How to foster inclusivity in the theory classroom: three opportunities for change

With the primacy of the Western canon, creating an inclusive theory classroom can seem  like an intimidating task. Here are three “opportunities” for change, which we can pursue both inside the classroom and out.

Substantive changes

Why and how do we choose our theory examples and materials for assessments? Kira Thurman and Kristen Turner urge us to “consider the concept vs. the composer” in the music history classroom. The same goes for music theory! What makes a piece an exemplar? Could the same educational goals be achieved with a piece by a composer who is a woman or minority? As instructors, we frequently fall into the habit of reusing material from semester to semester. Revitalizing the curriculum with different, more inclusive examples would not only benefit the students, but would also energize us over the course of the semester. At the same time, we must be careful to avoid tokenism and/or othering. One or two examples by black or female composers may be seen as tokenism, while a continual emphasis on inclusivity (in various ways and forms) throughout the semester would help avoid this impression.

Substantive changes may also involve the structure and scope of the course itself. Inclusivity can be achieved not only through course content, but in the types of activities expected of students. Open discussion, blog posts, collaborative work, and peer teaching can foster an atmosphere of transparency, where students can naturally engage with issues of representation and the shortcomings of the canon. Similarly, the model of analyzing old works may not be the best way to prepare students for their careers; instead, more performance, improvisation, and composition-based assessments would have more practical use. Assessments like this often embrace stylistic diversity, which is another way to foster an inclusive atmosphere.

Advocative work

This approach can be achieved both inside of the classroom and out. In this vein, we as faculty should serve as role models for their students. We should demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity in our nonacademic ventures, in the works we choose to perform or the concerts we curate; the classroom culture we perpetuate; the ways we interact with our colleagues and peers; the language we use to describe them and ourselves; in mentorship with students or in advisory positions for student groups or ensembles; the concerts we encourage our students to attend and the language we use to talk about different genres and styles of music; and in countless other ways, large and small. A commitment to transparency in the theory classroom — openly acknowledging the limitations and problematic nature of the Western canon, as expressed in textbooks, assessments, publications, and course requirements — is a simple and effective way of encouraging students to think critically about representation and inclusivity. We should lead by example as well, and prioritize inclusivity outside the classroom in our own endeavors, and by supporting and promoting the efforts of our students and colleagues.


Multilateral efforts with colleagues can have a profound impact on fellow faculty, students, and the community. Collaboration between people in positions of power have the potential for profound impact. At a basic level, open discussion of issues of diversity and representation in the curriculum can spark fruitful and thought-provoking discussions and ideas. Collaboration can also take the form of committees, concert series’ dedicated to performing the work of underrepresented composers, publications, conferences, and many other efforts. Aside from being worthwhile causes, participation in these types of events is evidence of a paradigmatic shift at work, and convey to students, faculty, administrators, and the greater community a serious commitment to inclusivity and diversity in undergraduate music education. By committing ourselves to diversity in various aspects of our professional lives, we are embodying the type of change that would greatly benefit our field.


Sabrina ClarkeComment