Sounds Interesting

Is Annie Lennox really the only notable woman composer?

Is Annie Lennox really the only notable female composer? EPA/MARK KEHOE

Last week, Jude Kelly, artistic director of London’s prestigious Southbank Centre, was the most recent arts luminary to wonder in public why women in music are rarer than English cricket victories in Australia, saying that:

Women still tell me they find orchestras can be hostile, can undermine them deliberately, that executive directors can be sceptical.

If anything Kelly paints an optimistic picture. At the turn of the century I asked the readers of the arts section of London’s Sunday Times newspaper to nominate the greatest pop musicians and classical composers of all time. Only one woman (Annie Lennox) made the top 10 most nominated pop musicians, and no female classical composer received more than a single nomination.

It’s not just music that undervalues women. The same survey showed that no works by women could be found in lists of the readers’ 10 favourite plays, films, or paintings; and another survey of the greatest art works produced in the second millennium of the Common Era showed just one work by a woman (Pride and Prejudice) in the top 50. So the respondents apparently believed that half the population produced just one notable piece of art in 1,000 years, an average that would embarrass even an English batsman.

I’m sure there are conservative web sites full of pseudoscientific claims that women really are less creative. But a way more convincing explanation is provided by a classic experiment carried out in 1968 in which females were asked to grade six essays on 54 different dimensions. Everyone read the same essays, but sometimes the work was attributed to a Henry and sometimes to a Henrietta. Articles allegedly by men were given higher ratings on 44 of the 54 dimensions. In other words, the lack of well-respected women across all the arts is most likely due to classic misogyny.

So is there anything different about misogyny in music? Well maybe, since it seems that knowing a composer’s sex influences some very fundamental responses that we have to his/her music. A few years ago, I repeated the classic 1968 experiment but replaced essays with pieces of classical, jazz, and new age music. Information on the sex of the supposed composer influenced perceptions of the qualities of the music itself, such as whether it was perceived as forceful, soothing or gentle. Also, the respondents had clear ideas as to which genres were more suitable for the sexes: they expected jazz to be composed by men, whereas it was more acceptable for women to compose new age music.

In a follow up study the anti-female bias was strongest when we told respondents only the name of the composer, and weaker when we also provided a brief biography about him/her: as with most research on biases and stereotypes, the anti-female bias in music is strongest when respondents have little other information on which to base their judgement. So, one of the best ways to reduce misogyny in music will be to provide audiences with detailed information about the music women are producing: more words, and fewer pictures please.

In the meantime, you might have heard about the Bechdel test, which defines a non-sexist movie as one in which there are two named women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Next time you choose a radio station, you might want to think about when was the last time you heard a song by a woman aged over 30 that addressed something other than interpersonal relationships.

If enough of us do it then we could break a 1,000 year old record and identify two well-respected and widely-recognised female musicians in the next millennium.

Annie Lennox.