decolonizing the music survey: a manifesto for action (2018)

I collaborated with my dear friend and colleague Maria Ryan to create this manifesto. Maria is pursuing graduate studies in historical musicology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her dissertation focuses on race and music in the nineteenth-century British colonial Caribbean. Even though Maria and I grew up thousands of miles apart, we had strikingly similar experiences in the fields of Western Euro-American classical music performance and research. We wanted to make something that could help to change the aspects of these fields that so alienated and frustrated us. For us, this meant starting with pedagogical practices. So, this manifesto emerged from a place of frustration and pain but also deep care and passion—how can we create learning environments that, to use Paulo Freire’s formulation, help to make us more fully human?


Decolonizing the Music Survey: A Manifesto for Action

We presented this manifesto at the Temple University Theory, History, and Ethnomusicology Society’s Fifth Annual Graduate Conference, Pedagogy Symposium on 13 April 2018. The text below combines the manifesto—which we designed as a standalone document—with the script from which we presented at Temple. Each of the seven manifesto points is numbered and in boldface text. The description of each point appears beneath in italicized font. The presentation script then follows, with initials (DC, David Chavannes; MR, Maria Ryan) indicating which of us presented that text.

We want to start today with a brief explanation of our title. Let’s start with manifesto. The word can imply a kind of authority, whereas we invite you to engage our manifesto as a set of ideas to enact; in that enacting, you learn what can work for where and who you are right now, and what cannot.

So, the following seven points are not unquestionable facts, but rather assertions or provocations that are intended to lead toward action. We intend to open rather than shut down conversation, especially in the Q&A portion after our presentation. But discussion cannot be the end-goal. Part of what decolonizing means to us is rejecting the imposition and dominance of Western Euro-American systems of knowledge through tangible action in our teaching and learning. This is why we chose to align our manifesto with decolonization, rather than the paradigm of “inclusion” or “diversity.” To be “included” means to be included within the dominant Western Euro-American way of knowing and being in the world, what decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo calls “the Western code.” To be “included” means to ignore the matrix of power that structures our social relations such that some of us can include and exclude while others of us can only be included or excluded. In other words, the fundamental colonial power structure remains unchanged if “inclusion” is our only goal; the Western code continues to set the terms of belonging. This is not what we’re after. Rather, we must dismantle the dominance of this Western Euro-American way of knowing and being and embrace the other options for knowing and being that exist and that have always existed in the world, and in our learning spaces.

For this reason, we choose to focus on the music survey because it remains the entry point into music studies for undergraduate students across the university, not all of whom intend to major or minor in music. As such, music survey courses set the tone for further engagement with our field. More importantly, the ways of knowing that dominate the field tend to be a bit closer to the surface, a bit more tangible, in these courses.



I. The music classroom can be a space in which we not only learn information but also learn about ourselves, about each other, and about how to live in the world.

For many learners, classrooms are spaces that enforce conformity rather than empower and liberate us creatively, intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally. Inspired by our own experiences, and by the works of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, we seek an education that liberates rather than dominates. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire articulates a definition of praxis that we believe can encourage and facilitate the kind of liberatory education we have desired for so long: “action and reflection upon the world in order to change it.” To take liberation as our pedagogical orientation demands that we see ourselves and everyone else in our learning spaces as “whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge” (hooks 1994: 15). To take liberation as our pedagogical orientation demands both compassion and empathy, a desire to understand our own experience of the world more deeply while also working to understand each other’s experiences. Creative practices lend themselves so powerfully to this kind of work; as music performers, creators, and thinkers, we therefore are uniquely positioned to help transform our world and our relationships by decolonizing “the logic of coloniality that translated difference into values” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii). In other words, to reject a Western Euro-American system of knowledge that seeks to dominate all other systems of knowledge, and to embrace one that intentionally welcomes others.


DC: I spent ten years pursuing higher education in classical music performance. Non-white people were completely absent from my curricula, and the overwhelming majority of my colleagues and professors were white. I longed to learn about my own peoples, my own histories. I longed to talk about the inequities that made my learning spaces so overwhelmingly white in the first place. I longed to think collaboratively with my colleagues and professors about what we as artists in the twenty-first century United States could do about racial and racist violence. But my colleagues shrugged me off, told me I was too serious all the time. When this helped send me into a spiral of depression, two of my white professors lowered my final grade in a course because I was “slouching” in class. I grew to hate studying classical music—a repertoire that I often enjoy deeply—surrounded by people who seemed to want so desperately to live with Brahms in mid-nineteenth-century Vienna, or with Poulenc in 1920s Paris, rather than live 30 miles away from the place where Freddie Gray was killed. I hated not ever being able to learn anything about myself. I felt alienated, alone, bored, frustrated. Ten years.

Maybe not every African-descended college music student in the U.S would feel the way I felt. But I wonder how many of us—and not just African descendants—would prefer learning environments into which we could bring all the parts of ourselves instead of just the parts that professors care to see? Maria Montessori argued that we’re all born with an innate curiosity about the world around us. She argued that it’s adults who use a system of rewards and punishments—not unlike the one we might use for a pet—to shape young people’s behavior and actually stamp out their natural curiosity and creativity. This was certainly the case for me. Without exception, my learning experiences at all levels of institutional education used what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire called the “banking model of education.” When he used this term, he was referring to learning environments in which there is a rigid divide between “teacher” and “student,” environments in which students sit passively while the teacher “deposits” knowledge into their “empty” minds. Even once I got to grad school, I found that most professors could at most only acknowledge the existence of multiple epistemologies; at the end of the day, your ideas still aren’t valid unless you use a genealogy of white male thinkers to legitimize them, and your ideas certainly don’t count as capital-k Knowledge if you don’t express them through academic prose.

But what if we could actually feel excited about entering learning environments because we could see each other and be seen as complex human beings? What if our learning environments helped us to become more aware of our beliefs about ourselves and about the world? What if they helped us think more deeply about how we came to these beliefs, helped us critically evaluate them in the face of contrasting beliefs? What if they helped us see how practices like music making embody and reproduce core beliefs about the world and the way it should be? What if our goal for a semester were to leave understanding a little bit more about ourselves and each other, rather than leaving exhausted, hemorrhaging hastily consumed theoretical concepts into poorly edited term papers?



II. Recognize the violence that has allowed you to be present on this land, living and learning about different peoples and cultural practices.

Contemporary life in the United States is in part made possible by extraordinary, sadistic, and genocidal violence. European settlers who colonized this territory dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands, committed acts of genocide against Indigenous peoples, and erected a legal system that ensured the subordination of Indigenous peoples to the U.S. nation-state, refusing to recognize the sovereignty of Indigenous forms of governance. Similarly, these settlers and their descendants enslaved human beings from Africa, committed acts of genocide against African peoples, refused to recognize the sovereignty and sanctity of African and later African-American life, and grew exorbitantly wealthy from the forced labor of these enslaved African peoples and their descendants. This is not peripheral to “music history.” For example, the first music ethnographers helped solidify the philosophical divide between “civilized” and “savage” by documenting and classifying Indigenous peoples’ cultural practices through a Eurocentric lens. As anthropologist Nicholas de Genova contends, “racial oppression and imperialism have been and remain central and constitutive features of the U.S. social formation, U.S. nationalism, and ‘American’ national identity” (de Genova 2007: 261). You cannot take for granted your presence on this land.


MR: I admit, the weight of this can feel overwhelming. The burden of this knowledge can be debilitating. However, these histories are central, not peripheral, to music histories and their study. What if we taught that between the 1870s and the mid-twentieth century the federal government forcibly sent American Indians to off-reservation boarding schools where the performance of Native music was not allowed? Schools where Indigenous students were instead taught music as a way to “civilise” them, to enforce assimilation through patriotic music, American “folk” music, sight singing, and Western art music? What if we thought about the ways that early ethnographers helped to classify American Indians within a mode legible to European settlers by using European methods of transcribing “music”? What if we underscored that this was a classification system that made it easier to justify and manage the dismantling of American Indian cultures? What can we do in the face of such injustices?

I would suggest, first, acknowledge them.

We are on the land of the Lenni-Lenape people. They populated the areas we now know as New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York and eastern Pennsylvania, for 10,000 years before the arrival of European settler colonists. Despite attempts to assimilate and murder these people, the Lenape tribe Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape still exists as a sovereign American Indian Nation in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Let’s find space in our classes to name and acknowledge this, and to sit together in the discomfort of this knowledge. Of course, mere acknowledgement does not constitute an action of repair. In Canada, acknowledgements of traditional land are now a part of day-to-day life in schools and universities, but such acknowledgements have been frequently, and rightly, critiqued for their emptiness, hypocrisy and impotence. But, they are a beginning, a naming, and can be a reminder for many of us of our own ignorance in this history and complicity with settler-colonialism, a framing of what we teach, and a provocation for us to be critical about what we are teaching.

What would happen if we tried to connect the history of musical literacy and settler colonialism in North America? Why does learning to sing at sight, and to notate heard sounds matter? What are the political and historical implications of this entrainment in sounding and listening? This is a question worth asking, especially where aural music theory is offered as a reasoning requirement, and as a compulsory course for music students. What if we connected music theory and ethnomusicology by allowing our students in both disciplines to think about the connection between musical dictation and colonial ethnography? What would it mean to foreground the parameters of music that we fail to capture—through historical research, analysis, listening, dictation, or ethnography?


III. There are students of color in your class, and if there aren’t, it’s worth asking why. Plan your syllabus being sensitive to this reality and to the changes that asking “why” might demand.

Too often, music survey courses are constructed in ways that appear “neutral” but that really manifest a Western Euro-American white gaze. Through this gaze, which was forged largely in the crucibles of colonial Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean, humanity comes to be defined in racialized terms. This gaze produces what de Genova calls “a social and political order of domination and subordination ... privileging racialized whiteness over and above all other categories of ‘racial’ identity” (de Genova 2007: 249)—or what we mean when we say “white supremacy.” So, while the histories of the Americas show us that “race” is a colonial construct—that it is not biologically “real”—they also reveal that race is what sociologist Gregory Smithsimon calls a “power relation made flesh,” and that this power relation impacts both how you as instructor and your students will relate to each other (for example, through forms of social, psychological, and physical violence that result from implicit bias). If your music survey course seems “neutral” to you, check to see that you aren’t conflating neutrality with whiteness. Such a conflation will inevitably alienate your students of color and delimit the critical depth and breadth of everyone’s learning.

Recognize that, regardless of course content, everyone in your class brings with them a wealth of experiences and histories that may not map directly onto your own experiences and histories. Be sure that you aren’t expecting your students to alter themselves so that they can be better legible to you.


MR: I teach a music survey course using the textbook Concise History of Western Music by Barbara Hanning. Despite my overall satisfaction with the textbook compared to others, there have been several times when I have been reading to prepare for class, and have come across moments that have utterly shocked me. These were moments where whiteness became so visible that I doubted why I was making students read this book, let alone making them purchase it at significant expense. First, for a book that in the 21st century makes a claim to some sort of history of the West, there is an almost complete absence of naming the impact and importance of the institution of transatlantic slavery, and coloniality more broadly, on the wealth, and therefore the culture, of Europe. There are only two mentions of slavery in the entire 646 pages of the textbook. The first is two sentences in a paragraph about colonialism in the section “Europe in the Seventeenth Century” (Hanning 2014: 170). The second mention is one sentence in a list of bullet points contextualizing the 1686 premiere of Lully’s Armide (Hanning 2014: 258). The bullet point is about Pope Innocent VI condemning the extension of slavery to French colonies. Another bullet point in the list reports the invention of the croissant. Yet another (there are 8 in total) notes that Telemann, Bach, and Handel all celebrated their first birthdays that year. The message is clear: slavery is context, something happening “over there” peripheral to the real history of Western Music. This framing becomes visual at a particular moment in the textbook:



The picture may be familiar to you, it wasn’t familiar to me. It was not the inclusion of this painting that surprised me—it’s a fascinating, rich image—but rather the way that it was presented in the textbook:

A painting by Johannes Voorhout (1647–1723) belonging to the genre known as a “Music Company” (ca. 1674) that shows a group of friends making music. It includes the only known portrait of composer Dieterich Buxtehude, pictured with his hand to his head in front of a sheet of music. The instruments being played, probably by friends in Buxtehude’s circle, are viola da gamba, harpsichord, and lute, although the elegantly dressed lutenist at whom Buxtehude gazes may represent an allegory of the pleasures of friendship and music. The man standing on the left in the feathered hat is the painter himself. (Hanning 2014: 221)

The one person I was interested in—the small, presumably enslaved, black boy who is positioned in the center of the image, in European dress leaning on the harpsichord—is not mentioned at all. This complete absence of reference to this boy, for me key to the image, was shocking, especially due to the level of detail in Hanning’s caption, pointing out details of costume, the people supposedly being represented, the layers of operation of allegory. What is this poorly rendered boy among this musical matrix: is he based on life, or is he part of the allegory? And what are the implications of both of these? And what does it say about the History of Western Music, that this listener, who is so central and visible in this image, is rendered invisible, and worse irrelevant in the history of music in Europe in the seventeenth century that I am trying to teach my students?

I worried about students of color in my class who were experiencing this as the first appearance of a non-white person in the textbook and course so far, as well as those students who were more experienced in reading images and in the history of the African Diaspora. What would this omission look like to them? My second, and more troubling worry, was that some of my students wouldn’t notice the boy, or his absence from the caption. Or rather, that some students wouldn’t give it another thought; after all, it’s a textbook, a “neutral” purveyor of history. Finally, I worried about myself, and the emotional labour I was doing in trying to preempt reactions of my students, in trying to plan a lesson that would adequately convey to my students the dark side of the Renaissance and create space to discuss this image and critique the textbook as a narrative text. At the same time, I was grappling with my own presence as a woman descended from enslaved Africans in Jamaica, standing in front of a class teaching a history of listening in the seventeenth century that ultimately prioritised formal and technical listening and analysis over the black bodies that funded the flourishing of this music, and that are visible but not mentioned in the textbook.

We have to train our students to acquire the skills to critique the narratives told through textbooks, as well as the way that we are structuring the focus and material of the courses we teach. In order to do this, we need to be honest about the goals of our courses, and the ideologies behind the histories that we are teaching.  If your music survey course or textbook seems “neutral”, check to see that you aren’t conflating this neutrality with whiteness. Too often, music survey courses are constructed in ways that appear “neutral” but that really manifest a Western Euro-American white gaze. Such a conflation will inevitably alienate your students of color and delimit the critical depth and breadth of everyone’s learning. The Buxtehude example makes the white gaze of the textbook explicit, but such moments are in fact implicitly woven into the very possibility of a History of Western Music.

Recognize that, regardless of course content, everyone in your class brings with them a wealth of experiences and histories that may not map directly onto your own experiences and histories. Be sure that you aren’t expecting your students to alter themselves, hide their experiences, or separate their histories from the history you are telling, so that they can be better legible to you in the context of your class.



IV. Name your epistemological frames.

Your teaching, along with the teaching materials you use, is inevitably based upon certain theoretical, ideological, and ontological assumptions. Be sure that you know what these are, and that you bring these to the foreground of your teaching. This invites your students to understand and critique the ways you (and your intellectual inspirations) are constructing knowledge. From your very first session, discuss the implications of the title and rationale of your course, and continue to name and discuss your theoretical, ideological, and ontological assumptions as the semester progresses.

This applies as much to music theorists as to music historians and ethnomusicologists. For example, the elevation of Western tonal analysis excludes many other kinds of musical and sonic practices from the conversations and curricula in your department. It also excludes ways of knowing and listening that students are already bringing to the room. This exclusion is the legacy of constructed racialized definitions of the human that both shaped and were shaped by the colonial projects that Europeans and their descendants pursued in the Americas. In short, music theory instruction can also enact a violent Western Euro-American epistemology.


DC: “World Music” courses are the bread and butter of many music departments. The title (in various guises) promises a romp through exotic locations, a comparative analysis of cultural practices through a single lens: the Western Euro-American concept of “music.” I’ve seen professors who are able to problematize the exclusive use of a Euro-American epistemology, but then proceed to use it anyway as the primary analytic through which students encounter social practices that people are engaging in all over the planet. So, what happens in these moments is just a paying of lip service. Naming this as a problem is an important first step, but it doesn’t actually bring a fundamental challenge to the epistemological domination taking place in the classroom. At the very least, you can consider naming every time you are using your own frame to understand practices that the practitioners themselves understand differently. Be honest, tell your students “I’m using this frame even though the people we’re talking about don’t use this frame.” By explicitly naming what you’re doing, you invite students to ask why, and this can inspire a rich discussion that makes space in the room for the many other ways of knowing and being that people practice all around us. But if you choose not to name the assumptions that undergird your teaching, not to “name your frames,” then you could be implying that:

a) you are the “expert,” you are “right,” and as such are not really interested in entertaining whatever other people may be bringing into the room;

b) you are not comfortable being criticized, perhaps particularly by “students”; you can bring challenges to students but they can’t bring challenges to you;

c) you are not aware that your system of knowledge is dominating that of the people you are discussing and of perhaps several of the people in the room with you.

Either way, the decolonial option we are presenting today would invite you to consider that naming your epistemological frames might have a tremendous impact on the learning of everyone in the room, including you. Of course, this demands humility.



V. Ensure that you don’t have an all-white and/or all-male syllabus.

If all the thinkers, music-makers, and listeners you consider in your course are white, your course could very well be centering and elevating a Western Euro-American epistemology. Strive, instead, to cultivate (both within yourself and along with your students) a way of thinking about cultural practices that is intentionally open to multiple modes of analysis, systems of meaning, temporal and spatial locations, and ways of being in the world.

Further, you need to do the work it takes to contextualize the narratives your course is attempting to tell within the multifarious histories of global industrial capitalism and global imperialism. Remember de Genova’s contention: U.S. nationalism is a colonial formation, and colonization was always deeply intertwined with the growth and gradual domination of capitalism. Cultural practices like music-making are embedded within the unfolding of capitalism across the globe, not peripheral to it.


MR: If the only non-white music-makers in your course are male, it is worth questioning why this is. The answer may reveal something about the barriers to entry you erect for what can “count” as music. This last point also applies to women composers more generally. Would you be able to include more women composers in your courses if you broadened the gamut of genres that your class reads as musical texts? I find it helpful to introduce students early on to Tim Taylor’s concept “classical music ideology,” which he describes as “an ideology that has as its two foundational tenets the concepts of ‘genius’ and ‘masterpiece,’ two concepts that arose in their present form in the first half of the nineteenth century. They are neither ‘true’ nor ‘false,’ but culturally and historically located” (Taylor 2007: 7). I teach with this idea foregrounded because it gives students permission to imagine other ways to create music history that are not reliant on great man narratives. At the same time, Taylor’s “classical music ideology” is a crucial lesson in the importance of historiography in a survey course, giving students critical skills to evaluate how histories are being told.

Of course, the suggestions I have just mentioned are relevant for situations where an instructor is trying to make a pre-existing class a better and more rigorous space for learning. One of the criticisms of such a model of expansion is that it risks tokenizing the “other voices” that you are trying to include. I also sit with this tension. I really think that it is better to try and broaden your examples, even if you feel uncomfortable with how this may look to your students. However, if you are trying to expand to avoid overwhelming white maleness you are going to have to be deliberate about how you introduce those musicians who are automatically “othered” by their inclusion in a narrative that wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Who are you inviting to be “at home” in your narrative and classroom?


VI. Know and articulate why you are listening to music in class.

DC: I’m not convinced that listening to music in class can be sufficiently justified as a pedagogical decision simply by the fact that it’s a “music” class. At least, not if you intend for your classroom to be a space of critical thinking. If you’re trying to train your students to organize musical sounds in their ears/minds in a particular way, then verbalize and historicize that form of listening and how it was (and is) variously understood by listeners, composers, and performers. What position are you as the instructor listening from, and from whose position are you inviting your students to listen? Is it yours? Who has listened to this music before you? And how does meaning change depending on who is listening? If you don’t or can’t historicize the forms of listening into which you want to train your students, then you must be able to articulate why you are requiring them to listen in this way.

There is listening, and then there is the verbal articulation of what one has listened to. If you are making students use particular language to articulate their in-class listening, you are automatically excluding other ways of articulating listening. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself—you can’t cover everything. But who is excluded from your method? Make space for students to articulate their listening experiences in their own words, validating their modes of interpretation as well as positing that there are other ways to listen (and that every way of listening can have political implications).


VII. Empower your students to think and speak critically and compassionately about sound.

Why do you want students to take your course? Do you imagine students needing to take transferable skills from your course, especially when most of them will not be music majors? It would be great if you did. But beyond transferable skills, your course must have a goal that exceeds a basic knowledge of a number of cultural practices all understood through a single Western lens. What if students instead left your class with a method (or group of methods) of listening to, describing, and mentally organizing cultural practices and products that can be applied to more than Western or “world” musics?

We posit compassionate listening as one such method, one akin to what anthropologist Lisa Stevenson calls “song.” For Stevenson, song is a way to make common cause with others, a form of care not oriented toward understanding what a person is but rather toward being present with who that person is. She thinks of song as drawing attention to “forms of address that seek the company of an other rather than those that attempt to identify, situate, or render an other intelligible” (Stevenson 2014: 165). What if, along with our students, we listened not only with an empathetic curiosity that invited us to try describing something of what we hear and how it makes us feel? What if we also listened with a compassionate desire to be present with others who have listened to this music before us (and who are listening to it alongside us)?


DC: Why do you want students to take your course? It seems to me that at the very least, you might want them to take some transferable skills from your time together. Especially when most of them probably will not be music majors. But you have to do more than expect students to acquire a basic knowledge of any number of cultural practices all understood through a single Western lens.

What if you and your students could find a way of listening to and describing sonic practices that  could help you interact with more than just “Western” or “world” musics?

We want to suggest compassionate listening as one such method. This method is similar to what anthropologist Lisa Stevenson calls “song.” For Stevenson, song is a way to make common cause with others. It’s a form of care not oriented toward completely understanding what or who a person is, but rather toward being present with who that person is. Song is way of addressing or hailing an other, but not in an attempt to identify them or render them intelligible to you; it’s a form of address that just seeks an other’s company.

So, what if, along with our students, we practiced listening with an empathetic curiosity, one that invites us to try describing something of what we hear and how it makes us feel? What if we listened with a compassionate desire to be present, both with others who have listened to this music before us, and with those who are listening to it alongside us?




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David ChavannesComment