[Position Paper]

Enhancing Social Connectedness or Stabilising Oppression: Is Participation in Music Free From Gendered Subjectivity?

By Elly Scrine


Connectedness and inclusivity are components of a healthy community. However, intersectional feminist thought poses that exclusion and marginalisation are enacted through gendered power structures and affect the lives of individuals and communities around the world on multiple intersecting axes, including gender, sexuality, race, class, and disability (Crenshaw, 1989). Critical analysis of music in its high art form, from traditional music education and musical narratives, to jazz, to what instrument one chooses, highlights a raced, classed gender order, and an ongoing cultural bias that privileges a heteronormative narrative, and highlights the work and importance of men’s contributions (Bradley, 2007; Gould, 2007; Maus, 2011). While community approaches to musical participation may seek to emancipate and transcend moral hierarchies which dictate who can and cannot participate, I contend that these may occur within the context of a deeply entrenched gender order. By focusing only on the essential and universal, or liberating and connecting qualities of music and music therapy for all of humanity, we may sidestep and erase histories of oppression and marginalisation. This article uses a critical lens to explore the literature for contexts in music that preserve a male dominated gender order, and seeks to question and problematise the notion that music provides equal opportunity for social connectedness.

Keywords: feminism, gender, anti-oppressive practice, community music therapy

Editorial note: In 2016, Voices hosted a special edition to accompany the launch of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the topic of "How Music Can Change Your Life". Thirteen authors agreed to develop position papers for the MOOC, with two articles being developed to accompany each of the six topics within it. Each author has highlighted the theorists and researchers who have influenced their thinking, and included references to their own research or music practices where appropriate. These papers have been written with a particular audience in mind—that is, the learners who participate in the MOOC, who may not have had previous readings in any of the fields being canvassed. We hope that you find these articles interesting, whether reading as a MOOC learner, a regular VOICES reader, or someone who is discovering VOICES for the first time.


Music is celebrated throughout academic and socio-cultural discourse, from popular to classical music studies, music therapy to ethnomusicology, to the deployment and cherishing of music in people’s personal lives. Music cultures around the world have rested upon rich historical traditions of making music together, fostering multifarious means for socialisation and connectedness. Ansdell (2014) recently reflected upon the Community Music Therapy movement, which originated from shared perspectives between music therapy and community music, to construct a movement that emphasises a participatory approach to musicking and co-musicking. Academic discourse highlights how musical participators may be brought together and enfranchised with equal opportunity, through the deconstruction of high brow and low brow musical art forms, and hence the opportunity for dialogue between minority groups (Ansdell, 2014). Theorists such as Everitt (1997) first suggested that a primary agenda of community music is in the re-creation of community through building non-hierarchical opportunities for musical participation. Higgins (2012) has since described how supporters and advocates of community music have resisted defining the term itself, instead referring only to its influence, disposition and openness to interpretation (p. 3). Higgins’ key perspective and definition around community music focuses primarily on the musical interactions that occur outside of formal institutions. According to Higgins (2012, p. 177), community musicians share an acknowledgment of the value of music in promoting acceptance and understanding, and the importance of prioritising disadvantaged and disenfranchised individuals and groups in this inclusion. But where might our celebration of the potentials of music to promote inclusivity overlook or erase imbalanced allocations of power that are present in musical contexts?

Koza (1994) provided a comprehensive argument regarding the tendency for aesthetic music education to evade history, politics, and context, using post-structural feminism as a framework to problematise the objectivity, essentialism and universality embraced in Bennett Reimer’s, A Philosophy of Music Education (1989). Popular music scholarship was similarly critiqued by Cloonan and Johnson (2002), who contended that in the literature’s prevailing goal to establish popular music as a credible arena of academic study, there remains an absence of alternative discourse around negative impacts of popular music. Cloonan and Johnson (2002) charged music with a capacity to inflame, intimidate, incite violence, or trigger trauma, while Koza (1994) challenged aesthetic music education with the failure to acknowledge deeply entrenched gendered, raced, and classed contexts from which music has stemmed and is deployed. As a universal form of expression, music may in this sense offer an everyday channel through which disempowerment and oppression may be naturalised.

What Does This Look Like in the Every Day?

Before this article delves into an examination of the academic research, I want to touch very briefly on this notion in everyday life. Because this process of naturalisation and normalisation is exemplified across musical contexts, through imbalanced positions of power men hold in representation, creation, ownership, validation, and the presentation of opportunities. And despite a wealth of valuable academic literature on such topics, I contend that male dominance remains unquestioned for some, both within scholarly discourse and more broadly. How many young people attending a popular music festival will take note of how many all male acts there are on a line-up, compared to all female or gender diverse artists? How many instrumentalists or composers will have a position on the fact that it is mostly, if not exclusively, white men who have written the musical works they have studied? Do people consider an instrument such as the electric guitar to contain essential qualities that men hold, to explain why guitar players are mostly male? Based on the small but profound body of feminist scholarship in music and music therapy, stemming from the vast and divergent work of feminist theory, gender studies, and queer theory, I argue here that patriarchal systems of oppression and exclusion are deeply embedded in music discourse. This occurs, most disturbingly, through practices that are adhered to without question, by individuals and communities to whom these systems have been naturalised. Potentially, practitioners and artists who use music to empower and emancipate communities, such as music therapists and community musicians, may perpetuate exclusion and marginalisation through the very medium with which they aim to liberate. The remainder of this article will critically review the literature on music education, jazz, the popular music industry, and music therapy, as four primary musical contexts which may preserve and stabilise gendered subjectivity and wider oppression.

Participation in Music Education

Participation in music commonly occurs for many children in the West through formalised education structures such as early childhood settings and schools. Traditionally music education programs have maintained an aesthetic focus on music appreciation informed by such educator theorists as Bennett Reimer (1989). Reform and alternative conceptions of music education have been led by scholars such as Christopher Small (1998), emphasising the importance of performance and creativity. Deborah Bradley (2007), Julia Koza (1994; 2008), and Elizabeth Gould (2004; 2007; 2011) have provided a profound body of work on how the roots of music education lie in the dominant ruling ideologies of the white European elite class. Their critiques challenge the tendency for music to be valued as “music for music’s sake”, rendering its socio-political context invisible. In her doctoral thesis on dominant paradigms in music education, Hess (2013) argued that music education remains within a neoliberal framework that privileges Western classical music. Small (1998, p. 134) has explored the particular metanarrative based on axes of race and class presented through classical music which has led to its moral construction of real or serious music.

Around a similar time, Koza's (1994) post structural feminist critique elucidated how the traditional philosophy of music education, based on Reimer (1989), problematically embraces assumed universal truths that are linked to imbalanced, Euro-centric power relations. By having music presented to them as a neutral force free from history, politics, and context, music students evade discussions of power and privilege, and furthermore, are taught how to aesthetically appreciate this supposedly neutral force. Koza (1994) challenged the tendency for traditional music appreciation to seek and identify universals, being truths that transcend all humanity to construct a shared essential nature. In reality, Koza (1994) contended, this discourse preserves a classist and sexist inside/outside dichotomy, wherein rationality, objectivity, and the mind are privileged as the inside, and the emotional, subjective, and bodily are devalued. Musical superiority is understood to be white, male, and heterosexual – females and gender non-conforming identities in the school system do not see themselves reflected in any musical genius in history. Where classical music is considered the most serious and high art form of music, women composers and conductors continue to be a rarity (Halstead, 1997), and these male dominated roles are read as superior and elite. In reference to this phenomenon, Small (1998, p. 212) suggested that where students do not exhibit talent or eager interest in classical music, they consider themselves unmusical. Maus (2011) later reflected on how girls and women have historically been valued for their potential to support or serve men in domesticity, mitigating their opportunities to engage in professional musical life other than the role of the singer.

In a seminal text on gender in music education, Lucy Green (1997) reflected on the lack of discursive constructions of women’s identities in music, in that their representation as a homogenous group obscures diversity through an absence of women of different classes, races, sexualities, and religions. One chapter in the text explores the phenomenon of women as occupying the role of the singer, analysed particularly through the phenomenological notion of embodiment. Green (1997, p. 43) theorised that femininity is affirmed and embodied through the act of singing, wherein a woman physically attunes with the body as her instrument. Green described this using a poststructural feminist approach to patriarchy, where singing affirms patriarchal femininity through its inherent absence of technology. In patriarchy, man controls nature through technology, and women are subsumed as a part of nature. When singing, a woman uses only her body as the sound source, without any external object to control. Green (p. 44) argued that the sight and sound of a woman singing, where the performance is locked in the body, therefore affirms the feminine connection to nature and the body. The woman singer is thus sexualised, as she is the sole object on display for the audience’s gaze, further affirming her femininity. This approach echoes Koza’s (1994) assertions around the kinds of music that are aesthetically privileged, in that aesthetic music privileges the rational mind rather than the emotional body, or in Green’s case, the singing woman, who uses only the natural body. When singing, and thus without using an external object, a woman confirms her assumed inability to manipulate technology, and thus the woman as singer maintains the natural gender order.

Studies into instrumental uptake support the notion that women disproportionately occupy the role of the singer in comparison to men, who dominate instrumentalist roles (Doubleday, 2008; Hallam, Rogers, & Creech, 2008; McKeage, 2004), explored in detail below. While there are increasing numbers of women composing and playing music, Maus (2011) discussed how contemporary composers are faced with sociocultural values within music discourse which give significant attention to the past, in which women have not been visible, let alone occupied positions of musical greatness or genius. Halstead’s (1997) text on women in composition at the end of the twentieth century examined the diverse social, physiological and political factors that have constrained women’s opportunities and potential to develop and pursue these careers. A study by Gould (2003) stated that women are consistently found to account for less than 10% of college band directors, demonstrating yet another arena in which students may seek role models and find pervasive male dominance occupying these positions of power.

Narrative forms of music studied in education, such as operas and musicals, furthermore present and represent a raced, classed, heterosexist, and gendered version of the norm. Maus (2011) noted that Catherine Clément (1988 as cited by Maus, 2011) introduced opera as misogyny through seduction drawing on the work of seminal feminist theorists emerging in French philosophy and psychoanalysis at the time, including Luce Iragaray and Hélène Cixous. Hess (2013) also pointed out that heteronormative plots of these dominant musical narratives do not reflect women in positions of power, people of diverse gender or sexual identities, nor people with disabilities. Through presenting and privileging narratives wherein love is heterosexual, power and success is white and masculine, and beauty is passive and thus feminine, music education, and musical narratives more broadly, reify oppressive moral matrices and yet may guise these as invisible, through the assumption that music is free from socio-political context.

Gender and Instrumental Learning

If exposure to and participation in music occurs for individuals within school settings, how are instrument choices and uptake of musical identities reflected across the gender continuum? Doubleday (2008) described how commonly instruments have a gendered association for performers, and that male instruments may carry with them concepts of authority and order. In general, Doubleday (2008) argued that across the span of musical contexts, uptake of musical instruments is undoubtedly male dominated. Hallam et al. (2008) found that that among children aged 5-16 years, the electric guitar is played by 81% of boys, whereas 80% of girls undertake vocal training. Graham (2005) explored the gender associations of instrumental choice, and found that participants held distinctive gender stereotypes related to instruments, with the flute considered most feminine, and the tuba most masculine. Hallam et al. (2008) also noted that girls prefer smaller, higher-pitched instruments. Halstead and Rolvsjord (2015) recently explored issues of gender and sexuality in shaping musical instrument choice, referring particularly to the guitar, an instrument bought by or for males at an estimated 96% of the time. They describe the guitar as a confirmation of masculinity and heteronormativity, and refer to boys’ choices to learn and play the guitar because of its entanglement with high male status, inherent in which (through a heteronormative lens) is the successful pursuit of women.

These analyses of the potent and continuing gender differences between musical instruments are analysed using Butler’s (1988) pivotal post structural gender performativity theory. This theory poses gender as a salient set of categories that individuals and societies produce and reproduce through their own performances of gender, transforming gender from something we have to something we do (Butler, 1988; 2004; West & Zimmerman, 1987). A review and critical analysis conducted by Harrison (2007) on gender stereotyped musical participation concluded that while girls are noted to have made significant changes in musical choices, boys have conserved the musical preferences they held 100 years ago. Harrison (2007) noted how expected performances of masculinity limit boys and men from making choices towards gentler, feminine instruments, such as the flute. The negotiations of gender involved in seemingly neutral acts of musicking, such as a male playing the flute, or choosing a soft, romantic piece of music to sing in a high range, explicate how musical arenas may in fact not be neutral gendered spaces for participation. A post-structural feminist perspective would consider all musical communities, from classrooms to community music groups, unquestionably gendered spaces, within which participants conduct repeated gendered performances and transactions between one another to construct a norm of gendered subjectivity.

Women in Jazz

Jazz remains a field within music education, performance and popular culture wherein women are significantly underrepresented (McKeage, 2004; Wehr, 2015), a phenomenon I will explore in detail. Caudwell (2010) also has used Butler’s theory regarding gender performativity (1988; 2004) as a lens to explore an analogy between jazz and sport culture, given a shared culture of male dominance. Caudwell suggested that the practice of improvisation (integral to jazz) has been socially constructed to deny girls and women the opportunity to contribute as viable participants. Wehr (2015) explored this concept and more, in a recent comprehensive review on the experiences of women in jazz, based on a special edition of the journal Jazz Changes, which asked authors to respond to the question, “Why aren’t there more women in jazz?” Within the review, several key concerns were raised around women’s minority position within jazz education, research, musicianship, and performance. While studies find that girls participate in jazz learning in their early years, Wehr referenced dramatic attrition rates during high school and tertiary instruction. If there is a girl in the course, she is often the only one (McCord, 1985 as cited by Wehr, 2015). As with classical music discourse, an absence of women means female jazz students have very few role models they can identify with, particularly those in positions of power or high regard such as band conductors, acclaimed composers and esteemed instrumentalist “greats”.

Significant gender-based differences in instrument choice are noted as a primary factor behind the lack of women in jazz, and the overwhelming tendency for women to sing rather than play if they do participate. Steinberg (2001) conducted a gender analysis of musicians’ participation in school jazz festivals, and found that even when the disproportionate number of male to female instrumental players was accounted for, males still dominated all musical and non-musical interactions. This dominance was demonstrated musically through taking more frequent and lengthy solos and improvisations, both when this was self-initiated and called upon by band directors. Non-musically, males were observed to speak, raise their hands and be spoken to more than females in jazz education settings (Steinberg, 2001).

Wehr (2015) came up with a model of three main factors that contribute to the overall marginalising experiences of women in jazz: tokenism, stereotype threat, and experiences that lead to low self-efficacy. Tokenism results from the lack of female participation in jazz, wherein the female is the only one, or one of very few. The work of Kanter (1977) posed four informal role traps that women in male dominated environments are allocated into and responded to based upon. These roles: mother, seductress, pet, and iron maiden, are constructed around a token woman’s (hetero)sexuality, and must be adhered to in order to fit in, thus negating her individuality (Wehr, 2015). The mother role sees women as sympathetic listeners and nurturers of men and takes on extra roles that serve men. The seductress denotes sexualisation and objectification and leads to resentment from other men. The pet woman is seen as an amusement, a younger sister who may have certain abilities, which importantly do not compete with those of the men. The iron maiden is the strong women who resists all of these roles, exhibits confidence, and/or closes off her sexual interests. Kanter (1977) described the women’s libber stereotype these women are labelled with and isolated by, and I suggest perhaps a more contemporary example may be the feminist killjoy label. These roles were originally devised to describe the pressure and oppression women face in the male dominated corporate environments, though were also found to exist in the sampling units of Wehr’s study of women in jazz (2015). Further research might explore whether these roles are applicable within other male dominated musical environments in which women are the token minority, such as music conducting and composition, as well as rock, metal, and hip hop music genres.

Stereotype threat refers to the tendency for women in jazz to fear that they will confirm stereotypes that they do not belong. As explored by Caudwell (2010), improvisation (a central tenet within jazz) is defined by particular aesthetic, embodied and socio-cultural practices that are associated with masculinity. Jazz and improvisation is suggested to centre on practices of bravado, individuality, rebellion, and finding one’s own unique musical expression. Wehr (2015) contended, ironically, that a girl cannot stray from a particular, masculine approach without being disregarded, or threatened with the label of “playing like a girl” (p. 8). Playing sensitively, lyrically and gently are regarded as feminine expressions of musicality, expressions that do not align with the sociocultural roots of jazz in confidence and power. As Steinberg (2001) and others have noted, women are not called upon, nor have the same expectations as men to be at the centre of attention in jazz improvisation, and are therefore not equipped with the same tools of practice and confidence. For women to succeed in jazz, they must withstand an environment in which their aesthetic and embodied presence may not only be perceived as atypical, but also potentially unnatural. Women in Wehr’s review (2015) described the immense confidence required to endure a climate of stereotype threat, just to make it into jazz education or groups.

The women articulated in the study how their experience of stereotype threat negatively influenced their motivation and choice to participate in jazz. A lack of confidence, mastery, or low self-efficacy, is the third factor Wehr (2015) illuminated in the model. Self-efficacy theory draws on the work of Bandura (1997) who stated that self-efficacy is achieved through four areas: multiple small experiences of success (mastery), the presence of successful role models, social messages from others, and optimal physiological states. Each of these four variables could be analysed critically regarding their potential for reducing women’s sense of self-efficacy in jazz, and other areas of music. Women may hold a lower sense of self-efficacy, simply because jazz is widely perceived to be male dominated.

As illustrated throughout this piece, women have traditionally not held positions of power or come close to equal representation in music discourse, demonstrated through a lack of female composers, conductors, classical and jazz educators, and instrumentalists. As Wehr (2015) suggested within jazz idiom, women may therefore have great difficulty both finding role models they can identify with, and gaining experiences of success crucial to confidence building in any given style of music. Musical contexts such as jazz may present women with the option either to fit into rigid token roles, muster the confidence to defy these roles, and face consequence of transgressing the borders of expected femininity. Or, they may withdraw their participation. The tendency for a woman participating in music to be a vocalist rather than instrumentalist is a phenomenon observable from the experiences of women in jazz (Wehr, 2015), to the overwhelming uptake of singing over other instruments with girls in schools (Graham, 2005; Hallam et al., 2008). Such critical analysis of musical participation provides crucial discourse to problematise other musical contexts. In the example of women primarily as singers in music, Kanter’s seductress role may speak to the potential for women to be primarily valued based on their appearance and sexuality in pop music discourse, explored further below.

Gender and Popular Music

In the 1960s, the second wave feminist movement led interpretive discourse and political activism to advocate for the rights of women. By the 1970s, feminist, lesbian feminist, and gay liberations political movements groups used music making and music journalism to problematise and challenge deeply entrenched patriarchal norms that they argued resulted in male domination of music. Academic music scholarship discussed above did not begin to contribute to this dialogue until the 1980s. Maus (2011) stated that since the 1970s, the socio-political structures within pop music culture have been challenged with privileging men and limiting women from being equally active participants. Maus (2011) referenced two kinds of 1970s popular music created and performed by men: “cock rock” and “teenypop”. Cock rock is said to showcase performances of powerful masculine sexuality, characterised by loud volume, persistent rhythm, and vocal bravado. Men of cock rock represent expected performances of masculinity – active, powerful, heterosexual, and collective, and accordingly construct women through traditional femininity – individuals who are passive and sexually submissive for the attention of men. Teenybop, on the other hand, represents a narrative of masculinity for the consumption of girls, wherein boys are read as romantic and thoughtful – a puppy for teenage girls to project their emotions onto. Both performances are deeply heteronormative in these assumedly desired sexual transactions between men and women.

Unlike jazz and classical music discourse, women have for many years participated and been represented, however subjectively, in popular music culture. The literature may suggest, however, that these representations privilege women who conform to dominant expected performances of racialised, classed, and sexualised femininity (Brown, Steele, & Walsh-Childers, 2002; Frisby & Aubrey, 2012). Representation of non-normative bodies, sexualities, and gender identities are rarely provided to consumers of pop music, failing to disrupt or denaturalise the sex/gender binary, or question the heteronormative narrative (Leibetseder, 2012; Tobias, 2014). Research particularly into music videos suggested that sexual imagery is a normalised visual accompaniment for pop music (Frisby & Aubrey, 2012; Primack, Gold, Schwartz, & Dalton, 2008). This is relevant from a gender and power perspective because this sexual imagery overwhelmingly relies on the objectification and degradation of women (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007; Primack et al., 2008), and preserving dominant racialised and colonial socio-historical narratives around the dehumanisation and commodification of black women’s bodies (Reid-Brinkley, 2008; Rodier & Meagher, 2014; Ward, Hansbrough, & Walker, 2005). Scholarship on black womanhood hold music media accountable for ongoing emphasis on an excessively sexual narrative, working to construct black female sexuality as deviant, constantly accessible, and endlessly available (Henderson, 2014). Dominant constructions of black hypermasculinity have been suggested to represent African American men as violent, materialistic, and similarly deviant (Djupvik, 2014; Mohammed-baksh & Callison, 2015; White, 2011). Primack et al. (2008) noted this is particularly evident in genres of music such as rap, hip-hop, and R&B.

Like jazz, the roots of these genres lie in the African oral tradition (Kalyan, 2006; Porteous, 2013). Blanchard (1999) explored in a concise summary, how rap and hip hop constructed a crucial social space for the voices of people of colour who have otherwise been musically underrepresented within a system of social, political, and economic subjugation. This article has touched on the raced, classed and gendered dominant hegemony of Western classical music, and how some academics consider this to have constructed a moral hierarchy on serious or great music. Literature such as Forman’s doctoral dissertation (1997), Blanchard (1999), and Kalyan (2006) has articulated since how genres such as jazz and hip hop have generated a socioculturally significant alternative discourse, allowing for African American autonomy, commercial success, and organic decolonisation. While these forms of music may have functioned as sociocultural resistance, Blanchard (1999) also noted how their commercial success has led to their appropriation commodification by the white, corporate music industry.

Gender in the Music Therapy Context

Adolescents are a group of particular relevance in the context of popular music, as the highest consumers of popular music and users of increasingly available music media (Oosten, Peter, & Valkenburg, 2015; Primack et al., 2008). Music therapy literature revealed the significant and multifaceted relationship that young people have with music (Saarikallio, Gold, & McFerran, 2015), and research has validated social benefits of their engagement and participation in music (Bolger, 2013; Hunt, 2005; Laiho, 2004; McFerran & Hunt, 2008; McFerran & Teggelove, 2011). Feminist theory and practice has initiated crucial exploration and documentation within music therapy, such as the work of Curtis (2013); Edwards and Hadley (2007); Hadley (2006); and Rolvsjord and Halstead (2013). However, there has been little questioning of how the use of music itself with individuals and client groups, such as adolescents, may reify gendered codes inherent in the discourses of music described throughout this article. For example, Davis (2007) posed adolescence as a magnified period of gendered development, under which individuals initiate social and sexual relationships and occupational choices for the first time in their lives; all of which are subjective to dominant gender and sexuality norms. Yet no music therapy research has yet explicitly addressed topics such as gender or sexuality in reference to adolescents, or pop music videos, despite the wealth of literature evidencing their prolific themes of misogyny and violence. Halstead and Rolvsjord (2015) noted how music therapy contexts might serve to affirm traditional constructions of gender (Aigen, 2002; Smith, 2012; Tuastad & Stige, 2015). However, feminist and anti-oppressive (Baines, 2012) methods of practice, based in Community Music Therapy, may also offer a potential space for musical participation which disrupts gender hegemonies. An example of such can be found in the use of feminist hip-hop in music therapy with young women (Tobias, 2014; Veltre & Hadley, 2011).


Throughout this article, I have attempted to introduce the notion of problematising and questioning music as a positive or neutral force, particularly in relation to its capacity to marginalise, silence, and underrepresent non-male identities. Context plays a significant role in how music may or may not emancipate and unite communities, and the patriarchy is a deeply embedded context that transcends across social structures throughout the world.

Until children other than white males see themselves reflected and represented in what music education contexts romantically construct as musical greats, they will have little opportunity to witness role models in positions of power they can aspire to. Without challenging dominant codes enacted in music cultures, men will continue to dominate as instrumentalists, women will continue to be excluded from jazz, and popular music culture will fail to disrupt the gender binary and preserve raced, classed, misogynistic and heteronormative narratives. While Western society continues to uphold a gender order wherein women are at a social, political, and economic disadvantage, music cultures and communities, however emancipatory or non-hierarchical their objectives, should not be safeguarded as contexts free from critical gender examination.


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