Musical Selection: Eugenics, Ethnomusicology, and the Right

[Presented at the 2021 meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, online.]


A recent book by Richard Lynn, mentor to Bell Curve author Charles Murray and arguably the world’s foremost race scientist, cites several ethnomusicologists. Lynn uses a series of studies on musical ability, conducted between 1928 and 1981, to make an argument common in contemporary race science: that the seemingly obvious truth of hereditary musical ability can stand as proof for the heritability of other factors, like intelligence. Racialized differences in musicking, it is argued, confirm racial difference writ large.

This paper returns to the studies Lynn cites, to explore the process by which academic music studies can become white supremacist propaganda. A significant connection between them is their use of the “Seashore Measures of Musical Talent” (1919), a purportedly neutral tool for diagnosing musical ability that my research has confirmed was developed with prominent figures in the American eugenics movement. Transforming musicality to an accretion of numerical variables, the “Measures” made musicality available to the kind of statistical control typically associated with biopolitics: and, thus, offered the suggestion that the nation’s musical life, along with other traits of the body politic, could be improved upon by means of artificial selection. While eugenics faded from the mainstream, writers like Lynn and Murray continue to draw on the intellectual resources it created. I conclude by suggesting that analogies between social reproduction and sexual reproduction offered by Marxian feminist theory offer a way of interpreting, and rebutting, the continued use of eugenic (ethno)musicological writing in the literature of the modern far Right.

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