was looking out at my students and seeing this sea of the new faces of classical music. I was really disappointed by what I was seeing in the music theory textbooks, which were basically reproductions of the same examples that had been used whenever I was a student studying those same concepts.

I’m a harpsichordist and organist by trade, and I’ve always been really interested in things that are unconventional or that are not part of the mainstream. A lot of my research also focuses on historical women who were writing and performing music, and so I knew that there was a lot of music by women, and I suspected that there was a lot of music by non-white composers from the “Common Practice” era that would just as easily illustrate all of the concepts taught in class as music by Mozart and Beethoven and Handel and Bach, who feature so predominantly in most current texts and classrooms.

I was also striving for ease of usability, because we all teach many of the same concepts in a fairly similar order, and so I was choosing music that was intentionally easy so that it could be used for freshman- and sophomore-level classes. A lot of resources, I think, have excerpts that sometimes tend to be great music, but they tend to be too advanced for someone encountering the concept for the first time. So I was going for pedagogical ease and also just plug-and-play, basically. So, say I’m teaching vii°7 chords today: here are examples that I can choose from, and they’re in a PDF ready to go, in a one-phrase-long excerpt. That was the goal.

ST: I love that there was already that connection between your research and this resource. Was there anything else that inspired you to begin this work?

PM: I had a really fantastic student in Theory I one year who said, “Dr. Maust, you should write your own book.” I kind of laughed and said, “I don’t have time to write a book, but if I was going to write my own book, all of the musical examples would be by women and non-white composers.” This was a really well-informed student, and he made a comment that really stuck with me, because it’s a comment I’ve heard a lot of times: “I don’t know that you’d be able to do that because there wouldn’t be enough music for you to choose, because women and non-white composers didn’t have the same educational and musical opportunities that white men had during the Common Practice era.” This is an argument that I’d heard over and over as to why all of the theory examples in textbooks are from a very specific group of people, and I know that can’t be true. And so that was one of those defining moments for me, hearing that come from a student who was a very well-informed and educated student, and realizing that was still the predominant mindset—that women and non-white composers weren’t producing music during the Common Practice era. I knew very well that was actually false and wanted to do something about it.

ST: Picking up on that thread, can you expand a little bit on what exactly it means for a student in the classroom to be taking a class that uses examples only from non-white composers, or only from women? What does that accomplish for that student?

PM: I think it really broadens representation. And I hope that it starts to dismantle some of the ingrained stereotypes that we might have about classical music: in particular, that it’s a very white art form, it’s a very Eurocentric art form, and it’s an art form that’s been very male. So, by showing that it actually doesn’t have to be all of those things—that those things have been erased from our narrative—I hope that it can be inspiring for students to see. And because most textbooks still feature almost exclusively music by white men, there’s still exposure to those concepts. I’m not trying to erase all of the contributions of Mozart or Beethoven, because I think they made fantastic contributions to the history of Western classical music. But mostly, I’m trying to expand the narrative and show students that lots of different voices contributed to music history and to the development of what we call classical music in the Western style. I hope resources like this can provide representation for a much broader perspective of voices.

ST: It seems like you’ve already detailed the main goals of your work. How have you accomplished them thus far?

PM: I’m really blown away by the fact that in the past two weeks, the website has been used in 41 countries by more than 2,800 users who have visited 6,000 pages. And that’s in two weeks. That shows that there was a great need for something like this, and also that people are ready for it. I was talking to a colleague the other day and said, “You know, I’ve been saying these things about the canon for a really long time. But I wasn’t getting emails for speaking engagements at places like Duke to talk about the canon, but I am now.” The world is ready, and I’m not sure why that is—perhaps the pandemic, or because of heightened awareness of systemic racial injustice in the US—but I feel like things are being accomplished in a really short period of time with this project, which is really exciting to me. I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever look at the site, or if I would get lots of really angry emails, or get lots of really excited emails.

ST: How do you see the future of this project? What do you hope this will accomplish?

PM: I have approximately 300 more examples that I want to add this spring for advanced chromatic harmony. I’m also working on a collaboration with I Resound Press, which is also housed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is where I do a lot of my teaching. I Resound a collection of 20th- and 21st-century pieces by mostly living women composers, so I have an arrangement with them, and I have a student intern working with me right now, and we’re going through their collection of over 200 scores to pull out good pedagogical examples of most of the primary topics that you would teach in a 20th- and 21st-century techniques class. That’s the immediate future of what is happening.

ST: What kinds of help did you have in taking on this project?

PM: I’ve had some excellent student help. I started this process in a very messy spreadsheet a few years ago, when I started being really intentional about the examples I pulled for class. I dumped everything into a document, and then, when the pandemic happened, and all my concerts were cancelled, I needed some sort of creative outlet to do something, to change whatever part of the world that I had the power to change, and this seemed like a good way to do that.

And so, because I had a lot of free time suddenly—you know, a year’s worth of concerts being cancelled (I was performing really extensively before)—this became my way to channel all of my anxiety about the pandemic, and our profession as musicians, and the world, all into one project that I could really focus on. And so I spent the summer combing through approximately 15,000 pages of scores on IMSLP. I had a small set of examples that I had been using, but I didn’t have five or six examples for every concept—I had one or two. I wanted to expand that, so I spent the summer filling all of that out, and then in the fall, I had a really fantastic intern who did Sibelius note entry for a lot of those examples, which was tremendously helpful. And I had another music technology student who worked on a capstone project with me and did some data entry for the website, which was also really helpful, so my process was just going through tons of scores to select appropriate examples and then creating biographical commentary about each composer. I have about 100 tabs open right now of scores that I’d like to go through in the next couple of weeks, and then I have some student assistants to work on the technical details and assist with putting everything together.

ST: How do you see this project addressing broader current social justice issues? Are there any things your project specifically addresses or accomplishes, and are there any things that it doesn’t specifically address and accomplish?

PM: I think the largest issue that it addresses is representation that has largely been absent up to this point within Western classical music. But my site does not in any way serve as a perfect fix for a more diverse curriculum, because it is still very much focused completely on what we consider to be Western classical music. Representation is, I think, an important first step in terms of what the field can do, because our field, as you know, has been historically mostly white and mostly male, and so this is a good first step to counter that kind of a problem. But in my mind, it’s only a first step in the process of really thinking through large-scale curriculum and what we’re offering to students in an undergraduate music degree when they take music theory classes.

ST: Have you encountered any obstacles in going about this project? Such as budget deficits, pushback from people, or availability of resources?

PM: I have had very few obstacles, which is great. I mean, I’m an adjunct professor at three schools, teaching a 7+7 load, so time is always an obstacle for me. However, teaching so much means that I’ve been able to class test my examples across three different, very different types of institutions: a private R1, a major conservatory, and a regional public research institution with a liberal arts emphasis. So I have a wide variety of students, and I’ve been able to see that these examples work in a lot of different types of classes, which is, I think, a benefit. But, of course, I struggle with not having enough time or access to any type of university grant funding. Having student interns this year was a tremendous help to my project. I would never have been able to publish the site so quickly without having interns to help with the Sibelius note entry, because that’s a massive process, and I’m admittedly not very fast at doing it.

I have not encountered any resistance so far, which is encouraging. I’ve had only positive feedback. I’ve had a few people write back to me and offer suggestions about spelling of composer names, which I’ve been very appreciative of. One thing I will say is that with libraries being closed, it has sometimes been harder to get some of the musicology resources that I have wanted in order to write better biographies. Grove is rather outdated in a lot of ways, and there are numerous resources that I’m hoping to be able to get once I have easier access to library resources. But librarians have also been scanning me things every week, like the champions they are. So there have been relatively few obstacles overall!

ST: Can I piggy-back on something you just said, which was on the composer biographies? I feel like that’s a feature that is somewhat unique to your database. I feel like normally it’s just a laundry list of score excerpts. Can you tell us a little bit more about the idea behind having the composer bios?

PM: Absolutely. One of the most important parts of the database for me was to have as much biographical information as I could. Because, you know, Beethoven and Mozart are household names. They get taught in every music history class and in every music theory class. And we don’t talk about Hortense de Beauharnais, and we don’t talk much about Joseph Boulogne, Ignatius Sancho, and Francis Johnson, but they were really important musical figures in their time, and so, for me, it was very important to tell their stories.

The historical aspect of putting everything into its proper context is really important to me. I think it brings the music to life and gives people an insight, I hope, into looking at a score and then reading about a person they may have never heard of before, and seeing what that person was going through and what they were encountering whenever they happened to write a really great example of the mediant chord. Music theory is not always as humanized as I would like it to be, because it can be just, you know, parallel fifths, parallel octaves, raise the leading tone, resolve the chordal seventh down… and I hear myself running through this litany with my students over and over again, and I find myself reminding them that it’s always ultimately about the music. And so, for me, the biographies humanize it and make it about not just the theoretical concepts which are, of course, interesting and beautiful, but this also draws students into the lives of the musical creators.

ST: Was there anything that surprised you during the process of completing the project?

PM: I think the thing that is perhaps most surprising to me is how much people were erased out of the narrative and when. One thing I’m working on, because I’m giving a couple of talks this spring about this project to various colloquia, is trying to work out a good discussion of when this became a problem. For example, Cécile Chaminade was performing everywhere, and she was a household name. When did she get erased from our discussions of music history, and why? And Joseph Boulogne was, in some ways, even more famous than Mozart during his life. When did he get erased from our idea of what is the canon?

Marcia Citron has done so much work on gender and the canon, but I’ve been very interested in thinking more deeply about how erasure happened. I was writing a preface last week for a new, modern, scholarly edition of a piece by Amy Beach. And I happened to dig up a Baltimore Sun article from 1901 of a concert when this piece was performed in Baltimore by the Baltimore Symphony, and it was a program of all music by women. And the reviewer went on this diatribe about how women have only been composing for ten years, and this concert proved that they have not yet accomplished anything in music. So I was thinking, “Okay, in 1901 in the US, people thought that women had only been composing music for ten years.” But of course, that again plays into this narrative that’s very false. Women have been composing music since antiquity. And so I’ve been very surprised by my discoveries of when and how we started to erase people from our narrative. I have no definitive answers about that yet, but it’s what I’m working on right now.

ST: Did you model your work off of any other, similar initiatives? If so, what did or didn’t you like about those that already existed?

PM: There’s another similar project called Music Theory Examples by Women, which I was first aware of when I started teaching. I think it’s a beautiful site, and I, in some ways, modeled the idea of a collection of examples by people who are not usually represented. I wanted to expand beyond just women, however, because women aren’t the only people who have been erased from the canonical narrative that we teach in a lot of classes. I find the site very nice, although it isn’t necessarily as easily plug-and-play. A lot of the excerpts are also mid to late 19th-century and chromatic, so they’re hard for me to be able to use, especially in a Theory I and II class. So I wanted to create something that was a similar concept, but that was really focused pedagogically on examples that could be used with students who are at an introductory level.

ST: Great! If I’m not mistaken, I think we’ve got an interview with them lined up as well, so that will be great to see.

Are there ways for people reading this to get involved? Do you have a website, Facebook, etc.?

PM: You can sign up on the website homepage to join an email list, so that you get updates whenever there are new examples added to the site. I have a lot of people who’ve been writing in and saying “When will the 20th century section be here?” and I keep saying “Soon!” So I’ve now added a way for people to sign up for updates. And I’m hoping to take each composer and do a theory/analysis blog of a collection of their works every few weeks. There will probably be, at the end of the day, 50 or 60 composers, so that’s a multi-year process. I was hoping to start with Francis Johnson, since he was based in Philadelphia, which is close to where I am in Baltimore, and I’m really fascinated by his music and what he was doing as the first Black composer to have his music published in America. What he was doing with band music is really interesting to me. He would often set tunes from opera arias, so I’m hoping to do side-by-side comparisons so that users can engage more deeply with the music.

ST: That sounds wonderful! Thank you so much for your time and for your wonderful resource.


Dr. Paula Maust is a performer-scholar dedicated to fusing research and creative practice to amplify underrepresented voices and advocate for social change. She is the creator of Expanding the Music Theory Canon, an extensive open-source collection of music theory examples by women and composers of color. A companion print anthology is under contract with SUNY Press, and she has given invited lectures about creating more inclusive curricula at Duke University and the Johns Hopkins University. An article about a recent study she conducted on racism and sexism in Western classical music education is forthcoming in the Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music. Paula teaches music theory, keyboard skills, music history, and historical performance at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, County; the Johns Hopkins University; and Peabody Conservatory. In addition to the music theory anthology, she is working on The Ugly Virtuosa, a scholarly monograph examining the pejorative language used to describe the first generation of professional female musicians in England, Italy, and France. Paula has presented her research for the American Musicological Society, the Indiana University Historical Performance Institute, the American Handel Society, and the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music. In addition to teaching and scholarship, Paula performs extensively as a harpsichordist and organist. She has been praised for combining “great power with masterful subtlety” (DC Metro Theater Arts) and as a “refined and elegant performer” (Boston Musical Intelligencer). As a co-director of Burning River Baroque and Musica Spira, she curates provocative lecture-concerts connecting baroque music to contemporary social issues. More info is available at www.paulamaust.com.


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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