From My Correspondence: Is Western Music White Supremacist? A Christian Response

by Dec 11, 2020Culture, Theology, Worldview6 comments

This video on “white supremacy” in Western music theory recently got some attention from intelligent friends and acquaintances. It claims that Western music theory is racist—white supremacist, to be precise—for teaching only the musical style of 18th century European males. But don’t roll your eyes: the guys making these claims are not hacks; they both know far more about Western music theory than I will ever know. They’re brilliant, and it’s fun to listen to them display their brilliance. They really know Western music.

But I don’t think I have to know music theory as well as they do to argue that they are wrong to call the Western music education system racist merely for perpetuating itself as a tradition.

I think the viewpoint I and the BJU Press team I was part of for our book, Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption, answers the explosive charge of “white supremacy” in Western music theory quite well: different cultures see different elements of—have different angles on—the one beauty of God, a beauty he invested in his creation. It isn’t white supremacy to accept the cultural tradition handed to you, to dig deep into it, and to work to expand and continue and then hand on that tradition. As Stanley Fish says in an essay I reread every few years, every one of us is, in reality, a uniculturalist. All the same, we don’t have to be triumphalistic about the Western classical tradition: we can see Creation, Fall, and Redemption in our own tradition; we can see these forces—more dimly because we don’t know those other traditions as well—in other musics around the world.

Where I think I’d like to go that the main presenter doesn’t go in the video is that Bach really is better in some important ways than the primitive tribal chants and dances (of any tribe, no matter their color or locale) that he talks about. Bach has discovered more of the latent power of creation to create musical beauty than these tribal people have. He has lived out the Cultural Mandate by subduing more of the world, by taking more dominion. And the resulting beauty really is “better” than that imagined tribal dance he discusses. The latter may, if given time (and Christian cultural influence?), become something more refined, truly great, amazingly beautiful. But it isn’t there yet. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad, although it may be quite literally used in demon worship and therefore be mostly bad!

Where it gets more difficult to offer assessments is between highly refined music of our culture and highly refined music of another culture, such as those Indian ragas discussed so intelligently in the video. I don’t live in that culture; I don’t understand the meaning of that music either conventionally (within that culture) or intrinsically (according to rules, the created aesthetic structures, apparently built into all humanity). So I can’t compare the two. Ragas feel meandering to me; they don’t have the push and pull of tension and release that I love and know in Western music. Again, I’m mostly ignorant. But this doesn’t make me a white supremacist. It makes me a denizen of my culture and not theirs, just like they’re denizens of theirs, not mine.

If this video taught me something, it’s not about the white supremacy hidden in music theory textbooks; it’s about the amazing creativity and beauty of God, who gave different insights to different cultures. By all means, now that communication and travel technologies have shrunk the world, Western music theory programs ought to offer students the opportunity to study other music theories beyond the Western—while not neglecting to pass on our rich cultural tradition. But we’ve had that field already; it’s called ethnomusicology. If the practical upshot of videos like this is to make more Western music students learn more about other world musics—excellent! If the practical upshot is, as I think it is more likely to be, that they feel embarrassed to love and know and continue their own tradition, this will be bad. We Westerners don’t need to be embarrassed about our artistic progress over the centuries; we need to be grateful to the God who created us to create.

An anonymous friend whose identity you can probably figure out if you know me shared the thoughts below with me in response to the meandering thoughts above; he gave me permission to post his thoughts.

I had the same sinking feeling watching this that I get when someone sends me right wing videos about how our educational system has been overrun by Marxists. I just don’t know (and can’t easily know) how much of what he’s telling me is true. For instance, he features a particular expert who has come under criticism for saying that Western musical education is white supremacist. But was the critique he received really limited to a University of Texas professor who sloppily cited Wikipedia, or is that just his framing? He presents Ben Shapiro as a counterpoint, but that just seems like low-hanging fruit. Is there are more careful argument that he really should have interacted with? More substantially, has he accurately portrayed Schenker’s views, and has he accurately identified an ideological bent to Schenker’s theories?

I have to register my agreement with careful conservative thinkers and centrist liberals who argue that CRT and “ant-racism” is actually racially polarizing and thus counter-productive. White supremacy is our culture’s great sin—and when it gets redefined to include people who are clearly opposed to white supremacy, those people feel like they’re being tricked or trapped. What postmodernism says everyone does with language is actually being done: a power play is being made. We get resentment and polarization as the practical response, which is precisely what our culture doesn’t need right now. That, and the these practical problems arise because the approach is intellectually flawed at its foundation, as Oliver O’Donovan noted back in the 1990s:

Ethics, on the one hand, is deprived of authority when it is made to serve merely a reactive critical function. It degenerates into little more than a rhetoric of scepticism. We can see this from the characteristic dilemma which besets the favourite causes of liberal idealism: how to claim moral licence for themselves without licensing their opposites. Each movement of social criticism draws in its train a counter-movement, and there is no ground in logic for paying more or less respect to the one than to the other. So Black consciousness, for example, requires (logically), invites (historically) and licenses (morally) a movement of White consciousness; feminism entails male chauvinism; homophilia entails homophobia, and so on. Our intuitions tells us that some of these movements are worth more than their shadows, but our intuitions are allowed no way of justifying themselves, and we are compelled, by the logic of historical dialectic, to give away whatever it is we think we may have gained.

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 10.

So, I think the video would have been more persuasive, and more interesting, if the approach had been: This is what we’ve all been taught in our music theory classes about Western classical music. But there are other forms of music. Ancient Greek, traditional African, classical Indian, etc. Let’s look at those styles of music in a comparative musicology class. (I’d be surprised if such classes didn’t already exist.) This goes along with your final paragraph.

One of the strengths of conservatism (to be distinguished from the current political right wing) is the value it places on cultivating and developing a tradition. So training western musicians in the Western classical tradition isn’t something to be overturned, even if it is something to be expanded. Also, I’d hate to limit classical music to being just a “white” thing. I think of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan.

Related to this, I agree that Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption gives a more nuanced approach to the idea of music as a universal language (which the video denies). The book argues that there are creational norms that underlie all music, but that different cultures will develop these norms in their own distinct ways. So there is something both universal and culturally specific at the same time. What is more, people from different cultures can come to appreciate the contributions of people from various cultures and even allow their insights to enrich their cultural traditions.

I suppose one reason this was getting shared around in our conservative Christian circles is that some would see the argument of the video as ammunition in the worship wars. If your church sticks with Western-based musical styles like hymns and doesn’t allow for things like rap, then you’re supporting structural racism, etc. (Of course, if a largely white church starts to incorporate other ethnic styles, is it then guilty of cultural appropriation?) But even if I granted, as the worldview is happy to do, that there are a variety of creationally good culturally specific musics, that doesn’t mean that all music or musical styles are equally good. We still have to factor in how the Fall has distorted music of all cultures. And we still have different levels of development within different cultures. So while it would be a mistake to equate Western musical theory with creational norms for music (Church musician Peter Davis talk about the different way the ancient music that would have been used by the early church was structured in comparison with our classical tradition), it would also be a mistake to deny that there are creational norms by which music can be evaluated. We just may need to do more work in comparative musicology as we seek to discern those.

I replied to this anonymous friend:

The only thing I might add is an answer to your first question: who is this young guy, anyway? Reality is that in this attention economy, he’s more of a somebody on music theory than many tenured professors out there, because he has put together a large YouTube audience. He really does seem to know what he’s talking about; he’s well educated in the Western tradition. I have watched a few of his other videos, and he gave no evidence of being prone to tossing out simplistic barbs. But I think that is what he’s ultimately done here. =( It’s just so easy—easy culture points—to equate loving and promoting your own cultural traditions with demeaning others’.

I prefer the feisty lesbian feminist Camille Paglia’s pragmatic approach to this question: the reason we give more attention to Bach than to an obscure female African composer whose works have never been performed outside of her own group in Kampala is not necessarily that Bach is any better (although I’d add that we ought to be able to make that determination if we’re not aesthetic relativists) but that Bach has, clearly, been more influential. A tradition is a series of influences. It’s a group of people who have been influenced by prior practitioners in the tradition and who have then become influencers themselves. Someone who doesn’t get noticed or used or cited is a dead end in the tradition.

I’d add, too, that I expect there to be a relationship between quality and influence. Some music lasts and lasts—I think of “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” a 16th-century composition—because it taps into something God put in us. Deep structures.

Wrap-up for the tiny portion of my blog audience who might have read this far:

Christians are sensitive to charges of racism and cultural imperialism because we’ve been guilty of these sins in the past. Perhaps we are today in various ways we don’t see: depravity is total, it affects every bit of us, and one of its effects is blindness. We’re sensitive because we know we can sin without full awareness; depravity is like that. We’re also sensitive because so much cultural power resides on the side of those who commonly levy charges of racism at their opponents. We feel like—I feel like—we’re constantly having to say, “No, we’re not racist!”

In order to answer subtle challenges like the one in the YouTube video this whole exchange has been about, we have to have some kind of theological understanding of culture. The theological understanding I was handed as a teen in my KJV-Only church was deficient: “the culture” was always something bad—as if we didn’t have a culture at our church, as if we weren’t nostalgic for a very specific past American culture to which we sang hymns of praise every July. No, culture is fundamentally good—and fallen, and capable of being put under Christ’s feet. Culture is a God-given gift. And that means your culture is worth defending and promoting and pruning. If chauvinism and arrogance are part of Western music, then YouTube videos like this one should teach us to prune them off the tradition.

But Christians exult in God’s gifts in creation. We can’t be made to feel guilty for enjoying them. It is not racist for Westerners to maintain and pass on the beautiful, often Christ-inspired tradition of Western music.

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  1. Robert Vaughn

    I don’t have time to look at the video right now. But I looked at the intro and think he may go wrong in the very beginning. Whilst there is a predominant western harmonic (and European) music theory that (in my opinion) men like Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings were successful in making the foundation of public musical education, there is more than one western harmonic music theory. I reside, participate, and compose in a musical world (shape note, Sacred Harp) that mostly rejects the predominant European style to follow early American composers like William Billings. I am not a trained musician in the sense of higher education, so I may not be able to explain it to suit those who are. We tend to break many of the standard rules of composition, and are quite happy to do so. Maybe this comment is not exactly on point, since I didn’t listen to the video, but perhaps it will add something to the conversation.

    • Mark Ward

      Absolutely fascinating. But isn’t shape note singing a folk byway off the larger Western classical tradition? I’m not well schooled here myself.

  2. Robert Vaughn

    Not sure of the proper response to your question (or even if I understand it exactly). First, “shape note” is often a shorthand used to refer to a musical tradition that generally spread in the US through singing school itinerancy in churches and communities rather than through public education. Because of that, it is often considered folk music, I think. Technically, shape note really is just a way of reading music through the mnemonic device in which each note in the scale has a distinct shape (as opposed to all being round). Sacred Harp is “a slice of the pie” within the shape note community. It is “western,” but primarily with English roots rather than European (which seems to be the primary background of classical music and America’s genteel music tradition). The main thing I was thinking about in relation to the video is our different ideas about music theory, particularly harmony, from the predominant “western” musical tradition. We throw out some of the ideas about voice progression, close harmony, voice crossing, parallel fifths, and so on. That is why I mentioned that there is not a universal western music tradition. I suppose there certainly is a primary one. Without listening to the whole video, I am not sure how apropos my comments are. Nevertheless, I think the general premise that western music is racist, white supremacist, or whatever, is generally incorrect.

    • Mark Ward

      I do know what the shape note tradition is; one of my churches at some point had shape notes at least on some hymns in our hymnal. But I’ve never understood it well.

  3. Jubal Early


    • Mark Ward

      Test back.