Skip to main content

Ombre hues of orange are a backdrop for the text ALTERITY 2020


What is alterity, and why does it matter?

Alterity, or Otherness, plays important and challenging roles in music. At its most basic, alterity is a philosophical concept that tries to grasp how humans relate to the world. For the French philosopher, Emmanuel Lévinas, for example, embracing alterity creates a moral imperative to understand human existence as contingent on a loving and respectful acceptance of the Other. Often, however, such Otherness is set in opposition to a Self, and the relationship between Self and Other can manifest as asymmetrical and adversarial. Then it carries more specific and harmful meanings, especially in Western culture, as it designates an Other who is marked as different in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class, or nationality (to name just a few such markers) from a normative and often tacitly assumed Self: one that is White, masculine, heterosexual, Western, and upper/middle class.

If it is such a problematic concept, why engage with alterity in Western music?

A better understanding how music reflects and even shapes the way in which an Other is heard opens our ears and minds to the manifold ways of music’s expressive power. So often, this Otherness goes unrecognized: gypsies in Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, might visibly and musically be different of the people marked as White in this opera. But what happens if a favorite symphony such as Antonín Dvořak’s Symphony no. 9, “From the New World,” brims with musical stereotyping? Does it reveal merely a historical creation, or can it still contribute to racial stereotyping today? What happens when the creator of such a work herself is Othered, as in the case of the African American composer, Florence B. Price? And what if musical Others are not even human, as in the animals portrayed in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, a piece often used to teach children about music?

How do I learn more?

In the syllabus, e-zine, and podcast we follow the clues that this music, its creators, and its listeners (both past and present) have left us. We invite you to trace with us why such representations matter and how one might listen to these and other works to learn about how Western music shaped our views of humanity.

December 11, 2020