Gendering the Orchestra: Detecting the Female Composer’s Voice in Works for Orchestra


How is gendered information communicated through orchestral music? Linking recent studies and reviews to Marshall McLuhan’s notion that a medium communicates a message distinct from its content, I consider some of the gendered implications of how new works for orchestra are received and perceived by comparing the vocabulary used by two New York Times music critics to describe the respective premieres of two recent symphonic works—pieces that, despite pre-concert promotional marketing, about which there exist no prior reviews or scholarly analysis. Studies indicate that music listeners construct gendered meanings that appear to be influenced by the size and instrumentation of the ensemble, but that musical content alone cannot convey the sex of its composer (Sergeant & Himonides, 2016). Suggestions include reconceptualizing the use of gendered labels when introducing a work, knowing that the medium (in this case, the venue, presentation, ensemble type, compositional style) affects how listeners/viewers construct their perceptions of gender in music.


Women have famously struggled to gain access to the male-dominated space of the symphonic orchestra as performers[i], conductors[ii], and composers[iii], fighting to be acknowledged as musically legitimate and economically viable as their male peers[iv]. The entrenched nature of male labels and styles has not only perpetuated disproportionately male representation in concert programming, but also assumptions of masculinity as inherent to most presentations of symphonic music. This is directly reflected in a 2016 study in which seventy-one “musically cognizant” participants consistently misattributed the authorship of recorded orchestral excerpts to men including many composed by women (Sergeant & Himonides, 2016). The recordings were in actuality drawn from equal numbers of composers of both sexes, leading researchers to conclude that the sex of the composer cannot be inferred from the musical content of a composition, and that gendered information is the result of listener perception rather than musical construct.

The first hypothesis, that the sex of its composer is identifiable from the musical content of a composition must therefore be rejected. No differences in the compositional quality of male- or-female-composed works were evident to our listeners: there were no characteristic musical watermarks that revealed the sex of a composer or evidence of distinctive musical male-or-female- speak. This accords with the view of McClary (1991) “I do not believe that one can discern a composer’s sexual orientation (or gender or ethnicity) merely by listening to the music” (p. 206), dispelling the essentialist notion of “the existence of any specifically female style” (Citron, 1993, p. 11). —Sergeant & Himonides

Similarly, concert halls have long been engineered to amplify the size and blend of the orchestra (Ward, 2016), the concomitant sonic grandeur of which might be easily read as bold, monolithic, or confident: traditionally male sex-stereotyped characteristics. As a result, the combined effect of ensemble size and acoustics may jointly encourage a filter of “maleness” through which listeners take in a performance. Although studio recordings often occur in dry spaces with more easily controlled acoustics, numerous audio production nonetheless attempt to capture the reverberance and spaciousness of these venues.

“For the ‘message’ of any medium is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” —Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) seminal media theory provides a lens through which to examine how symphonic music is presented: the symphony orchestra and the halls engineered to best showcase such ensembles constitute technologies that, in McLuhan’s words, manipulate the rate, scale, and pace of the process through which the aural, musical, and/or sonic “content” is consumed. Moving forward from McLuhan, accepting that these mediating elements obliquely promote the perception of “maleness,” it is perhaps unsurprising that an unspoken congruity between “male” and “orchestra” has become a centuries-old standard that continues to discourage and discredit female representation in orchestra leadership, membership, and programming.

The use of language that communicates gendered overtones when describing symphonic music serves as another intriguing point of comparison. Whereas Ashley Fure’s latest commission for the New York Philharmonic centers on the emergent sonic artifacts of spatializing performers in a large concert space, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini writes that “for all its calm, shimmering stretches, the music is kinetic and disruptive, even needling, by turns dreamy and dangerous,” and describes later sections as “ravishing and eerie” (Tommasini, 2018). The dark sensuality and mystery connoted here can be juxtaposed with the apparent intellectual value conferred through New York Times music critic Joshua Barone’s (2018) review of Andrew Norman’s “Sustain,” freshly penned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic: “With the form of a contracting spiral and repetitive phrases, the score deals in cerebral questions about the nature of time, from the fleeting presence of a tweet to the birth and death of stars.” Barone points to an objective profundity; a salience that appears non-gendered in its assumption of a male presence.

Media resulting from these performances — video and photos — might evoke similar description. The ultimate assessment may lie in whether blind listening- or watching-test would arrive at the same conclusions. In furthering critical media literacy, it may serve teachers to recognize that perceptions of gender may be influenced in ways not as obvious as those depicted on a television screen, but rather invisibly woven into the history and practices of how a recorded medium preserves live performances. It is idealistic to think educators can avoid considering gender when discussing the creative output of past and present composers, and might rather seek to cultivate a more informed cognizance of how constructions and assumptions of gender color the nature of our perception.

[i] Kiek, M. (2012, November 24). Where are all the female musicians? The Independent. Retrieved from

[ii] Tilden, I. (2017, February 6). 'This is not a woman's issue' – tackling conducting's gender problem. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[iii] O’Bannon, R. (2016, October 31). The 2016-17 orchestra season by the numbers. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved from

[iv] Higgins, C. (2013, September 2). Male conductors are better for orchestras, says Vasily Petrenko. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Works Cited

Barone, J. (2018, October 4). A Composer Follows His Masterpiece by Aiming for the Cosmos. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Sergeant, D.C. and Himonides, E. (2016). Gender and music composition: a study of music, and the gendering of meanings. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(411).

Tommasini, A. (2018, September 21). Review: The Jaap van Zweden Era Begins at the Philharmonic. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Ward, M. (2016). The ‘new listening’: Richard Wagner, nineteenth-century opera culture, and cinema theatres. Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 43(1) 88–106.

Kari Franciswritings, essays