Female Presence In Music Composition Cultural Studies Essay

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Does the lack of critique writing around female composers suggest their presence in the music world was/is invisible, non-existent or considered insignificant against a male dominated art form? This question will be addressed using John Shepherd's discussion on music and male hegemony, Lucy Green's investigations of female composers and Theodor Adorno's essay 'On Popular Music'.

Shepherd, J. (1991) 'Music and Male Hegemony'. In Music as Sound Text. London: Polity

John Shepherd (1991) investigates the theories behind the concept of the male hegemony and what impact the male hegemony has on music. He suggests that the media influences the organization of a society, impacting on how and what people think. These opinions are formed by 'educated men' in order to firmly establish and widen their political power. He states that without understanding the gender relations it is not possible to fully understand how music communicates. Mc Robbies (1980, cited in Shepherd (1991): p. 153) pointed out that the scholars do not write about women in music.

Shepherd (1991) explores the connection between cultural reproduction and biological reproduction in the context of contemporary capitalist societies. Dinnerstein (1976, cited in Shepherd, p.154) argued that the children's first experience with this world is comfort and reassurance coming from a woman as a mother and that a grown up man experiences certain insecurity, as he loses contact to this source of life. Therefore Dinnerstein suggests that as a result of this process men tend to control women. Men also cannot deny completely the need for relational and emotional, which they tend to associate to women.

Shepherd (1991) argues that a men's world is visual and that

"the visual stress on controlling and structuring the public world has had certain consequences for the development both of 'classical' and 'popular' musics. These consequences can best be approached by understanding first that the very fact of music, based as it is on the physical phenomenon of sound, constitutes a serious threat to the visually mediated hegemony of scribal elites." Shepherd (1991, p. 159)

As a response to this threat, men have found the way to control music by notating the pitch and the rhythm in order to mute the timbre. (Wishart, 1977a cited in Shepherd 1991, p. 160) Shepherd also investigates the connection between timbre and gender, pointing out that classical music requires using a precise pure timbre in order to notate it precisely and thus to have visual power over it. However, popular music uses 'dirty' or 'un-pure' timbres.

Green, L., 1997, 'Music, Gender, Education', Cambridge University Press (chapter!!)

Lucy Green (1997) brings evidence and examples of female composers throughout the history of music. There is evidence of women composing in the antiquity as well as the nuns composing in the convents during the Middle Ages. However, other than few privileged nuns, women did not have access to training in music composition following the arrival of polyphony which became a domain of the male clerics. At the end of the sixteenth century women had begun to publish their music. The most significant female composer of the seventeenth century was a nun, Isabella Leonarda (1620 - 1704), who wrote and published more than two hundred compositions. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century women continued to compose solo vocal music and some of them wrote instrumental chamber music. Some women started to write large-scale instrumental, choral and operatic compositions, e.g., Fanny Hensel (1805 - 47) and Clara Schumann (1819 - 96). In the late nineteenth century there were known women singers and piano players studying at conservatories but absent from composition classes.

Green (1997) suggests that some of the reasons behind an argument that female composers seem non-existent or insignificant in history are that they were very often excluded from music education. Green also argued that music composition that requires knowledge of the technology of voices and instruments 'implies a masculine delineation of mind which conflicts with patriarchal constructions of femininity'. (Green 1997, p. 93) Furthermore some writers openly denied a woman's capability to write music while others argued that women can perform but not compose (Green 1997, p. 97).

In jazz music, female pianists, who were also composers and arrangers, played with male bands because they were educated in music theory as a part of the middle-class tradition. They also had notational skills that early male jazz musicians lacked. Ironically, women were welcome in some compositional work due to their knowledge of notation. Green (1997)

As for popular music, there is an interesting link between women in the sixteenth century writing solo vocal music and performing their songs and women singer-songwriters in popular music, such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Annie Lennox. These composers experienced less discrimination than any other female composers in history. Green (1997)

Adorno, T. (1941) 'On Popular Music'. In Frith, S. (ed) On Record. London: Routledge

According to Green's studies (1997), it can be suggested that popular music since its rise in the twentieth century has offered more equal opportunities for female composers than in any other time throughout the history of classical music. However, Theodor Adorno (1941) criticizes popular music as something pre-digested and standardized in musical form. In popular music the whole is pre-given and can be anticipated. In serious music, the whole is important. The structure of the composition is built upon the development of the particular themes in each movement. In order to understand the whole composition, the listener should follow the entire piece from its exposition. On the other hand, in popular music, the beginning of the chorus can be substituted by the beginning of any other chorus. The structure of the compositions of classical music is highly organised which does not allow the details in the composition to be substituted. This does not apply in popular music. Adorno (1941) also discusses pseudo-individualization as a means to hide standardization. An example of pseudo-individualisation is improvisations in jazz music which have actually become normalised.

Adorno (1941) suggests that popular music is music for the masses and does not require attention or concentration but passive reception. A popular music listener is looking for some kind of a distraction from reality. The promoters of cheap commercialised entertainment claim that they give people music they want. This ideology serves commercial purposes well.

Adorno (1941) discusses two socio-psychological types of a listener: the "rhythmically obedient" and the "emotional". "Rhythmically obedient" listeners are found among young people with no specific political orientation, although they can be influenced by authoritarian collectivism. They follow the beat and rhythmical patterns and do not want to be disturbed. Adorno now links the "emotional" type of listener to a movie spectator and explains it by the example of the 'poor' shop girl who wishes to identify herself with an actress. He comments that "wish fulfilment is considered the guiding principle in the social psychology of moving pictures and similarly in the pleasure obtained from emotional, erotic music" Adorno (1941, p. 265, 266 )

It can be concluded that as women continued to compose in the twentieth century, they experienced less discrimination than women in the previous centuries. However, contemporary female composers are still in a minority and they still experience forms of discrimination (Green, 1997). As for the popular music, Roy Shuker (1994) claims that Adorno was criticizing popular music comparing it only to jazz forms, not taking into account the rise of rock 'n' roll in the early 1950s. As a result of this, Adorno's views were questioned by later analysts.