Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

Transcending the Pedagogical Patriarchy: Practical Suggestions for Including Examples from Women Composers in the Music Theory Curriculum

Cara Stroud, Michigan State University

Many great music theory pedagogues model inclusive curricula with course repertoire from multiple genres, genders, and ethnicities—I wish I could count myself among them. I also suspect that my own practices, such as continuing to use the same examples I first discovered in graduate school and repeatedly reaching for the same reliable sources for examples, are common to many of us in the discipline. Most music theory instructors facing daily constraints on their time often find themselves using the same small group of examples year after year. Therein lies the problem: well-meaning instructors end up with curricular choices that run counter to their values. Additionally, recent developments in American culture (e.g., the #MeToo movement) and in music studies (e.g., the CMS Manifesto) have urgently prompted us to examine the system of beliefs we uphold along with our curricula.

As I assembled teaching materials for the graduate and undergraduate theory courses that I taught in the 2017–18 academic year, I realized that my own lesson archives were lacking in examples from under-represented groups, such as women composers. How is it that, in 2018, I was not already including many diverse examples in my curriculum? The daily decisions I made to save myself time and effort resulted in my furthering long-standing cultural imbalances; this results in the “pedagogical patriarchy” to which I refer in my title. I was surprised to note that my choices were so contrary to my values. I want all of my students, especially those who are members of under-represented groups, to feel welcome as a member of the community of musicians, and I feel it is valuable for all of my students to see and hear music from a diverse range of composers. Lamb (1987) and Green (1997) explore many facets of gender in music education, including the vital importance of presenting work by women composers for all students. Examples from women composers provide role models for women students, and they also encourage all students to expand their concepts of femininity and masculinity.

In this essay, I discuss some of the issues I faced when trying to broaden a course repertoire and some of the solutions I found along the way. Through a series of small but rewarding steps in our yearly curricular tweaks, we can begin to effect more substantial changes in our classroom and our discipline.

The problems faced in furthering the visibility of many under-represented groups can often be similar to those problems in incorporating music by women. To focus this investigation, I limit my discussion to the incorporation of music by women composers, but I believe these techniques will support instructors who want to find examples of music composed by members of many under-represented groups.

Four recurring issues emerged in my efforts to broaden my own teaching repertoire: 1) canonical thinking, 2) accessibility, 3) tokenism, and 4) problems posed by the gender imbalance of particular topics and time periods. All of these problems are compounded by the critical lack of time that we all face, which will become apparent in the ensuing discussion. The suggestions below are intended to reduce the amount of time necessary for other instructors to embark on a similar curricular modification. I have also provided a list of resources for finding teaching examples for the written music theory classroom elsewhere in this volume.

Issue #1: Canonical Thinking

This is the tendency to go back to the same limited set of classic teaching examples from year to year, saving time and effort. At first glance, we might overlook a new example if it doesn’t seem to illustrate a concept quite as well as the examples we’ve used in the past.

Investing the time to replace go-to examples might seem like a daunting task, but here are two ways to approach this task with a positive mindset:

  • Start small by including two works by women composers in a semester-long course.
  • Reframe content adjustments as a way to refresh your curriculum, to reach a new generation of students, and as an opportunity to work with ongoing disciplinary changes.

Including examples of varying complexity can better prepare students for grappling with the music they encounter outside the safe confines of the classroom. Following the publication of the CMS Manifesto, many educators in music theory are already concerned about updating the breadth and relevance of their curriculum. Now is the time to move beyond canonical thinking and embrace examples that would not have easily fit in with the classic teaching templates of the past. Including at least two works by women composers in a single course is a starting point: truly counteracting the effects of ingrained cultural hierarchies takes time.

Issue #2: Accessibility

Accessibility problems are closely intertwined with the problems created by canonical thinking, both of which are undergirded by a lack of time. The sheer volume of all currently available examples (of which examples from women composers are a slowly growing subset) can be overwhelming, paradoxically leading us to retreat to the same limited group—excerpts from classic textbooks and anthologies, with few works from women composers.

I recommend the following resources to easily find music theory examples composed by women:

  • Visit MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com for a well-organized database of PDF scores.
  • Utilize the attached list of anthologies and online resources to easily locate works composed by women.

The attached list of anthologies and online resources is not intended to be comprehensive—I have intentionally limited it to resources that I found helpful in my own teaching preparation. The sources are also geared toward the undergraduate written music theory curriculum, but will likely prove useful in other contexts as well. MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com, supervised by Molly Murdock, conveniently categorizes examples by teaching topics, with good coverage of many conventional topics common to the freshman and sophomore core curriculum. I know of no other resource that is so convenient for the time-crunched instructor.

Issue #3: Tokenism

Including only one example from a woman composer in an entire course can result in “tokenism.” Students can take away a limited view of women composers as a group with only a single example.

Avoiding tokenism is a crucial consideration when striving for increased visibility of women composers. These two strategies will help instructors to avoid tokenism:

  • Each semester, include at least two pieces by women composers that are distributed across the course.
  • Facilitate a class discussion about under-represented groups in music.

I directly confronted this issue in my Spring 2018 sophomore class. In order to save time, I quickly decided to use Emilie Mayer’s Notturno, op. 48, published in 1883, as a sonata form example. Together with Clara Schumann’s Scherzo No. 2, op. 14, a large ternary form, I felt like the Mayer and C. Schumann examples would be good additions to my curriculum. The Mayer Notturno is a sonata without development, and uses some chromatic sequence techniques and harmonic motion by thirds that we had not discussed by the point in the semester when the students are first introduced to sonata form. I wanted to avoid the students having the perception that sonatas composed by women were somehow deviant, rebelling against norms established by men composers. So I kept postponing the Mayer Notturno until after we had discussed chromatic sequences, or until after we had discussed harmonic motion by series of major thirds . . . then it was the end of the semester, we had not looked at the Mayer, and it was time to review more typical examples of sonata forms, all of which were composed by men. By delaying the Mayer, I had hoped to avoid one aspect of tokenism, in which studying the Mayer Notturno as an atypical sonata form would risk students coming away with a false impression about women composers as a group. Unfortunately, this choice resulted in another aspect of tokenism when we ended up not studying the Mayer Notturno at all. Clara Schumann’s Scherzo No. 2, Op. 14, was the only work composed by a woman that we studied in class all semester. Next Spring, I will make sure to include the first movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Sonata in G Minor as a sonata form example, and an excerpt from the Mayer Notturno will be included as an example of harmonic motion by thirds. If students are only exposed to a limited selection of women composers who happen to be, for example, less progressive harmonically or formally, they can come away with a mistaken conclusion. (Such as: “Women composers are more conservative than men composers.”)

In order to avoid tokenism, include at least two compositions from women composers in a semester-long curriculum, and ensure that these compositions are not grouped entirely together. Consider the proportion of music by men that all students are exposed to in their musical lives: two pieces in one course is not necessarily enough to compensate. Additionally, compositions by women should be somewhat distributed throughout the semester. Grouping all work by women together and placing it at the end of the semester can also lead to mistaken conclusions. Perhaps the best way to avoid students’ mistaken conclusions from limited data, and what I wish I had done for my sophomores last semester, is to include a brief discussion of the cultural forces surrounding composers’ work. Kira Thurman and Kristen Turner (2017) present helpful suggestions for approaching diverse repertoire from a cultural perspective.

Issue #4: Gender Imbalances in Topics and Time Periods

It seems to be easier to teach using examples by women composers for some topics (e.g., fundamentals, post-tonal music, etc.) than it is for others.

Following are additional methods of increasing the visibility of women in music theory classes beyond the use of examples for analysis:

  • Make an effort to include examples performed and/or conducted by women.
  • If your course includes aural repertoire quizzes or tests, these can include women composers.

Fundamentals topics such as scales and triads easily accommodate the music composed by a range of women from many time periods, as do topics such as sequences and modulation. By contrast, I had such a difficult time finding a pedagogically useful sonata example composed by a woman that I ended up not including any sonata examples composed by women. Similarly, the very specific advanced chromatic techniques (chromatic sequences, the omnibus progression, etc.) often found in the final semester(s) of the undergraduate core curriculum can also present obstacles to finding examples from women. Some topics are a significant part of the mainstream theory core and also pose increased challenges to finding diverse examples. What do we do when locating a typical late-18th-/early-19th-century sonata form composed by a woman seems to be an impossible task?

Being aware of which topics in your curriculum are time-period specific (e.g., sonata form) and which topics are less situated in a single historical time-period (e.g., major mode) can make it easier to identify possible topics which can be taught with musical examples composed by women, and which topics will require additional means of increasing visibility. Citron (1993) sheds light on the societal forces underlying unequal historical representation of women composers and explores the cultural developments that have increased availability of music composed by women in recent years. My resources list contains some helpful sources for exploring historical and contemporary music composed by women, so the time-period of the course or topic need not be excessively limiting.

When faced with a topic or a historical time period that poses particular challenges for representing music composed by women, there are other ways to represent diversity than through musical examples. These topics or time periods can be opportunities to showcase women conductors and performers. “Drop-the-needle” style quizzes or listening journals can also provide an opportunity for exposing students to work from women composers. Consider adding women composers to the list of required listening.

As stated at the outset of this essay, my goal has not been to provide a model of an inclusive curriculum, but to discuss the common obstacles that many of us face when striving to include diverse examples in the theory classroom. One final practical suggestion: instructors are encouraged to share good teaching examples with colleagues across institutions. This could happen through a shared, widely available online document, and it could also happen by contributing additional examples to MusicTheoryExamplesByWomen.com.

Recognizing the constraints that we all work within can help us to transcend these barriers. As many of us discuss problems and issues of the contemporary music theory curriculum, this essay is intended to provide practical solutions to problems faced by many instructors. By acknowledging the difficulty of initiating incremental changes, we can begin to make these small adjustments and start to see broader results.


Citron, Marcia J. 1993. Gender and the Musical Canon. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Green, Lucy. 1997. Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lamb, Roberta Kay. 1987. “Including Women Composers in Music Curricula: Development of Creative Strategies for the General Music Class, Grades 5–8.” Educat.D. diss., Teachers College, Columbia University. ProQuest (AAT 8721136)

Lochhead, Judy. 2015. Reconceiving Structure in Contemporary Music: New Tools in Music Theory and Analysis. New York: Routledge.

Parsons, Laurel and Brenda Ravenscroft. 2016. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thurman, Kira and Kristen Turner. 2017. “Six Easy Ways to Immediately Address Racial and Gender Diversity in Your Music History Classroom.” Musicology Now (blog), July 17. Accessed May 25, 2018.

This work is copyright ⓒ2018 Cara Stroud and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.