Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXV, no. 2 (Summer 1999)

Gender and Music Composition: A Personal Perspective

By Cindy McTee, University of North Texas

Until the relatively recent past, I avoided talking about gender issues and instead, assumed a neutral posture. I did not think of myself first as a woman and second as a composer, but rather as a composer who happened to be a woman. I preferred to unite with my male colleagues rather than to separate from them, and so I became active in those professional organizations whose membership was largely male. I wanted acceptance by the men whose music I admired and felt that in addition to composing music of quality, I should also try to "blend in."

So what happened to change my attitude? A few years ago, a process of awakening began to unfold. Now, I can talk more comfortably about gender issues because I have dealt with some of them on a personal level. A part of the unknown has been discovered, so I neither fear topics of sex, sexuality, and gender quite so much nor feel that I must hide behind a position of neutrality.

The word "neutral" has negative connotations. It means "not aligning with," "not belonging to," and "not accepting" one thing or the other. In order to belong and to feel OK about myself prior to this awakening, I neutralized and even disowned parts of who I was. I did not accept diversity within myself.

Today, I can say that my gender expression exists somewhere along a continuum between the two stereotypical extremes of masculine and feminine. At times, my ways of being and making music are more traditionally "masculine" than "feminine" while at other times they are the reverse. I recognize and accept this diversity within myself and my art, and I aspire, not to neutralize or homogenize it, but to integrate it fully and celebrate it.

Recently, someone gave me a perfect analogy for this idea: "An integrated personality is like a salad with many distinctive textures, colors and flavors all mixed up in a round bowl, each item in the salad retaining its identity." Phyllis Burke expresses the same idea in a different way: "When I look deep inside myself, I see a variety of human traits -- many considered feminine, others, masculine -- but all properly belonging to me."1

In trying to explain my own gender experience, I would like to begin with the time "when I was a boy." How's that for a gender-bending notion! Actually, I have borrowed the phrase from the title of a popular song by Dar Williams, a young woman with an impressive following.2 "When I Was A Boy" speaks of passion: the passion of a little girl to fly and imagine with Peter Pan, the passion to be athletic, and the desire to be free of inhibition. Where does it say that these passions must be available only to boys, and where does it say that little girls who wish to experience them have a gender problem? And what of little boys who, in Williams's words, "picked flowers everywhere" and "could always cry"?3 Too often, society forces children into the two traditional categories of masculine and feminine, insinuating that if a boy feels a "feminine" trait or a girl feels a "masculine" trait, there is something wrong with him or her.

Williams's song describes my childhood. I, too, was a "kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike."4 Because I was athletic, wanted to wear clothing that would permit physical activity, and wished to play with the boys, I was given the appellation, tomboy. My "tomboyism" was a source of great concern for those who cared for me, most likely because they believed it predicted a sexual orientation with which they were not comfortable. As Burke points out time and again, however, "masculine" play behaviors in girls and "feminine" play behaviors in boys are not, in fact, accurate predictors of sexual preference -- that sex, gender, and sexuality are three different domains.5

I hope that today's parents are more aware that, when a little girl is ridiculed because she acts like a boy, she may grow up feeling cut off from part of who she is. She may have trouble integrating the feminine with the masculine parts of herself, and may experience confusion because she has been told that she is a kind of a boy -- a tomboy. The gender bias she has experienced may also make it difficult for her to make a career choice. Fearing ridicule or, at the very least, lack of support, she may be reluctant to join the ranks of men to become, for example, a composer. And if she decides to become a composer, she may wonder if in so doing, she will effectively neutralize part of what makes her feminine.6

What I suspect the girl in this scenario most wants is the option to feel and express femininity as well as masculinity without prejudice. She does not want to have her femininity called into question when she chooses to express masculine parts of herself, and she wishes not to be asked to shed her femininity in order to pursue a traditionally male-dominated career. She, as well as her male counterpart, wants what Phillis Burke would call "gender independence."7 The gender gurus don't offer much help. John Gray maintains that men and women are from different planets, or to put it another way, that men are expected to exhibit Mars behaviors, and woman Venus behaviors.8 Is there not a planet out there for those who wish to adopt the best traits of both sexes? I hope it's Earth.

To my knowledge, I have never encountered gender discrimination as a composer. All of my composition teachers have been men, and all have been very supportive. I have also demonstrated interest and activity in two other male-dominated domains. For a number of years in the 1980s, I was active in the field of computer music. I acquired a computer, composed a couple of pieces, and joined the largely-male Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). I received a very warm welcome by its members, and I was immediately elected to an office within the organization. I am not an active member now, but I still do belong -- in part because my experience with the membership was so positive.

Jazz is another musical area that remains near and dear to me. I began my piano studies at age five with a teacher who encouraged pop and jazz improvisation. As I went through school, I played saxophone in various jazz bands, and I now play jazz piano for my own amusement. Instrumental jazz, still played largely by males, informs many of my compositions.

What does all this activity mean? It may mean that my gender expression is often more typically masculine than feminine. If so, I accept it. And it may also mean that I've declared gender independence, or freedom from the tyranny of masculine and feminine stereotypes. I've simply followed my muse.

Three of my compositions, the first "feminine," the second "masculine," and the third "independent," demonstrate that it is quite possible for me, as a woman, to communicate the full range of "gendered" musical expression. I use these labels with some reluctance because when I create music, I do not consciously set out to make a "gendered" musical statement. It is only for the purposes of this discussion, that, after the fact, I have tried to identify examples of my own music which reflect stereotypically masculine or feminine ways of composing.

First is a short movement called "Night Song" from a work for alto saxophone and computer instruments entitled "M" Music.9 The computer instruments in this piece create a womb-like, dark environment in which the saxophone soloists performs a very gentle, lyrical melody. The sounds are rich and wet with resonance. This is an expression of warmth and subjectivity. In creating this music, I felt more than I thought.

The second of my musical examples, the "masculine" one, comes from the final minutes of a new piece for orchestra called Pathfinder. The traditional, "western" conventions of tonal striving, climax, and closure are at work here. The music bristles with rhythmic energy, and once spent, quickly diminishes to a point of complete cessation.

The example that might be thought to exhibit both "masculine and feminine" characteristics comes from my most performed work, Circuits.10 Even its title, related to the word "circle," suggests integration. "Feminine" techniques might include the frequent use of circular patterns, or ostinatos, offering the possibility of suspended time without the need for continuous forward movement and development. Also "Feminine" might be Circuits's tendency, through its steady, quickly-moving pulse, to inspire bodily motion. Circuits is music for the mind as well. Carefully controlled pitch systems and thematic manipulations provide a measure of objectivity and reason. Could it be possible that the appeal of Circuits has something to do with its integration of "Masculine" and "Feminine" elements?

The dichotomies between feminine and masculine, body and mind, emotion and reason, and subject and object have been central characteristics of Western thought for centuries. Matters of the body and subjectivism have become more closely linked to the feminine experience, while the mind and objectivism have been traditionally associated with masculine ways of being and doing. It is also true, I think, that we have tended to place greater value upon the "masculine" characteristics of reason and objectivity, whereas physical and emotional "feminine" elements have been considered to be "irrelevant to the objective nature of meaning."11

When I was working on my Master's degree at Yale, I remember having felt completely unwilling as a composer to draw upon the subjective, feminine parts of myself. For me, composing music was about the reasoned manipulation of materials into patterns whose logic could not be questioned. In recent years, however, I have rediscovered the value of subjectivity in art. I say "rediscovered" because I believe it was from a place of subjectivity that I began to compose music. Could it be that years of education eclipsed an important aspect of my muse? Now, I feel most comfortable integrating "feminine" subjects with "masculine" objects. I try to balance spontaneity with formality. I even accept that music allows us to experience our bodies through its sounds and rhythms.

Integrating stereotypically gendered "selves" of the composer was even addressed by Arnold Schoenberg, considered by many to be the father of formalism in music.

The same passage works will with a few word substitutions:

It is not the ["feminine"] alone which creates all that is beautiful, emotional, pathetic, affectionate, and charming; nor is it the ["masculine"] alone which is able to produce the well-constructed, the soundly organized, the logical, and the complicated . . . everything of supreme value in art must show [the "feminine"] as well as the ["masculine"].13

Integration was also given special consideration by Carl G. Jung who, throughout his life, was preoccupied with the problem of reconciling opposites within himself. He felt that the "whole energy of mental functioning sprang from tension between these opposites."14 Furthermore, he believed that truly "creative persons are not so completely identified with their [gender] roles as to blind themselves to or deny expression to" the psychic representation of the opposite sex which he called the anima or animus.15

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a case for what he calls the psychologically androgynous creative person who

in effect, doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.16

Regarding the dangers of non-integration, Phyllis Burke wrote that

denying the parts of ourselves that don't fit in with the gender myths is literally taking a toll on our neural structure. Through gender independence, there is the amazing possibility that, if our behavior became more flexible in terms of notions of appropriate masculine and feminine roles, we could literally affect the structure of our brains.17

As Americans, we speak frequently of integration. Although prejudice is still a serious problem, I would like to believe that most of us recognize and accept the value of integrating diverse populations and points of view into our culture. Do we also recognize the value of integrating diversity within ourselves?

To conclude, I would like to address the fact that fewer women than men compose music. The theories I've read include that women have been denied educational opportunity, that women have not had the time to compose, and that men have appropriated creative activity because the other kind of creation, procreation, is more closely connected to women.18 I don't have an elaborate theory of my own to offer, but I have thought about something that might be of passing interest, at the very least. Composition is an activity of assertion, and for the sake of argument, let's accept the stereotypical notion that as a group, males are more assertive than females. There are, of course, exceptions. I think I am an exception. For example, to compose, I must assert that individual instruments play specific pitches of exact durations at precise instances using particular performance techniques. In other words, as a composer, I must take charge. I must do something that men generally are more encouraged to do than women. The word "assertive" may be used to describe much of my music; it is often bold, emphatic, and demanding of the listener's attention. The music makes a kind of feminist statement in proclaiming the right and the need for one woman, at least, to express herself assertively through art. But I also recognize the importance of looking inward to create "in concert" with my feminine side.

In the end, however, I hope to achieve an integrated expression transcending gender and other personal attributes. My gender is one aspect of who I am, but perhaps not the most important. Does One's soul have gender? Is my essence dependent upon my physical characteristics and the role society assigns to me? As I've illustrated, the body one is born into certainly does affect one's life experience and creative work, but on a deeply human, spiritual level, I have to agree with Dar Williams, when in the final words of her song she says to her male companion, 'And you [are] just like me, and I [am] just like you."19


1. Phyllis Burke, Gender Shock: Exploding the Myth of Male and Female (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), xxii.

2. Dar Williams, "When I Was a Boy," Honesty Room, Razor and Tie Music and Burning Field Music, RT 2816, 1995.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Burke, 12.

6. The same is, of course, true for boys.

7. Burke's final chapter bears this title (231-54).

8. John Gray, Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992).

9. Cindy McTee, "Night Song," "M" Music, Centaur CRC 2213, 1994.

10. McTee, Circuits, Klavier Memorials KCD 11042, 1992.

11. Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); quoted in Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 24.

12. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 179.

13. Ibid.

14. Anthony Storr, Jung (New York: Routledge, 1973), 74.

15. Donald W. MacKinnon, "The Nature and Nurture of Creative Talent," lecture at Yale University, 1962; quoted in Burke, Gender Shock, 252.

16. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: HarperPerennial, 1997), 71.

17. Burke, 193-94.

18. Susan Stanford Friedman, "Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse," Speaking of Gender, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Routledge, 1989), 73-100; summarized in Marcia J. Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 45.

19. Williams, "When I Was a Boy."

Cindy McTee, Professor and Composer at the University of North Texas, was the guest of the Research on Gender and American Music Interest Group at the 1999 meeting. Professor McTee not only shared excerpts of her dynamic music, but also candid insights relating to gender and American music from her own experience. I am grateful to Professor McTee for preparing an abbreviated version of that thought-provoking paper for publication here. -- Kay Norton, Chair, Research on Gender and American Music.

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Updated 12/20/02