Philip Ewell’s White Racial Framework in Music Theory and Cognitive Science

36 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2021

Date Written: March 31, 2021


Professor Philip Ewell shocked the music theory world at the Society for Music Theory conference in 2019 when he charged that American music theory was systematically racist. In particular, he used long-deceased German theorist, Henrich Schenker, "as an exemplar of that flawed world, a ‘virulent racist' who wrote of ‘primitive' and ‘inferior' races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music." Furthermore, he accused "generations of Schenker scholars of trying to ‘whitewash' the theorist in an act of ‘colorblind racism.'"

In this paper, I will examine whether Ewell’s arguments are consistent with science, in particular, cognitive psychology. Based on this examination, I conclude that Ewell’s theories are inconsistent with well-established concepts of human behavior and how the mind works, as well as how humans perceive and process music. Part II of this paper will present Ewell’s arguments about Schenker and music theory. Part III will show that Ewell’s “white racial framework,” a type of social constructionist argument, is faulty because the human brain does not operate in a manner that is consistent with social constructionism. Rather, the foundation of human thinking is rooted in biology. Part IV will debunk Ewell’s argument about the myth of neutrality by showing that music is to a significant extent universal. Part V will deal with other problems in Ewell’s arguments, particularly his treatment of people of color and whites as a monoliths and his superficial analysis of statistics due to his correlation/causation fallacy and his lack of context for his analysis. Part VI will critique Ewell’s argument that Schenker’s theory is racist because he was personally racist. First, it will attack the false analogy between personal racism and hierarchy in music. Equally importantly, it will demonstrate that Schenker’s theories reflect how the human mind perceives and processes music. This paper will end by discussing the dangers of using faulty theories (theory-induced blindness).

Keywords: Music theory, cognitive science, racisim, Heinrich Schenker, brain science

Suggested Citation

Fruehwald, Edwin S., Philip Ewell’s White Racial Framework in Music Theory and Cognitive Science (March 31, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

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