Music Theory Textbook Report


Textbooks do not necessarily represent all of the content that is presented in a music theory course, but the accessibility of the musical examples they contain and structures they express give textbooks an undeniable influence over the experience of music theory instructors and their students. We believe music theory textbooks can play a significant role in shaping the repertoire of musical works and the roster of musical creators students are asked to study and engage with through their classwork, homework, and examinations.

Our Music Theory Textbook Report examines the musical examples, and the identities of the people credited with creating them, featured in the five most-used textbooks for the topics of diatonic and chromatic harmony, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Barbara Murphy and Brendan McConville and published in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.

Based on 372 total responses, Murphy and McConville identify the same five books as the most-used resources for the topics of diatonic and chromatic harmony, and also report that 84% of instructors teaching diatonic harmony, and 79% of instructors teaching chromatic harmony, use textbooks when they teach these subjects (2017, p. 201-3).

The books Murphy and McConville identify are listed below in alphabetical order based on the authors’ last names:

  • Benward/Saker - Music Theory and Practice

  • Burstein/Straus - Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony

  • Clendenning/Marvin - The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis

  • Kostka/Payne/Almén - Tonal Harmony

  • Laitz - The Complete Musician

Murphy and McConville break down of these books’ usage on pages 202 and 203 of their aforementioned survey published in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy (2017), which is linked above.

Additionally, Murphy and McConville do not specify which edition of these texts their respondents use. In light of this, we have selected recently published editions for our report with the understanding that marginal discrepancies in content can occur across differing editions of the same text.

Given these textbooks’ subject matter, the consistent trends in their content, and their prevalent, nationwide usage as evidenced by Murphy and McConville’s research, we believe these textbooks reflect characteristics of the broader undergraduate music curricula of which they are a part. This makes their representation of identity even more important to consider, as a large pool of students are likely to encounter these exact, or similar, resources and often for more than one term of study.

The Data

The tables below show the representation of creator identity in our sample of the most-used music theory textbooks for the subjects of diatonic and chromatic harmony. We used publicly available information to assess the creator’s identities to the best of our ability.

The books are arranged in descending order of their total musical examples.

Textbook Report Tables.png

Follow this link to download a PDF of the Music Theory Textbook Report.

Key Findings

  • There are 2,212 total examples - 2,034 (91.2%) are created by white men

    • White men also make up 86.2% of the population of creators these textbooks credit

    • 100% of the creators credited with 20 or more examples across these textbooks are white men

  • Only 89 (4%) examples are created by white women and/or people of color

    • Almost the same number of pieces, 87, are either uncredited or attributed to ‘anonymous’

    • Overall, only 50 (2.26%) examples are created by people of color

    • Overall, only 5 (0.226%) examples are created by women of color

These Statistics Do Not Reflect History

  • Women, people of color, and musicians with other marginalized identities have been creating music as long as music has been created

    • Excluding their music from music theory textbooks presents students with an inaccurate image of Classical Music’s history

  • The ÆPEX Anthology is designed to make it easier for instructors to compensate for the limited content of their textbooks

    • Hopefully, in conjunction with other initiatives like Music Theory Examples By Women, we can set a new, more inclusive, standard for music theory curricula and textbooks publishers

Email with any inquiries and to join our pilot program

Materials related to the ÆPEX Anthology are already being used in music theory courses!