Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Expanding the Canon

Expanding the Canon

Headshot of Paula Maust

Paula Maust (MM ’16, DMA ’19, Harpsichord) began collecting works by women composers to use in her music theory classes when she first started teaching a theory course in fall 2016. Women composers were sidelined in her own music education, and she wanted to include a broader composer variety in her classroom. 

“I’ve no shortage of experiences of being in music schools and having musical contributions from women and people of color ignored, from my undergraduate through two master’s degrees, a performance certificate, and a doctorate,” Maust says, adding that when looking at available undergraduate theory textbooks, the examples remained mostly white and male. “Nothing had changed since I was an undergraduate student, and I was surprised and disappointed by that.”

Music theorist Philip Ewell, presenting his findings at the annual meeting for the Society of Music Theory in November 2019, put numbers to what Maust observed. Just 49 of the 2,930 examples contained in the seven most-used undergraduate music theory textbooks were by people of color, or 1.67 percent. Maust determined that women composers account for 2.15 percent of the textbooks’ examples.

What started as a way for Maust to supplement her own theory syllabi exploded in 2021 into an open-educational resource website, book contract, and music theory seminar this spring semester at Peabody. 

She launched the Expanding the Music Theory Canon website in late January 2021. It contains musical excerpts for use in undergraduate music theory course work, wherein each concept — from scales and intervals to harmonic progressions and formal structures — is demonstrated with examples written by a woman and/or Black, indigenous, or person of color composer. It includes more than 400 excerpts by more than 60 composers, and each example includes a PDF of sheet music, a composer bio, and links to both the full score and public domain recording, when available. 

Maust shared links to the site with two music educators’ social media groups and two professional listservs; within the first two weeks it was accessed by more than 2,800 users from 41 countries, and by year’s end, it amassed 15,000 users from 69 countries. 

“She’s doing what most of us are talking about and not knowing how to do,” says David Forrest, an associate professor of music theory at Texas Tech University. He supervises the undergraduate music theory and aural skills sequences and serves as graduate theory coordinator, and says he’s incorporated Expanding into his classes. He notes that textbook updates move glacially slowly. With the Expanding website, he can look up a concept he’s going to be presenting in class that day and find multiple examples by a variety of composers. 

“If you’ve never heard of a composer — and I’ll be honest, most of the composers she uses I’ve never heard or studied — she’s got a link to a quick bio,” he says. “That’s not something we do much in theory class, learn about the biographies of composers, but it’s right there.”

Forrest is zeroing in on what is, for Maust, a larger challenge towards which the website is but a first step: educators being more intentional in showing how the breadth of music training — music theory, music history, technique, and performance — is interrelated. A score anthology containing selected portions of the Expanding website is due from SUNY Press later this year, and for her 2022 graduate seminar at Peabody, Maust is combining theory and history, tracing the musical contributions of women and people of color across the common practice period through detailed score analysis and historical criticism. Future plans include a professional recording project of the 20 hours of music featured on the site that have yet to be recorded, for which Maust is securing grant funding. 

Maust notes that her own research has shown how misconceptions or assumptions get reproduced in teaching materials and music history over time. People perform and program what they know, and teaching the same works by the same composers over and over again limits our understanding of the breadth and depth of classical music’s history and present.

“I am obviously very proud of the site, the reception that it’s had, and that people have found it to be so useful,” Maust says. “If we want to make meaningful change in the field, then we need to start by modifying the materials we use when teaching undergraduates. These students are at the beginning of their professional careers, and the messages we give them in the classroom will carry into future generations.” 

-Bret McCabe