The construction of an individual’s musical identity is complicated by many factors; these can range from familial and and peer group expectations to cultural and religious traditions. In addition, someone may choose to uphold or reject these influences. As a consequence it is difficult to isolate the role that gender alone plays in young people’s relationship with music, whilst categorising ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ as homogeneous groups can also be dangerous since each possesses enormous diversity within its boundaries. Nevertheless by examining individuals’ preferences for, participation in, and beliefs about, music, on this resource page we focus on gendered patterns that interact with their more complex, all-embracing identities.

When and Why did Issues of Music and Gender Emerge?

Concerns originally surfaced in the UK in the 1980s when discrepancies between girls’ and boys’ practices became increasingly apparent. Many more girls chose to study GCSE music (or equivalent) in the UK whilst also achieving better grade outcomes than their male counterparts. The greater likelihood of girls’ learning musical instruments via formal lessons was initially cited as a primary reason for this. Provision potentially enabled them to receive subtle advantages such as being able to read music notation whilst developing familiarity with the classical canon. Although this was undoubtedly true, investigative research in the 1990s revealed far more sociologically complex reasons for the different beliefs and behaviours that boys and girls were expressing.

Despite concerted efforts in schools to counteract gender-stereotyping, children automatically bring into the music classroom many pre-conceived ideas about what constitutes gender-appropriate behaviour from the outside world. Although some will happily flout conventions (such as those boys who actively enjoy singing and those girls who like to compose on computers) many are bound by established protocol.

When Lucy Green surveyed 78 music teachers from across England about their views on gender and school music they confirmed that negative peer pressure surrounded boys’ participation from an early age and only those with exceptional talent or enthusiasm appeared able to rise above this influence, especially at secondary level. Boys were perceived as being reticent to participate in those curricula and extra-curricular activities that they believed to be feminine or ‘un-macho’; these included most forms of singing, performing on high-pitched, gentle sounding orchestral instruments or participating in any aspects of classical music.

Nevertheless, teachers noted that boys appeared considerably more motivated when allowed to participate in areas they perceived to be gender-appropriate or in effect ‘masculine-gendered’. These included exploring various popular genres, utilising music technology and engaging in improvisatory composition, free from the constraints of conventional music notation. Although the term ‘masculinity’ should be defined by a diverse range of behaviours of equal validity, in reality it is those forms claiming the highest status that tend to exert the most authority within societies. The dominant modes in the western world are traditionally ‘macho’ and characterised by the championing of power, aggression, technical competence and heterosexuality. This helps to explain why boys, in the main, seem far happier to participate in musical genres and activities that reflect such precedents.

Gendered Musical Practices: a historical perspective

If schools are fundamentally microcosms of the society in which they function then it follows that they reflect the attitudes that prevail in the wider world. Therefore in order to understand how this situation has arisen in our music classrooms it is first necessary to focus upon the socially constructed beliefs and behaviours that operate in society at large. Since these naturally evolve from those musical conventions that have become established as common practice it is important to explore current attitudes in the light of their historical roots. In particular, it is the existence of a strongly patriarchal musical tradition within the Western world that is of fundamental consideration since its influence appears to have far-reaching effects upon our global thinking. Patriarchy creates a situation whereby men have more overall power, not only economically and physically but also in terms of constructing truths. As a consequence that which is deemed to be male becomes highly desirable whereas that which is perceived as female assumes far less value. A masculine hegemony is thus imposed throughout all structures of society, including the processes of cultural production.

In the musical world this has resulted in the emergence of a largely male ‘public’ or paid sphere of engagement with music, and a mostly female ‘private’ or unpaid/lowly paid sphere. Historically, men have a stronger connection with receiving remuneration for their musical involvement than women. Although this is not exclusively so (since unpaid male voice choirs exist alongside highly paid female singing stars), it is the predominant pattern, especially in the world of classical music. As a consequence many more men than women remain widely known as established composers, conductors, but to a lesser extent, performers (the female’s role in this arena is explored further on). In contrast women have traditionally been more likely to participate in the non-paid aspects of musical life. These include learning music as a pastime rather than as a career possibility, or for the purpose of educating others.

In essence there are two major outcomes of this situation that might help us to understand the history of boys’ greater negativity towards school music.

Firstly, if boys do not perceive the subject as leading to the possibility of gainful employment then they appear more likely to reject it as trivial and useless. This also might explain their greater tendency to give up learning instruments as they progress through secondary school, leaving only those wishing to pursue music at examination level to continue. In contrast, many girls, in accordance with the female tradition of participating in recreational music, remain willing to learn instruments, take part in extra-curricular activities and accept the intrinsic value of music as a school subject, regardless of their likelihood of studying it to a higher degree.

Secondly, it is appears that since, historically, the educational side of music possesses feminine delineations, then both it and its component parts (such as the study of the classical canon, singing, choral participation, learning the majority of orchestral instruments and reading notation) will be denounced by the bulk of the male secondary school population. Meanwhile those boys that do participate are likely to become subjected to homosexual taunts from their peers, unless they demonstrate outstanding musical ability whereby they can transcend such considerations.

In spite of girls’ greater participation and apparent overall success in music, there remains an important mitigating factor that inhibits them from being considered superior to boys in this subject. At the very core of the issue lies the patriarchal concept associating the male with the mind (thus stressing his innate ability for controlled, intellectual creation) and the female with the body (and her involvement with the uncontrolled, physical act of procreation). This positioning has a powerful effect upon the consideration of artistic production in western society since it aligns men with rationality and the ability to deliberately construct culture. If culture evolves from the mental realms (unlike nature which is not mediated by the intellect) then consequently both it, and its male creators, assume superior roles in the society in which they exist.

The outcome of this ‘culture versus nature’ hierarchy has most impact when art products are considered and in the realms of music the most highly regarded is that of the musical composition. Men’s ownership of this act of creativity has certainly dominated across the centuries (in both western and other cultures) whilst women’s participation, continues to both threaten and challenge the patriarchal status quo. As a consequence, women, have been actively discouraged from, and indeed ridiculed for, engaging in the compositional process. Their products have been denigrated without fair and unprejudiced consideration as the power of patriarchal hegemony automatically judges them to be inferior.

Despite the success of a few women in this regard (several of whom even went so far as to assume male public identities in order to achieve fairer reviews) the majority of highly prized pieces of western art music, and the discourses surrounding them, remain the products of men. In addition, since a substantial minority of women’s contributions to this field are not generally acknowledged, most people remain unaware of the true level of female involvement in the history of composition whilst many women and girls fail to see where they might fit in to this male-dominated terrain.

Paradoxically, it is the very attributes that make girls successful as classical performers, such as co-operation, conformity and sensitivity, that are seen to work against them in the field of musical composition. According to Green (1997) teachers generally agreed that most girls lacked creativity, confidence and the essential cerebral qualities required for attainment in this area. However, they considered boys to be predominantly autonomous and inventive in their approaches, despite their greater reluctance to work diligently or conform to guidelines and rules. Green argues that this situation arises because boys are easily able to identify with the male as composer and improviser in the outside world. In fact the influence of the masculine delineation of composition is so dominant that it allows boys to be regarded by their teachers as generally superior in all aspects of the music curriculum, despite clear evidence to the contrary, especially in terms of students’ examination outcomes.

At this juncture it is important to acknowledge Green’s argument, stressing that gendered musical delineations do not hold absolute truth-values, since not all boys are outstanding composers and not all girls perform in the classical realm. Nevertheless they have the power to sway our perceptions and opinions, not only about what is gender-appropriate but also in terms of constructing the very meanings of the music with which boys and girls are associated.

What is the Relevance of Studying Gender and Music Today?

In the past 20-30 years new technologies and pedagogical approaches have radically transformed the face of educational music. In particular the everyday study of numerous popular and world musics, the incorporation of their diverse methods of dissemination and the widespread utilisation of a wealth of software possibilities have completely changed the face of classroom music. There now exists a common perception that modern-day musical inclusiveness allows boys and girls the freedom to participate in whatever chosen musical genre they so wish, without the constraints of past eras. As a consequence issues of gender are perceived as having diminished in relation to such a varied and ever-changing landscape.

The notion that boys’ willingness to partake in school music has increased is certainly undeniable; since 2004-5 equal numbers of boys and girls and, in some years, more boys than girls, have taken GCSE music. Meanwhile the introduction of music BTEC at age 14-16 in many schools is also an important consideration. Despite scant, current evidence to indicate trends in terms of gendered participation, it is hypothesised that these courses, being more reflective of pupils’ individual interests and abilities, will be equally popular with, and populated by, both genders.

Whether boys’ and girls’ achievement outcomes are parallel in BTEC music is yet to be fully ascertained and it is pertinent to note that on average boys still achieve lower grade outcomes than their female counterparts in GCSE music where exact comparisons can be drawn. Consequently, the notion that examinations surreptitiously favour girls’ musical practices over those of boys remains an issue.

Meanwhile, beneath the veneer of modern-day musical inclusiveness, variations in gendered behaviour are still clearly evident. Although the act of female display has many positive connotations within patriarchal notions of femininity, it still remains problematic in some forms of musical performance. Girls undoubtedly find positive confirmation in opportunities that invoke peer, familial, school and wider societal approval (such as solo or choral singing, and playing gentle, high-pitched orchestral, plucked or keyboard instruments) especially when within the classical tradition since there is a clear affirmation of the traditional feminine delineations of musical meaning.

However, whether female performers can be unconditionally accepted or approved of in the worlds of jazz and popular musics, which do not affirm but interrupt traditional notion of feminine display, remains an issue. The majority of popular genres are deemed to employ masculine methods of discourse especially with regards to the instruments and technologies used in the making of them, whilst many also appear to require aggression, power and physical strength in their undertaking. As a result, girls may abstain from becoming actively involved in them, especially where performing on the associated instruments is concerned. Instead they prefer to stay within the safer confines of the vocal pop ballad, with its classically-orientated delineations, since this is less likely to cast aspersions upon the very essence of their femininity.

Indeed Green (1997) suggests that a girl’s ambiguity, or even total alienation, towards playing bass guitar or drums, is not necessarily about her dislike of these instruments but relates to the interrupting effect of their dominantly masculine delineations. These cannot help but result in feelings of negativity, emanating from both the female performer and audience alike. As a consequence traditionally gendered instrumental behaviours still prevail despite our perceptions that both sexes have the opportunity to make unconditional choices nowadays.

Some of these gendered patterns are evident in the roles taken on by the school children in the School of Rock band started by teacher Jack Black in the film of the same name. Watch the clip below and ask: Who is/is not crossing the conventional gender boundaries?

This film has only one child crossing the traditional gender boundaries – a girl playing bass guitar  – but otherwise it’s the established roles in evidence: boys on drums/lead guitar/keyboard wizard/computer geek controlling the lightshow & sound; and girls mostly in subsidiary roles e.g dancing/singing as backing singers/one as assistant to the computer genius – and wearing headphones but not actually twiddling any knobs of course!

This clip leads to a further consideration: the role of technology in the current music and gender debate. Although women have undoubtedly made in-roads into certain male dominated areas of the industry they have mostly failed to break through in areas that have a strong technological tendency such as DJ-ing, sound engineering and producing. Meanwhile, popular opinion emphasises the democratising empowerment of technology and, particularly in the realms of music-making, its ability to ensure that the act of composing no longer remains the preserve of the gifted few. Teachers tend to perpetuate this assumption, promoting the idea that technology provides an egalitarian backdrop, being equally conducive to all especially because a knowledge of musical notation is not necessary in its employment. As a consequence there has been a huge emphasis upon its use in the classroom as a means of creative expression for pupils of all age groups.

Nevertheless recent research indicates that girls are more likely to display a lack confidence in all things mechanical and technological. Reasons for this situation are complex but primarily located in the likelihood of girls’ weaker socialisation in these matters in the outside world. Victoria Armstrong (2011) argues that although computers are not inherently gendered in themselves, the culture surrounding them produces certain gendered behaviours that become embedded in our notions about technology and ultimately shape our understanding of them.

In terms of music-making it appears that the genders use technology very differently. Boys tend to ‘doodle’, as they capture fragments of their own random creative ideas through experimentation. In contrast girls tend to be more systematically in order to assist in specific quests, such as giving a performance of a piece. These contrasting approaches have major implications especially when Armstrong’s research reveals that many classroom teachers expect their pupils to engage with music software whilst having only a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it. This sort of pedagogy undoubtedly favours boys who are more likely to be comfortable with the ‘have-a-go’ and ‘press-and-find-out’ culture. Meanwhile girls, who mostly prefer a more structured, incremental approach and often view technology as a distraction from the compositional process, are more likely to flounder and feel inferior in terms of their inability to use it intuitively.

In essence the issue of gender and music education continues to be a thorny one. Despite the enormous developments in curriculum and pedagogy that have occurred over the past few decades there is constant slippage between what we believe to be the impact of these new practices upon our pupils and what is evident when we fully examine the beliefs and behaviours that they are actually exhibiting. Most notably we should not fail to recognise the powerful effect that many deep-rooted and socially-constructed historical ‘truths’ continue to assert over today’s young people, in addition to those more tangible influences emanating from the value systems of peer groups, families and schools.

Despite commonly held global beliefs that boys and girls are now equally able to pursue any musical interests without experiencing the gender-appropriate constraints of past generations, the majority of young people are not rushing to break down these long-established boundaries. This is never more evident than in the musical genres that young people currently champion and consequently wish to emulate. The mainstream charts are monopolised by an army of female solo singers, who, with a few exceptions, provide glamorous and sexually provocative entertainment. Despite their wish to challenge the passive imagery of the demure classical musician, they merely epitomise another familiar stereotype. Indeed both extremes of performer continue to invoke the polar opposites of a well-known patriarchal construct, that of the madonna-whore syndrome. Meanwhile an abundance of young men continue to dominate in the more aggressive and macho worlds of heavy rock, metal and rap or more anonymously pervade the wealth of technologically-orientated urban genres that currently proliferate in today’s musical climate.

Useful Links

GRIME (Gender Research in Music): This is both an international organisation devoted to research in music education involving gender issues, and a special research interest group The National Association for Music Education (USA). The website is a great resource with links to related sites and an extensive reading list.

Project MUSE: Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture: An annual journal of scholarship about women, music, and culture that is published for the International Alliance for Women in Music. Drawing on a wide range of disciplines and approaches, the refereed journal seeks to further the understanding of the relationships among gender, music, and culture, with special attention being given to the concerns of women.

International Association of Women in Music: The International Alliance for Women in Music  is a global network of women and men working to increase and enhance musical activities and opportunities and to promote all aspects of the music of women.

Women in Music: Women in Music is a UK membership organisation that celebrates women’s music making across all genres of music. They raise awareness of gender issues in music and support women musicians in their professional development.

Further Reading

Armstrong, V. (2011) Technology and the Gendering of Music Education. Farnham, England: Ashgate: An examination of the gendered processes and practices that contribute to how students learn about music  technology, the repertoire of teacher and student talk, its effect on student confidence and the issue of male control of technological knowledge.

Baynton, M. (1998) Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press: An ethnographic study of women’s popular music-making (1970s to mid 1990s) based on over 100 in-depth interviews with women instrumentalists in female and mixed bands and exploring their experiences of song writing, rehearsing, recording, and touring.

Bjork, C. (2011) Claiming Space: Discourses on Gender, Popular Music and Social Change. Gothenberg: University of Gothenberg: An exploration of four different initiatives in Sweden that intended to increase the number of girls and women involved in popular music production and performance whilst examining the idea that they need to “claim space” in order to participate in popular music practices.

Bowers, J. & Tick, J. (Eds.) (1987) Women Making Music: the Western Art Tradition 1150-1950. Urbana: University of Illinois Press: A comprehensive history of women composers across the centuries in the western world.

Citron, M. (1993) Gender and the Musical Canon. Urbana, University of Illinois Press: Focusing on music since 1800, this book examines the practices and attitudes that have led to the exclusion of women composers from the received ‘canon’ of performed musical works.

Cook, S. & Tsou, J. (Eds.) (1994) Cecilia Reclaimed. Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Ten of the best known scholars in the field of feminist musicology explore how gender has helped shape genres and works of music (from classical to rap) and how music has contributed to prevailing notions of gender.

Green, L. (1997) Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge, University of Cambridge: Invoking a concept of musical patriarchy and a theory of the social construction of musical meaning, Lucy Green shows how women’s musical practices and gendered musical meanings have been reproduced, hand-in-hand, through history whilst also exploring how these notions continue to be replicated in the contemporary music classroom.

Harrison, S. (Ed.) (2009) Male Voices: Stories of Boys Learning Through Making Music. Victoria/Australia: ACER Press: Bringing together Australia’s leading thinkers and practitioners in the field of music with parents, teachers, musicians, men and boys, this book offers perspectives on the contemporary male experience of music.

Leonard, M. (2007) Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power.  Aldershot: Ashgate: Marion Leonard explores different representations of masculinity offered by, and performed through, rock music and examines how female rock performers negotiate the gendering of rock as masculine.

Moisala, P. & Diamond, B. (Eds.) (2000) Music and Gender. Urbana, University of Illinois Press: Through the experiences of performers, composers, and ethnomusicologists working across the world, various contributors explore how the uses and descriptions of music shift in response to rapid political, economic, or technological change.

Macdonald, R., Hargreaves, D. & Miell D. (Eds) (2002) Musical Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press: One of the first books to examine, from a social-psychological perspective. the power of music to profoundly influence an individual’s developing sense of identity, values, and beliefs.

Further Reading on Sexuality and Music Education

Brett, P., Thomas, G. & Wood, E. (1994) Queering the Pitch. New York and London: Routledge : The first collection of gay and lesbian work in music and musicology.

Gill, J. (1994) Queer Noise: Homosexuality in 20th Century Music. London: Casell: Explores the contributions of gay
musicians throughout the century, showing how their sexuality shaped their careers and artistic visions.

McClary, S. (1991) Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality. Minnesota, Oxford: University of Minnesota Press: Combining musicology with feminism this book covers such topics as musical constructions of gender and sexuality, gendered aspects of traditional music theory and music as a gendered discourse.


Page author: Anna Green

Updated: 15th January 2013


Leave a Reply