Eugenics at the Eastman School: Music Psychology and the Racialization of Musical Talent

Presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Rochester, NY.

I’m happy to share the typescript of this talk: please get in touch via email!


In 1923 the psychologist of music Carl E. Seashore gave a speech to the International Congress of Eugenics in New York, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the musical possibilities afforded by the burgeoning sciences of race and heredity. To an audience of scientists and wealthy industrialists—the drivers of the American eugenics movement—Seashore proposed that the capacity for musical excellence was a heritable trait, and that as such it was “quite within the power of future generations to enhance the quality and degree of musical talent by conscious selection.” This call to action was heeded. At the behest of George Eastman, Seashore and his laboratory, in conjunction with the Eugenics Record Office under Charles Davenport, embarked on a decade-long experiment at the Eastman School of Music, seeking to test the validity of measuring musical talent, and to examine how eugenic wisdom might be applied to music education. This paper offers new readings of now little-known scientific studies to shed light on the strong institutional, intellectual, and financial ties between American music psychology and the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Focusing first on the development of Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent,” validated during the Eastman experiment as a measure of supposedly innate musical ability, the paper traces ties between Seashore’s laboratory and national eugenics organizations, integrating the Measures into the history of standardized intelligence testing as an instrument of racial and class-based social stratification. The second half of the paper examines how the Seashore Measures were employed in explicitly racialized studies of musical ability, arguing not only that the Measures leant a scientistic veracity to existing musical stereotypes, but that the conclusions of these experiments were used to extend the project of educational segregation. In reintegrating the history of music psychology and eugenics, this paper aims first to expand on existing studies of music and scientific racism, moving toward a clearer history of racialized musical epistemologies; and second, to ask how such a history might help address contemporary questions surrounding the role of scientific research in music studies.

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