Creating a More Inclusive Music Theory Repertoire: What We Learned

Betsy Marvin (Eastman School of Music) and Jane Clendinning (Florida State University College of Music) are coauthors of The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. In their classrooms they strive to create a diverse music theory curriculum by including pieces by women and people of color. Here they describe the process of incorporating diverse pieces into The Musician’s Guide and the importance of expanding the traditional music theory canon.

Betsy Marvin
Image Credit: Michelle Martorell

As teachers, we know that students come to music study from varied backgrounds. Our aim, from the beginning of our collaboration as authors, has been that all members of our music theory classes should see themselves reflected in the repertoire chosen for study. Toward this end, we have worked hard to represent as many instruments and ensembles as possible in our teaching and writing. This is, in part, because of our own musical upbringings: in addition to both of us growing up playing keyboard instruments and singing in choirs and other choral ensembles, Jane played trumpet and horn in band and orchestra, and Betsy is a trained vocal soloist and organist. We bring our own musical experiences to the table in our classes, and we believe that students will be more motivated to study music that engages their own repertoire. Music theory textbooks, however, have a long tradition of being “piano-centric” in the music they explore: from works composed specifically for the instrument, to four-part harmonic progressions set in piano score, to reductions of larger ensemble works for keyboard. While a piano-centric book and classroom have the advantage of allowing teachers to perform examples for students, they have the disadvantage of making other instrumentalists or singers feel disconnected from the music studied in class. With recordings readily available, the piano is no longer the only way for students to hear a work in class. We want wind and brass players to hear band music and solo repertoire for their instruments, singers to hear songs and choral works, and everyone in the class to hear works for a diversity of instruments and ensembles.

In our recent teaching and research, we have expanded our inclusivity efforts by incorporating more music composed by people of color and by women. We embrace our discipline’s heightened awareness of how curricula built around music composed by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century white European males have systematically excluded wonderful music by other composers and limited the ways that we think about musical structure and analysis. We have discussed with our students the historical and cultural factors that have kept this music out of consideration in many concert halls and classrooms.

The first pieces we included in our texts composed by an African-American musician were two rags by Scott Joplin, whose father was enslaved in North Carolina. Though Joplin achieved some measure of fame in the early 1900s as a ragtime composer, these works eventually fell out of fashion. Some of his larger compositions, including two operas, were either lost or not performed in his lifetime. We know his rags today in part because they were featured in the 1973 film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Because of this popularization, Joplin’s rags are now available in modern editions and recordings, and our students know them and enjoy studying them. Our text makes available new scores and original recordings of music by Black and Hispanic composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Enrique Granados, Fernando Obradors, and Florence Price. We have also expanded study of popular-music genres (such as blues, jazz, rap, and loop-based songs), providing substantive analyses of works by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard), and Dorothy LaBostrie. Our post-tonal unit includes pieces by Asian composers Chen Yi and Toru Takemitsu. This repertoire diversity helps to counteract the perception that all “classical” music originates from a small group of white male geniuses: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on.

Jane Clendinning
Image Credit: Jane Clendinning

Beyond adding works, we also made the decision to remove some works because of their troubling association with racial oppression. In particular, we removed all pieces composed by Stephen Foster, whose songs were commonplace in minstrel shows, with their racially stereotyped stock characters and blackface performers.  These songs achieved enormous popularity in his day, making Foster one of the most famous American composers of the nineteenth century. Over time, however, some of his songs’ lyrics were altered or omitted to eliminate racialized language. These revised versions were even taught to elementary school children as American folk songs, such as “Oh! Susanna.” Recent research has located and published the original lyrics and clarified the extent to which Foster’s songs glorified the Old South, including the practice of slavery. Even after enslaved people were emancipated, the performance traditions associated with these songs degraded and stereotyped Black people. Knowing this context, we cannot use his works in the classroom.

As we updated our text for the new edition, we also made a commitment to feature a work composed by a woman in every single one of our forty chapters. Having made this decision, we set about the challenging work of identifying pieces. This was no easy task, given that centuries of policies and institutions have privileged white males in opportunities for music education, as well as publication and distribution. For women’s compositions that have survived to this day from the Romantic era and earlier, we typically see a record of supportive fathers, brothers, or husbands who advocated for musical education for girls and young women, who encouraged family members to compose, or promoted and published their works. Even so, extant scores by women are often difficult to find in modern editions and may not be recorded. During the many weeks we worked together shaping this edition, we spent countless hours sifting through the public-domain scores available for download from (the International Music Score Library Project) and other sources to identify pieces by women and composers from underrepresented groups that were exemplary both musically and pedagogically. Judging the gender or race of a composer from name alone was a challenge, so our process entailed filtered searches and careful cross-checking of information. At one point, we introduced a musical topic using a passage from the composer Anne Philidor, only to discover later that he was male (we kept the piece nevertheless!). Once composers were identified, we looked through multiple compositions to find pieces that would work well for the concepts under study in a given chapter. Sometimes we sat together at the piano to play or sing through a movement from an online score, only to exclaim in delight when we found a beautiful work previously unknown to us that made a perfect example for one of the chapters.   

The process did not end there, however. Many of these scores were in old editions, with gray or dark ivory backgrounds from aging manuscript paper, some only in parts (no score), others with difficult-to-read print or handwriting, with missing accidentals or figured basses that were unrealized. Even after works were identified, we needed to create modern, accurate editions and commission performances for the book. Look, for example, at this score of a variation set by Josephine Aurnhammer.


Source: International Music Score Library Project (

Anthology score:

Source: The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis Anthology, Fourth Edition

Aurnhammer was Mozart’s contemporary and even performed duo piano works with him. These variations are based on a tune from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Preparing an analysis or a performance from the public-domain score would be a challenge, due to its cramped notation, numerous missing accidentals, and difficult-to-read ledger lines. There was also no commercial recording available. We played through the variations ourselves to identify and resolve trouble spots, and when our performer prepared the work he spotted a few more errors in time for the edits to be made.  For two movements of a violin sonata by Jacquet de la Guerre, we realized the figured bass to make a performing edition (including resolving spots with missing figures or accidentals). Even for more recent scores by Clara Schumann and Ruth Crawford Seeger, we discovered numerous inconsistencies as to accidentals throughout—glaringly obvious when we compared the exposition and recapitulation, or the A and A’ sections, yet unnoticed in previously published scores. These have all been corrected for our anthology.

Preparing a manuscript and editing page proofs can be done safely at home during a pandemic, but we now encountered a troubling problem: making recordings. Our anthology has included recordings for every piece since the first edition. We believe that it is crucial for students to experience the scores they study as sounding music—as works of art, rather than dots on a page. We thus had to identify a way to safely bring performers, recording engineer, and producer (Betsy) together at the Eastman School of Music. Our targeted dates were the first week of December, since most students had left campus for Thanksgiving and did not return afterwards. This meant that the concert halls were empty, and we could perform on stage with masks and social distancing. Faculty and graduate students who were engaged for the recordings had to assert that they had not left town for Thanksgiving, since there was no time for a two-week quarantine upon their return. For safety, we were limited to recording in one-hour blocks, after which the space had to be cleared for thirty minutes for the room aerosols to die down. For works with voice or flute, we were permitted only thirty minutes of recording time before the mandatory room break. This created a jigsaw puzzle of scheduling, but in the end we were able to make beautiful recordings without a single illness!

A key pedagogical feature of our text is the concept of spiral learning with respect to music literature. This design means that we repeatedly visit a core group of compositions that we visit repeatedly across the curriculum, adding new topics and layers of understanding each time we return. For example, Scott Joplin’s “Pine Apple Rag” appears in our discussion of whole and half steps, syncopation, embellishing tones, secondary dominants, modulation, form, and modal mixture. As another example, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Violin and Continuo illustrates identification of key, 6/4 chord types, how to read figures, figured bass realization, and parallel 6/3 chords. You can listen to these two pieces in performances by Eastman School of Music faculty here at the link below. It is our hope that these compositions “spiral” throughout the text, they become as familiar as old friends, and that the increased inclusion of music by BIPOC and women composers in this core repertoire signals to students that these pieces are worthy entries into the canon of music literature for study.

One of the joys of making a new edition is the opportunity to explore new repertoire to share with our students. Our search for new pieces by composers who have previously been underrepresented in music theory classes has been quite a journey, but it has been a rewarding one. We hope that our work will contribute to diversifying our field and that inclusion of these compositions will enable all of our students to see something of themselves in our classes.

To hear recordings for pieces discussed in this post, please visit the playlist at 

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