Classical Music Needs Gender Studies – Here’s Why

If I had a dollar for every time I attended a concert featuring music written by women or a workshop on female composers where the presenter said something along the lines of  “I don’t understand why women’s compositions aren’t performed more often, there’s a lot of really great music here!” … I wouldn’t have a lot, but it’d be a pretty decent coffee fund.  To be honest, I’ve never been totally sure whether that’s meant to be a rhetorical question… but it’s one that can actually be addressed by a basic understanding of the sociology of gender.  

I always used to think that because my degrees are in Music Performance and Cultural Anthropology, that put me at a disadvantage in the field of musicology.  I was afraid that without the literal line “M.A. in Musicology” on my resume, I’d never be taken seriously by other musicians.  But over the past year, I’ve actually come to value the perspectives I learned through my anthropology studies even more.  

A flute headjoint on top of a stack of books titled "Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History," "Custom Anthropology," and "Physical Anthropology."

If I had studied musicology, I would never have taken classes in gender studies – let alone had the opportunity to expand on that knowledge with further electives in women’s studies, field experience assisting with research in cross-cultural gender roles, and several years working with youth programs that promote girls’ empowerment.  

Classical Music is Gendered

For a long time, I felt like talking about gender biases was taboo in the classical music community – my college professors repeatedly tried to steer me in the direction of a Master’s in Music Performance or Ethnomusicology, and seemed to take it for granted that if I was interested in classical music as an art form, I agreed with all the values of the institution too.  The thing is though, I don’t come from a musical family.  And in looking at my surroundings from an outside perspective, some of the practices others seemed to accept as normal just didn’t add up.  

Tubes of wood or metal, and ink on a piece of paper?  Inanimate objects.  But the people playing them and the ways they use that music to communicate with each other?  Those have gender.  Concerts and rehearsals are social occasions, even if we show up to work, not to socialize – and even chamber ensemble rehearsals are gatherings of at least a few people.  So unless we take an honest look at the social environment around music-making, we’re always gonna fall short of the mark.  

The State of the Union

Bar graph titled "Women in U.S. Orchestras" showing flute sections are made up of 68% women, while women only make up 37% of orchestras overall.  Data is from a 2014 study on gender representation in 20 top U.S. orchestras by Suby Raman.

Take a look at these statistics from Suby Raman’s 2014 study of gender representation in 20 top U.S. orchestras.  Notice how the gender demographics in the flute section are almost opposite of the overall balance of the ensemble?  This is where we end up with a huge disconnect – a masculine-as-the-default education simply can’t meet all the needs of a majority of flute students.  

I know this is a tough subject, but we can’t prepare students to effectively navigate the classical music institution without acknowledging our current reality and being honest about its shortcomings.  It’s also a matter of personal safety – both physical & psychological.  Unfortunately, there are still many individuals who abuse the stratified power dynamic – so our students need to learn how to set personal boundaries, make healthy choices, and advocate for themselves.  

For many young musicians, lessons on their instruments are the only time they get to work one-on-one with a mentor.  This is such a valuable opportunity to teach students the life skills they’ll need to navigate the musical world after graduation – but that opportunity is lost if we blindly buy into (and perpetuate) our inherited culture of conformity.  

In 1995, sociologists Allmendinger & Hackman did a study on the inclusion of women in symphony orchestras from four Western nations.  They found that when women moved from being a token minority to between 10-40% of ensemble members, that’s when they were both the least satisfied with the social environment of their ensemble but also received the most hostility from people in the majority demographic – predominantly white, cishet men.  

“Together, these processes result in tightened identity group boundaries for both genders, increased cross-group stereotyping and conflict, less social support across gender boundaries, and heightened personal tension for everyone.”

Allmendinger and Hackman, 453
Bell curve graph based on data from Suby Raman's 2014 study, showing that 68% of U.S. orchestras are made up of 40% or less of women.

Let’s take a closer look at the representation of women in Suby Raman’s study.  While the average is 37.25%, the orchestras surveyed employed between 31-53% women.  From this data, we can extrapolate that about 68% of U.S. professional orchestras are made up of less than 40% women.  Even though Allmendinger & Hackman’s research took place almost 30 years ago, their findings still describe where a majority of orchestras are at right now. 

Women musicians need all the support we can get. But the good news is, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we just need to open the door for an interdisciplinary approach to music education.    

What is Feminist History?

I try to avoid the word “feminism” in my writing because there are so many different definitions – and on top of that, many socio-cultural associations that come from historical feminist movements – so it’s hard to predict how a direct reference will be perceived by some readers.  If you see the word “feminist” on my blog, I’m usually referring to feminist history as an academic framework as opposed to referencing any particular social movement. 

Feminist history is an analysis of women’s perspectives on history that are often overlooked, and their ways of participating in & influencing historical events.  But not just women – it also opens the door towards incorporating alternative points of view from other minority groups.  By contrast, women’s history looks at what happened and when– individuals, groups, women’s rights, and the roles they have played in historical events.  (Whereas feminist history is an analysis that explores why and centers women’s points of view).  This is also not to be confused with the history of feminism, which is the history of the feminist movement, or feminist aesthetics that can be expressed through the compositional structure of classical music & explored through music theory. 

When we look at the lives of women, especially from historical times, their lives were structured differently than men’s and they had access to different types of resources.  So without looking at the social context of their unique situations, we’re flattening part of their experiences and ignoring life experiences that other women may resonate with or could learn valuable lessons from.  In order to have a more holistic approach to music history, the inclusion of feminist history is absolutely essential.  

In The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Amy Wharton talks about the “add women and stir” method of adding women’s history into university curricula in the 1970s.  She goes on to discuss how simply adding women to the syllabi wasn’t enough, and incorporating women’s studies into the social sciences ultimately involved shifting the perspective of the whole field of sociology. 

I’ve attended many concerts over the past several years where it felt like music by women composers was treated almost like a separate genre, added to the program as a novelty item with little critical thinking about how that actually reinforces the idea that female composers were exceptions to the rule.  “Add women and stir” is where the field of classical music is right now – and we’re at least a good 50 years behind. 

Finding a Road Map

Understanding social science frameworks is all fine & good, but how do they help us navigate daily life??  Think about the many practice coaches, performance coaches, and life coaches of various specialties who offer services for musicians.  There’s a lot of people out there doing great work that is super helpful for a lot of people.  And that work really is important – I would have LOVED to learn about injury prevention and how to have a healthy relationship with practicing & auditioning when I was in college!

But here’s the thing:  they’re teaching you daily strategies to implement on an individual level that help combat the effects of larger systemic problems.  In order to make long-term, lasting change as a community, we need a road map for the larger area – and that’s where social science comes in.  We can’t just keep repeating the same things and expect different results – or, in this case, asking the same questions without taking action when they clearly won’t solve themselves. 

Moving Forward

Blue text on a white background that reads: "Supporting women in classical music isn't just about who or what is on your program.  It's about taking action to unpack your preconceptions about what constitutes "proper" classical music, and establishing equitable policies that address the unique challenges of female musicians to support & amplify their voices."

Promoting women in classical music isn’t ultimately about whose name is on the program – that’s only scratching the surface.  It can even be done well-meaningly, but still in a way that treats women’s compositions as exceptions.  What being inclusive of female musicians really involves is understanding and confronting our biases, making room for other perspectives, and amplifying more diverse voices.  

I’ve never really identified as a strong feminist, and only stumbled upon feminist musicology when I accidentally forgot to write an essay for a gender studies class required for my anthropology degree.  I was learning the Chaminade Concertino at the time, and BS-ed a gendered analysis of performance practices of that piece based on a few pages of notes I had on its backstory.  

But even though I initially came across this field by accident, it’s something I’ve kept circling back to over the past decade.  The flute may be a “girly” instrument today, but that stereotype only became normalized in the decades following World War II.  And a lot of our teaching materials (especially historical ones) don’t actually align with a female perspective.  I’m working on developing resources that take a deep dive into women-centered traditions in instrumental music because awareness is only a start – and there’s still a lot of work to be done.  ♡

Additional Resources

If you’d like to find out more about feminist musicology or the current gender demographics in the field of Western classical music, these resources are a great place to start.  

This article has a great explanation about the field of feminist musicology, especially in relation to traditional musicology practices and areas of study.  It isn’t too heavy on the academic jargon, and it’s relatively short.  If you’re new to feminist musicology, start here.  

Here’s the link for the 1995 study I referenced, if you’re curious about the full results and/or methodology.  I’ve seen this used many times as a case study in sociology classes, since it has interesting implications for women in male-dominated fields across the entire workforce.  

In this blog post, I share a few books on my current to-be-read list.  If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the intersection of gender studies and music history, check these out next!


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