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Kollasj av Allan Thommessen

Rap as Sonically Moved Forms

Skrevet av Allan Thommessen

The content of music is sonically moved forms.[1]

Eduard Hanslick, music critic

My pussy teaches ninth-grade English

My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.[2]

Fatimah Warner, rap musician

I will argue that there exists a historical music theory bias against both black and vocal music. These biases double up against rap musicians, leading to them being largely dismissed by “high culture” institutions. In turn this affects the commonly held belief that there exists two distinct kinds: What I will call “serious” music – which  is judged by artistic value, and pop music – which is judged by popularity. 

Beyond showing this historical bias, I will argue that the continued artistic devaluation of vocal music is also the result of linguistic confusion. I sincerely hope it is obvious to every reader that the race of a musician does not actually affect the quality of their work, so it will not be discussed further.

1. Some disclaimers

Rap is by many understood as poetry set to music, so naturally there is a rich world open for analyzing the textual meanings of rap lyrics. However, others have done and continue to do this way better than I could. My project is trying to show that the tendencies to only look at the lyrics, and ignore the formal aspects of rap, are misguided. 

This project will also be limited to talk of «The West».  I use the term because it has influenced several thinkers, and I do not have enough knowledge to talk about the whole globe. However I do not think that the West denotes an actual unitary area or culture, and through things like the Internet everyone is affected by everyone.

The concept of “serious” music is captured by many names, such as art music, canonical music, cultivated music, and Western classical music.[3] I choose to use “serious” because it reflects better how we’re talking about a certain attitude towards music, and it’s not exclusive to classical music. 

I will be using rap and pop as synonyms, which is a huge simplification. However, influences from hip-hop such as rap, sampling, deep sub bass, etc. are ubiquitous in top lists in 2023, and have been for a while. Matthias Mauch et al. said that out of three musical revolutions they identified popular Western music since the 60’s, “the largest revolution of the three, 1991, is associated with the expansion of (…) RAP-related tags”.[4]

Lastly, I use “rap musician” to encompass a broader range of people than “rapper”. This includes producers, lyricists, mixers etc. This is to emphasize that rap is seldom the product of one single composer, which is what people working with classical music are used to. I could use “hip-hop artist”, but that goes beyond music, into fashion and visual arts. Also, the main point I am making here is that rappers etc. are actually musicians, not some other kind of thing. ‘

2. The current state of affairs

In 2018, Kendrick Lamar was the first rap musician ever to win a Pulitzer prize for music.[5] This is remarkable, given the fact that the first Grammy award specifically for rap musicians was created in 1995, more than 20 years earlier. At the time of writing, even the main Grammy awards are dominated by rap musicians. While the Grammys are very much respected by large parts of the music industry, Lamar’s victory was special in that it was one of the first times a rap musician had been acknowledged by the “serious” music critics. 

Since then, there have been some other examples of such recognition, but they have been few and far between. Of note is the Polar Music Prize in 2019 given to Grandmaster Flash[6] (Joseph Robert Saddler), who was a DJ pioneer and heavy contributor to the cultural phenomenon of hip hop. However, his main work was done in the late 70s and 80s. 

Most awards traditionally perceived as belonging to “high culture” still have not featured a single rap musician, which includes but is not limited to: The Gershwin prize, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medals, The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, The Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, The Herbert von Karajan Music Prize, The Léonie Sonning Music Prize, and The Rolf Schock Prizes. 

None of these have any explicit guidelines for which type of music that can win. It thus seems likely that there are some underlying reasons for this combination of too little and too late appreciation of rap music within the “serious music” community.

3. Historical background

The work cited earlier from Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904), On the Musically Beautiful, is considered by many to be the start of formalism in musical aesthetics.[7] This is the concept of exclusively evaluating the form of the artwork – ratios between notes, repetition of sequences, and so forth. In attempting to universalize his theory, Hanslick explicitly excluded vocal music: “We have intentionally chosen instrumental movements as examples. For only what can be asserted about instrumental music is valid for music as such.” 

His claim was that all the extra-musical aspects of a work, such as the interpreted meaning of the lyrics, stood in the way of analyzing it in formalist terms. This was motivated by a view of meaning called autonomism, which assumes that the artwork is all that matters for aesthetic judgements. Therefore, proponents of this view argue that the value of art fully resides in the artistic product. This is how philosopher of aesthetics Susanne Langer described the autonomists:

They seem to feel that if musical structures should really be found to have significance, to relate to anything beyond themselves, those structures would forthwith cease to be musical. The dignity of music demands that it should be autonomous.[8]

Autonomism most likely stems from Immanuel Kant, but it is disputed to which degree he actually meant it in the “artwork only” way that those who followed him did.[9] Through the development of music theory in the West these attitudes of formalism and autonomism have multiplied to form a large influence on traditions and institutions. This has in turn greatly favored instrumental music as study objects for music theorists.

While Hanslick was influential in the development of formalism, this almost pales in comparison with the scope of Heinrich Schenker’s (1868–1935) impact on the broader field of music theory in Europe and the US. In the words of music theorist Philip Ewell: 

It would be hard to overstate Heinrich Schenker’s influence on American music theory. Whether one specifically studies Schenker and Schenkerian analysis, tonal music generally, popular music, or post-tonal topics, Schenker in many ways represents our shared model of what it means to be a music theorist.[10]

The aforementioned Schenkerian analysis is characterized by labeling small sections of music (going by their written form as sheet music) and basically applying math to them. While this is only done in music school and academies, it is more or less reverse-engineered from the music of the canon he used, meaning it will always give their music “perfect scores”. Schenker used the same names again and again when constructing his system, especially Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Haydn and Brahms.[11] He was therefore heavily influential for developing not only the tools of music theory, but also the Western canon of great composers.

Schenker was personally an avowed inegalitarian. He strongly believed in the existence of genius, which is exemplified by his claim that “it is thus only a poor service that Marx has rendered his hero Beethoven when he himself, faced with such a powerful documentation of human inequality as Beethoven, nevertheless articulates the idea of equality”[12].

This belief in inequality was not simply a matter of thinking that some humans were more skilled than others, it went further. Schenker was a German Nationalist who praised Hitler, and he explicitly stated anti-semitic and anti-black views.[13]

Through the act of selecting for traits belonging to their heroes, canonizing them and using them as standards for which everyone else were to be judged, Hanslick and Schenker are just two out of a long line of European music theorists who are responsible for perpetuating racism and elitism through the entire field of music theory up to this day.[14]

4. Delusion debunking

Having thus established a historical bias against black and vocal music, I feel it necessary to convince some holdouts who feel that despite this bias, there are in fact some aspects of serious music that are simply superior, due to artistic value. Most judges on the serious prize committees will likely subscribe to this view. In broad terms, proponents of it will argue that popular music lacks complexity, because it has a different purpose than serious music, namely being popular. They are thus two different kinds of things.

I empathize with this view to an extent, because there are a host of well known issues in the music industry which stem from popularity being the measuring stick for everyone.[15] Musical traditions are dying out, some musicians can’t make a living while others are billionaires, and sexual harassment and discrimination is everywhere.[16] It would be really nice to have an alternative method of evaluation. 

Unfortunately, “seriousness” is not a valid alternative. First and foremost, it does not fix the power imbalances that underlie a lot of the issues we just looked at. All it does is benefit different privileged groups. And like we just saw, those groups align with other historically privileged groups – such as white people.

Secondly, the notion of complexity is so embedded in this concept that if the latter were to fall, so would the division of serious and popular music. Relating this back to the common view in music theory of formalism, we understand that what is meant by complexity is formal complexity. This means that the internal structure of music is what is supposed to be judged.

Playing along with this mindset, I make the quite uncontroversial presumption that music is carried through sound. For the purposes of this argument, I do not need to say how the subcategory of music is different from sound in general, only that it is contained within it. I also make the presumption that sound consists of frequencies interpreted by some entity. 

But if interpretation is what differentiates sounds, then the skills of the interpreter matter. The frequencies of a violin playing sul pont might mean something to a classically trained musician, just as the frequencies of a human saying “a” might mean something to an English speaker. This means that if you stick with formalism, the simple recognition of the sound of a violin has to be discounted as extra-musical meaning. But then there is very little left for you to analyze in terms of complexity.

Unless one can point to an explanation for music that avoids interpretation[17], the result has to be this: How “good” a musical line is to you, depends on which languages you speak. If you understand “Violinish”, “Classicese” and “Tonalian”, you will probably enjoy a Beethoven violin concerto. If you understand English, “Hip-Hopian” and “Speaking-Voician”, you will probably enjoy some Jay-Z. 

So far we do not have a valid way of basing musical value judgments on anything objective – it has always been about popularity, only in some cases there have been extra steps. So the award committee member is left with two choices: Either give the award to whoever is the most popular, or stop giving out awards altogether.

5. Conclusion

We have seen that rap musicians today, while extremely popular, are not getting recognized by ”high culture” music institutions. This is likely the result of a historical bias against both vocal music and non-European musicians. The main offenders in this regard used to be people like Hanslick and Schenker, but their views about musical superiority are still supported by modern music theorists.[18] The arguments these people perpetuate were shown to be mistaken. 

Here’s a pop quiz to round off. Look at these two images[19] and tell me:

Which seems the most “complex” to you?


[1] Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful. Translated by Lee Rothfarb and Christoph Landerer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. s.117

[2] Warner, Fatimah Nyeema. “Self”, from the album Self (2018). On Spotify. Read 16.10.2023, link:

[3] Nettl, Bruno. “Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music” in University of Illinois Press. 1995. ISBN 978-0-252-06468-5. s.3

[4] Mauch, Matthias, Robert M. MacCallum, Mark Levy and Armand M. Leroi. “The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010” in Royal Society Open Science, vol.2 no.5, May 2015. DOI: s.6

[5] The Pulitzer Prizes. “Prize winners by year: 2018 Pulitzer Prizes”. Read 15.10.2023, link:

[6] Polar Music Prize. “2019 Laureate: Grandmaster Flash”. Read 19.10.2023, link:

[7] Wilfing, Alexander and Cristoph Landerer, “Eduard Hanslick”, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002,, read 20.09.2023.

[8] Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. New York: New American Library, 1948. s.192

[9] Haskins, Casey. “Kant and the Autonomy of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47, no. 1 (1989): 43–54. s.1

[10] Ewell, Philip A. “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” in MTO: A Journal for the Society for Music Theory, vol.26, no.2, September 2020. DOI: 10.30535/mto.26.2.4. s.7

[11] Laskowski, Larry. Heinrich Schenker. An Annotated Index to his Analyses of Musical Works, New York: Pendragon, 1978.

[12] Schenker, Heinrich. “Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111. Vol. 3”, in Beethoven’s Last Piano Sonatas: An Edition with Elucidation. 2015. Translated, edited, and annotated by John Rothgeb. Oxford University Press. s.24

[13] Ewell, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” s.8

[14] Ibid., s.15

[15] Lamar did win a Pulitzer after all, and he has won 17 Grammys. It might seem weird to frame him as a victim, but this is about rap musicians as a whole, and more than that the message of elitism their exclusion sends.

[16] Tunecore’s “Be the change”, a self– report study from 2023, shows “women (34%), transgender individuals (42%), and nonbinary individuals (43%) in the industry report being sexually harassed or abused”. Tunecore. “Be the Change: Gender Equality in the Music Industry”. Published March 2023.

[17] Susanne Langer is in my view the closest to this in Philosophy in a New Key, relating things like “upward motion” to the physicality of experiencing joy. However, this is quite a fringe claim and is not supported by many music theorists.  

[18] Although none of them are cited explicitly, this project is heavily inspired by Youtuber Adam Neely’s «Music Theory and White Supremacy», David Bruce’s «Classical Composer analyzes Kendrick Lamar» and several of 12-Tone’s videos on rap analysis. Check them out 😉

[19] These are spectrograms: They represent the frequencies of sections – respectively from a rendition of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 5” K.283 op.1, and the song “Anxiety” from Tank and the Bangas.