Settling the Score for Women in Music

An Asian woman in a gown posing in front of a grand piano
May 20, 2016


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Outlook today.

In 1938, a Down Beat magazine article entitled “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior” opined, “It would seem that even though women are the weaker sex, they would still be able to bring more out of a defenseless horn than something that sounds like a cry for help.” A pull quote on the same page read, “Should stick to their ironing.”

Across genres and throughout the history of Western music, women have struggled to break in, to be recognized, and to transcend the objectification that seems inevitable when women are onstage. “As women strive to be seen as legitimate artists, there has always been a major force standing in the way,” says Cait Miller, a musicologist and music reference librarian at the U.S. Library of Congress. As far back as the 16th century — when an all-female ensemble sang for Italy’s Duke Alfonso II — the tradition of women performing music has featured what Miller calls “extraordinarily complicated dynamics.”

Classically Trained Yet Underestimated

Between the Renaissance era and the present day, some classically trained women composers and performers have found their way into the history books, such as the pianists Clara Schumann and Marianna Martines. Yet, the music world tends to overlook them.

In late 2015, the British exam board Edexcel finally agreed to include women in its A-level music exam — roughly the equivalent of an Advanced Placement exam — after students protested that it covered 63 men composers and zero women. The Guardian reported that the board’s initial response was, “Given that female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.”

Although male classical musicians still outnumber women today, many opportunities have opened up since the days when aspiring female musicians like Maria Anna Mozart (Wolfgang’s sister) had to give up their music careers for something more “ladylike.” But even now, women battle to be recognized as serious musicians and artists.

In the United States, women’s representation in orchestras increased only after the introduction of blind auditions. Musicians in a blind audition play behind a screen (sometimes even sans shoes to avoid the giveaway sound of high heels). According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, most orchestras began experimenting with blind auditions in the 1970s and 1980s to mitigate discrimination and nepotism. A 2000 Harvard University study found that, since the practice began, women’s representation in the top five U.S. orchestras jumped from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

Even with more women playing, as professionals and otherwise, bias still affects the instruments girls and women pursue. Mary Ann Clawson of Wesleyan University points out that larger instruments with deeper sounds are considered more masculine; other studies show that parents and children alike favor higher-pitched, smaller orchestra instruments for girls, whereas boys go for drums, trombone, tuba, and acoustic bass. And since some of those same “male” instruments tend to be more widely played and respected, women can be left out starting at a young age.

AAUW Outlook Winter 2016 Cover (250px)

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine.

Of course, women are also rare in leadership positions. Women make up 20 percent of conductors across the United States and fewer than 5 percent of conductors in the top orchestras, according to the League of American Orchestras. In 2013, Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a more than century-old festival of classical music in London. Before the event, Alsop, who is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, remarked that she was honored but shocked that there could still be firsts for women in 2013. “Here’s to the second, third, fourths, fifths, hundreds to come,” she said.

Just days before Alsop raised her baton at the Proms, renowned conductor Vasily Petrenko told a newspaper that “orchestras react better when they have a man in front of them” because “a cute girl on the podium means that musicians think about other things.”

Decorations, Not Headliners

In the mainstream music genres of the 20th and 21st centuries — rock, jazz, pop, and country, among others — the barriers to entry are still high for women. And when women musicians do find success, it can be complicated.

“Women still struggle to balance active control over their professional careers with the need to be valued by a spectator audience and supported by a music industry that heavily relies on sex as a marketing tool,” says musicologist Miller. Sexualization of women musicians in popular music has always been rampant.

The objectification of women musicians is an issue for any pop, rock, or other star you’re likely to think of. As Clawson’s research points out, it’s also part of the reason women are overrepresented as singers and underrepresented (or not taken seriously) as trained vocalists or leading instrumentalists. As James Briggs Murray, curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, put it in the 2013 jazz documentary The Girls in the Band, instruments have been considered men’s domain. If a woman is in a band, often the attitude is that she should “be a singer and be cute,” he says.

Kate Stanley, a guitarist, singer, and music therapist in Washington, D.C., studied music in college as a vocalist, but often feels like she has something to prove to other musicians. “I always hate introducing myself as a singer,” she says. When she works with musicians for the first time, they often seem “surprised” about her knowledge of an instrument or music theory. Stanley, who performs jazz, rock, and soul, also says that objectification of singers affected how she dresses onstage. “I thought that I had to look a certain way to be perceived as a good musician, which often translates into a more masculine look rather than something that is over-sexualized,” she says.

Erin Frisby, singer and guitarist in the California-based band Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray, says she’s never felt underestimated as a singer but has as an instrumentalist. “I’ve read great reviews of our music where all of the guitar work was attributed to my husband. ‘You must be the singer’ is the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m in a band,” she says.

Baltimore cellist Kristen Jones has seen similar treatment. Though she grew up in a family of musicians, Jones decided against a jazz cello major in college when she encountered the “boys’ club” environment the students and professors had established. “There were only a couple of other women in the jazz program, and it was clear they were not taken as seriously,” she says. Now she plays rock, folk, and Americana with the bands ilyAIMY and Lulu’s Fate.

A black-and-white photo of five women — African American, Asian American, and white — with 1940s hairstyles posing with their saxophones

Members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a jazz band that toured in the 1940s; photo courtesy of The Girls in the Band

Both Jones and Frisby say that sexism is a regular part of their working lives, such as dealing with sound engineers who lower women’s guitar amplifier volume because they assume women won’t be playing lead. Frisby’s patience ran out last year when news outlets were covering the lack of women at music festivals like Coachella, where women typically lead fewer than 20 percent of the bands and almost never headline. Frisby says the responses included claims that women were “intellectually and neurologically incapable of playing instruments as well as men.” She started a group called Musica Feminista to combat those attitudes and give more women a say in “whose voices are heard and what stories are told.”

Women musicians — vocalists, instrumentalists, writers, performers, producers, and other innovators — break more barriers every year. In late 2015, Adele crushed a record previously held by the all-male group ‘NSync when her latest album sold more than 3 million copies in a week. But it’s clear that, across genres and roles, women face barriers to entry and success that affect their longevity and livelihoods.

Is anyone else tired of hearing that women can’t lead orchestras or play certain instruments? Or of how few women lead bands and get inducted into halls of fame? Then let’s acknowledge the exceptional women of music history and foster the girls who are just learning to play their first scales.

By:   |   May 20, 2016


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