Adam Neely's recent video on race and music theory focuses in part on the views of Schenker and the limits and biases of his system of analysis. It seems that Schenker has had a very strong influence on music pedagogy in the US (this is also an impression I've got from this forum). Why is this, and is it peculiarly American? Is he viewed/taught the same way in Austria for example? Why is the Journal of Schenkerian Studies based in Texas of all places?

I'm from the UK and didn't do a music degree, but my other half did and she spent more time learning gamelan and studying musique concrete than analysing dead German composers (18th century European music was positively frowned upon). This was a couple of decades ago, so the picture of music education painted in the video seems a little foreign to me.

  • This is about the Phil Ewell "Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” hot topic, well the video is.
    – user70304
    Sep 24, 2020 at 11:49
  • 2
    @OwainEvans my question is prompted by the video but isn't specifically about the racial aspect. I'm particularly interested in understanding how and why Schenker, became so influential in US universities, and whether this is different in other countries. I've read some of Phil Ewell's writing on the subject, and he seems to be critiquing American academic music theory education in particular, something that Adam Neely with his cultural imperialist mindset (humour) just calls "music theory". Sep 24, 2020 at 12:23
  • Yes, I understand. I just wanted to point out the recent paper because the video has a lot about Phil Ewell talking. I only knew about it a few days ago, and still trying to digest. I too am intrigued to know the wide prevalence of Schenker in the US.
    – user70304
    Sep 24, 2020 at 12:32

2 Answers 2


Heinrich Schenker was born in 1868 and died in 1935. And unfortunately, it's probably something of a blessing that he died when he did: as a Jew living in Austria in the 1930s, he only just missed the annexation of Austria (1938) and the subsequent horrors that that brought. Schenker's wife, for instance, died in Theresienstadt (a "hybrid concentration camp and ghetto") in 1942.

I say this to lay the context of how Schenkerian analysis first came to the United States: many of Schenker's students, perhaps chief among them Felix Salzer, emigrated to the United States as a means of escaping the war. Salzer then went on to teach at the Mannes College of Music and Queens College (part of the City University of New York). Other students that emigrated to the US include Oswald Jonas and Ernst Oster (who taught at Mannes as well as at the New England Conservatory).

Schenker's theories developed over the course of a few decades, but right as his theories were reaching maturity, his biggest proponents either left Austro-Germany for the US or, unfortunately, died in Europe.

As such, the Schenkerian tradition began to flourish in the United States while Austria and Germany continued using prior methods of musical understanding: thoroughbass, Riemannian function, and so on. And believe it or not, we still see this divide today.

This is also why we see so many Schenkerian-influenced schools (CUNY and Eastman come to mind) in New York state and in the northeastern United States in general: this is where these musicians lived when they came to the United States, so naturally this is where the theories now have the strongest footholds.

As for the Journal of Schenkerian Studies being located in Texas, this is just because that school has a particularly active Schenkerian department; many of the scholars there are Schenkerians, so creating a journal there was a natural outgrowth of that.

Schenkerian theory isn't exclusive to the United States, but it's certainly more common there than in other countries (with Britain being a close second). The fact is that American academic music theory is quite different from, say, academic music theory studied in Germany. But as our world becomes closer and closer, we're starting to see Schenkerian theory studied elsewhere, as well.

And I should say that Schenkerian theory isn't just something for "academic" music theorists: Schenkerian concepts are in undergraduate textbooks by Aldwell/Schachter, Laitz, Clendinning/Marvin, Gauldin, and so on. The Kostka/Payne textbook is probably the book least influenced by Schenkerian theory. (Note that these are all textbooks written by Americans, but only because those are the texts that I'm familiar with.)

Lastly: I just recently watched the Adam Neely video, and it was very well done. But there were a few moments where I felt he misrepresented the world of academic music theory, and someone not of that world that only watched the video could walk away with a viewpoint of music theory very different from reality. Again, his video was great, and everything he said about Ewell's white racial frame and the white supremacist background of music theory was spot-on. But there were other moments where, either due to simplification or due to his own misunderstandings, he missed a fair amount of nuance in the world of academic music theory that makes it look much less healthy than it really is. I don't have time now to re-watch the video and provide any commentary, but I may do so in the future.


Schenker became popular because he was able to show long-distance relationships in compositions. (Personally, I think that Schenker's methods are useful but not exclusively so. I like to approach analysis from several viewpoints at once.) Schenker limited his theories to a particular style; it wasn't intended to cover Renaissance or post-romantic music. Some people have extended Schenker's methods to earlier and later music.

From the first (basically after Adele Katz's 1935 article on Schenker), Schenker has been controversial. A quick Google search turns up lots of stuff.

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