White Inferiorism in music education

There’s a common belief that white people’s music (i.e. classical music) is boring because the beat is always on the 1 and the 3, while black people’s music is exciting because the beat is always on the 2 and the 4. I grew up hearing this belief recited in music classes in elementary and high school, and again in black studies classes in college. But it’s a total lie.

Classical music is so expansive and diverse, you can not only find emphasis on all parts of a 4/4 measure, but plenty of works that don’t conform to 4/4 at all, even going back to the Baroque period. So far as I can tell this music has always had an experimental side, with gifted composers pushing boundaries and imagining new rhythms. We need look no further than the most famous composer of all time, Beethoven, for ample demonstrations of this.

Black people’s music is also expansive, and once you look outside 20th century popular music it’s easy to find examples where the beat is on the 1 and the 3. For example, the Senegalese Rhos rhythm (in sabar drumming) isn’t in 4/4 at all, and features passages where the emphasis is continually on the 1, and other passages where the emphasis is all over the place, for instance on the double-dotted quarter (!). The balax that follows the rhythm (a balax is a repeated rhythm of 1 or 2 measures over which dancers and other drummers may perform solos) is in 4/4, with emphasis on…you guessed it, the 1 and the 3.

What about other brown people? East-, South-, and Southeast-Asian styles of music are even more varied than classical or African music, with time signatures and emphasized beats that boggle the Western ear, but also with many songs or long passages that conform to 4/4, with emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beats. American Indian music is well-known for its 4/4 time signatures with emphasis on the 1 and 3. Middle-Eastern music often breaks down the same way.

What about other styles of white music? Italian and Greek, Klezmer and country, heavy metal and folk–all feature plentiful examples of counts that emphasize the 2 and the 4. Somebody should alert the black studies professors and elementary school music teachers so they can stop cryptically spreading what are essentially white-inferiorist messages to young people who don’t know any better.

The universal human knack for creating music is amazing in its intricacy and variation. This doesn’t stop being true for one group of people just because they have white skin.


2 thoughts on “White Inferiorism in music education

  1. I have never heard about music being taught from such a race-based perspective, of better or inferior vis a vis beat placement. Perhaps that’s because I grew up in a different era, before curricula were rewritten according to a politically correct agenda. That is another question.
    But the authors of the new books and materials simply didn’t have the musical sophistication or depth of background to be aware of all the freedom of rhythmic play in “white” people’s music and the evidence of rhythmic regularity in indigenous, non-Western music of all cultures.
    Now it’s perfectly natural that music evolved from our shared ancestral roots, from singing or chanting in step together while walking or marching, while pushing barges through streams, while pounding maze together, while training young men for battle, while acompanying brides to meet their grooms, or acompanying the dead to their graves to meet their ancestors. Think Song of the Volga Boatmen, or African drum beats to river chants. Sound archives are full of examples. 4/4. STRONG beat on the same foot that goes forward, with weight falling on the first gesture. The origins of music.
    Everything else evolved with the growth of language, story telling, humor, bravety, whimsy, imagination. A cultural history of human evolution.

  2. Just to add another thought, what’s written above addresses the idea that there’s nothing “white” about 4/4 beat with regular strong pulse on 1 and 3. What likely made the difference between music with regular beat, and music that was freer in form, was whether the music was utilitarian, as in pounding maize, rowing river boats for marching or going to war; or more religious or expressive, as in story telling, underlying a people’s spoken language, following those patterns found in the natural syntax. There is no connection to race. I’m puzzled as to where your argument comes from, actually.

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