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The Questionable Part of ‘AP Music Theory’

As I look forward to my Senior year of high school, one class, in particular, piques my interest a little more than the rest: AP Music Theory. I’ve been involved with music for almost all of my life and so have naturally come across basic music theory instruction, but never officially taught to me in a classroom setting. I would love to be able to learn the complex ways in which pitch can come together to make unique harmonies and chord progressions. But there’s a question that has been bothering me - what this “standard” music theory class is based upon. AP Music Theory (the national advanced placement class standardized by College Board) teaches, in actuality, the harmonic style of 18th-century European musicians, not all music in general. I researched and read various articles and YouTube videos on this topic and here is what I take away:


The stylistic features of sound and timbre are very different across varying cultures yet are “whitewashed” or ignored by what some consider the “superior style” of 18th-century European music. Thinking that our commonly taught music theory is the best and most superior music theory is frankly borne out of white supremacist culture. The North Indian style of music sounds extremely different from Beethoven’s or Bach's symphonies and uses a different diatonic scale as the basis for its music production but should not be considered incorrect by music theory standards just because it includes a unique progression of harmonies that western musicians' ears aren’t accustomed to. It sounds different from the harmonic system of 18th-century European musicians but that does not mean it's wrong- it's simply different. For those of you who don't fully understand how music can be formatted differently, think of it as language. Even though all languages have different grammatical systems, none of them should be considered the standard system for all people. While certain AP classes like AP Art History teach art throughout all of history, AP Music Theory only includes this specific niche of music, not music prevalent in all historical periods and cultural contexts


At some level, it is even accurate to say that the way music theory is currently taught is racist because of its focus on a predominantly white style of music. This makes sense because 18th-century European music and western culture are primarily white. Native African styles of music are not included in a curriculum that is supposed to be about all music theory. But, that being said, although the AP Music Theory class is very incomplete in its musical systems, I don’t think it is inherently racist to teach the class as currently constructed (as some critics may assert) since it focuses on one of the main styles of music used for western culture. What I do think is completely inappropriate and arguably racist is to say that the Western European style of music is the best or superior style. This is a misguided and completely uncultured statement. Unfortunately, some people might believe this statement if it is the only system ever taught to them.


So how could we fix the incomplete teaching of music theory? By enhancing the curriculum, professors at universities and colleges have begun to modify and adapt their music theory curriculum to include more music styles from other cultures and how they use those forms to produce unique types of music. I had the opportunity to interview Professor Michael Lew, a musicologist at St. Michael's College back in February, and learned about the initiative he is starting at his university to alter the music theory curriculum to make it less just a western music culture and style class. To read more about this and Professor Lew you can read his interview on this blog.


So what’s next? The first thing we can do is promote awareness. Unfortunately, the college board has not changed the content of their curriculum or what thousands of high school students will be tested on each year, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t put their teachings into perspective. Understanding that “music theory” as it is traditionally taught is not the full picture of music will make you more informed of the real-world fluctuations of music and simply a more cultured musician.



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