Black Music Matters

May 1, 2021

Many music organizations, conferences, and schools have been struggling to find an appropriate response to the Black Lives Matter movement as it pertains to music. Musical communities, classroom music teachers, college professors, professional musicians, opera house participants, and symphony orchestra members, among others, have been challenged to examine the institutional racism that still exists across mainstream music schools and organizations. Recently, a group of ensemble directors from Ithaca College, where I am a faculty member, met to discuss what our response would be. Most participants wanted to introduce more music by Black composers. The conversation also turned toward what other college and universities were doing in their schools of music. Someone mentioned that a number of music department proposed to use only Black music for an entire semester. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach, I believe this is metaphorically trimming the branches and not digging up the roots of racism. For too long, we have allowed racial injustice to fester in our curriculum, hiring practices, admission requirements, and music programming. We see racial disparities throughout the field of music education: our school music programs serve White students at disproportionately higher rates than their Black counterparts (Elpus & Abril 2019); implicit racial biases may influence college faculty members' evaluations of Black male musicians (Clauhs 2013); and White composers are over-represented in selected repertoire (Griffiths 2020). 

Many schools of music in the United States adopted a Western European paradigm for teaching music and embraced the conservatory model for their curriculum when they were formed. Many have hired professors to teach in this model for over a century. The term conservatory comes from the Italian word conservatorio (Conservatory 2017). During the European renaissance of the 14th through 17th centuries, conservatories were institutions attached to hospitals whose main clients were orphans given instruction in voice, piano, and music theory (Renaissance 2018). The Conservatoire National de Musique et d’Art Dramatique was established in Paris, France, in 1784. Conservatory students studied composition, instrumental and vocal technique, and music theory, and they were required to give a recital (Conservatory 2017). Many schools of music in the United States being formed in the nineteenth and twentieth century—including Oberlin (1865), Peabody (1857), New England Conservatory of Music (1867), the National Conservatory of Music (1885), Ithaca Conservatory of Music (1892), Eastman School of Music (1919), Curtis Institute (1924), and the Julliard School of Music (1968), among others—and regularly adopted the Parisian conservatory paradigm.

This model of teaching music, its curriculum, and pedagogy have emphasized White Western European music and composers. American schools of music have thus established and promoted institutional racism by valuing White European music over Black music. To correct this, value needs to be placed on the music and performance practices of non-Western composers, and we must abandon coded words like traditional, non-traditional, major, and minor when referring to our musical ensembles. These terms set up a hierarchal system that feeds into racist policies and practices and elevates White European music and repertory for music ensembles. I believe that Black music should be important all the time, not just when society has a racial epiphany.

As a lover and performer of Western European classical music, I believe that it plays an important role in the education of those who wish to pursue a career in this genre. But, while African-Americans excel in all genres of music, including Western European classical music, we have not found a home in this field. Rather, we have been kept on the margins, while most orchestra and opera houses are filled with white musicians.

Solid Ground, a community-based organization established in the mid-seventies in Seattle, defines institutional racism as “the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color” (Solid Ground 2018). I believe that racism is rooted in a belief in the superiority of white people and the inferiority of people of color. This can be seen in current practices in schools of music and musical organizations. When one accepts this paradigm at the exclusion of another, we become complicit in the promotion of Western European music at the exclusion of Black music.

For many years, I have taught preservice teachers, African Drumming and Dance, Worlds of Music courses, and graduate seminars on Culturally Affirming Music Education, and I have been the point-person for bringing diverse programming to the Ithaca College School of Music. In my early days of teaching at Ithaca College, I established the High School Gospel Music Festival and annual Black History Month Celebrations. While some colleagues have assisted me, this has still been a “heavy lift.” Many White colleagues left this work to the only Black faculty member in the school and didn’t encourage pre-service teachers to develop lessons plans to celebrate the month. Perhaps my colleagues have believed that since they are not people of color, it would be inappropriate for them to lead a Black History Month concert or champion Black music. Yet we require all vocal students to audition for admission in French, German, or Italian, which blatantly favors European music.

Similarly, I have presented workshops and sessions for local, state, national, and international music conferences where few people of color were involved and the majority of the music performed was Eurocentric. When music from outside of the Western European paradigm has been performed, it has often been treated as an add-on or an exotic piece, or its preparation has not be taken as seriously as Eurocentric pieces.

In “Listening for Whiteness: Hearing Racial Politics in Undergraduate School of Music,” Julia Eklund Koza addresses the requirements for music schools and how they advantage some students and disadvantage others. (Koza 2008). As long as the requirements for entrance into schools of music are based on the Western European paradigm, and the curriculum upholds that paradigm, we are complicit in maintaining institutionalized racism. I applaud colleagues for wanting to program more music from African-American composers; this is progress, but greater change is needed: we must abandon policies promoting racial injustice in music in all of its forms and start to dig up the roots of racism, not just trim the branches.

I have been speaking out against the systematic racism that occurs nationwide in music organizations, including the National Association for Music Education, Mid-West Band and Orchestra Association, American Choral Directors Association, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, and others. I have been advocating for embracing a diverse and inclusive agenda and for creating a just musical community for all. We must do more than merely add music by Black composers to our programing or organizations: we must reverse the long history of exclusion and promote and create equity in all we do. These are difficult conversations to have, and it is even more difficult to change these practices. We cannot let our fear and guilt lead us to inaction: there is room in our musical communities for everyone.

There needs to be a recognition of past sins and a blueprint for racial justice for those who no longer accept the status quo. We must recognize our racist past and carve out a new era of social change with the mantra of Black Lives Matter/Black Music Matters. We cannot let this moment in our nation become a footnote. In the words of the late John Lewis, let’s make “good trouble” (Lewis 2020).




Clauhs, M. S. (2013). The Effects of Race and Gender Bias on Style Identification and Music Evaluation. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Temple University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. (11379)

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (December 2017) Conservatory. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2019). “Who Enrolls in High School Music? A National Profile of US Students, 2009–2013.” Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(3), 323-338.

Griffiths, A. (2020). “Playing the White Man’s Tune: Inclusion in Elite Classical Music Education.” British Journal of Music Education, 37(1), 55-70. editors. (April 2018) Renaissance. History.

Solid Ground. (December 5, 2018). “Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) Definitions, Analysis & Accountability Standards.”

Koza, J. (2008) “Listening for Whiteness: Hearing Racial Politics in Undergraduate School of Music.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 16 (2), 145-155

Lewis, J. (March 1, 2020). “The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Advanced Local.”

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