Can Music Be Gendered?

A lot of my research until now has focused on popular music and songs, but recently I moved on to thinking about original composition and how scores can contribute to character identity, and how music can suggest certain traits or identities to the spectator. We all know that music can evoke different things for listeners, and when we listen to music we often create images in our head to go with it, but what I’m particularly interested in, is whether there are some associations or conventions that are so engrained, that we can’t escape them.

Psychoanalysts have long equated music with a particularly feminine mode of communication, drawing comparisons between music and the sounds we hear when in the womb. Within music itself, though, there are other features that are identified as either “masculine” or “feminine.” For example, low, loud, and harsh sounds (such as brass instruments) are more “masculine,” and quiet, fluid and high sounds (such as flutes and harps) are more “feminine.” [1] These sonic markers play into existing gender differences and stereotypes (such as differences in voice pitch), in order to communicate better with the listener, to signify certain characters or feelings. So far, this all seems quite basic: different musical sounds = different characters, feelings, and traits. What, however, about the actual structure of the music?

In the nineteenth century, at the height of the Romantic period, the BNIMs (Big Names in Music) of the time were predominantly white, male, and German (think Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Strauss…).* These were big, burly men, writing big, burly music that asserted their masculinity and was in no way like those effeminate, boyish Classical composers of the previous century.** You could say that these guys were the OG machismos. Or you could not.

During this time, composers’ approaches to writing music changed. The sonata form (the “purest form of music”) is often used by musicologists as a guide for tracking changes in composition style, and reveals certain things about the nineteenth-century approaches. For readers who may not be familiar with “sonata form,” I can highly recommend the BBC GCSE Bitesize page for a quick explanation. While, in the Classical period that came beforehand, the focus in sonata form was on tonality, in the Romantic period more emphasis was given to the musical themes present in each section: rather than adhering to strict rules about the cadences and chords used, Romantic sonatas instead emphasise character. Thus, the focus moved from tonality to two oppositional themes. And what do you get when you have binary oppositions? You got it. It became common to refer to the first theme (usually rhythmic, fast, and more dissonant) as “masculine” and the second (more lyrical and slower) as “feminine.”

Not only were the themes gendered, however, but this was also the time of the birth of the “masculine” and “feminine” cadence, essentially describing the difference between a phrase than ends on a strong beat (masculine) or a weak beat (feminine). What these labels do, is perpetuate the stereotype that masculine = strong (and ‘normal’), and feminine = weak (and ‘abnormal’). Handily, these labels aren’t used so much nowadays (thanks to critics like Susan McClary who has written extensively on gendered musical discourse [2]), but for a long time they were the normal way of distinguishing different rhythmical cadences.

However, what does this have to do with how we perceive music when we listen to it? It would be ridiculous to suggest that all music listeners have this level of knowledge about musical form, and can therefore identify certain cadences or other musical features. However, we have already mentioned how certain sounds and instruments do carry certain associations and qualities, and this isn’t limited to the (perhaps obvious) high = feminine, low = masculine associations that I talked about at the beginning of this post. In fact, according to a study by Paul R. Farnsworth, J.C. Trembley and C.E Dutton of non-musically trained subjects, musical conventions and traditions regarding gender are often identified on a subconscious level by music listeners. [3]

Film music is well known for taking inspiration from the nineteenth century tradition, and it is through these traditions, however subconscious, that conventions become standards. A film composer might take inspiration from Romantic opera, therefore using their gendered codes of composition for a female character’s theme. This is then familiar to the listener, who has heard that type of music refer to female characters before. But what this also does is reinforce that associational link: the music both plays into tradition, and perpetuates it. Thus we have a specifically gendered musical language that, while we may not agree with it or consciously subscribe to it, is nevertheless present in modern compositions.

What I am trying to find out, currently, is how film composers play into these conventions, and also how they are adapted for different character types, specifically younger girls as opposed to older women. I’ll let you know if I come to any conclusions!

*There are an awful lot of other, non-German, Romantic composers who could very easily be thought of as BNIMs, but there simply would not be time to list them all.

**This in no way reflects my own opinions about the Classical composers. It should also be added that quite a lot of these Romantic composers went on to write particularly effeminate music. Except Beethoven. He was always manly.


[1] See Leo Treitler, “Gender and Other Dualities of Music History.” Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality  in Music Scholarship. Ed. Ruth A, Solie, Berkeley and London: California UP, 1993, 23-45.

[3] Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota and Oxford: Minnesota UP, 1991; “Reshaping a Discipline: Musicology and Feminism in the 1990s.” Feminist Studies 19.2 (1993): 399-423; “Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music.” Queering the Pitch. Ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas. New York and London: Rutledge, 1994. 205-234.

[3] Paul R. Farnsworth, J.C. Trembley and C.E. Dutton, “Masculinity and Femininity of Musical Phenomena.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 9.3 (1951): 257-262.



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