[Smt-talk] Gender Terminology in Music

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at scarlet.be
Wed Apr 30 13:45:38 PDT 2014

Dear Colleagues,

Seen from this side of the ocean, this whole discussion appears 
surrealist -- and quite American.

Let me leave the topic for a moment, in order to make my point. There is 
a system of intonation that is known (by many) as "just intonation". 
Others would (rightly) argue that just intonation is anything but "just" 
in any acceptable meaning, and that the term should therefore be 
abandoned to be replaced by... [make your suggestions, I personally 
don't know].
     The real question is: why is "just intonation" (which everybody 
knowledgeable about the matter knows as the least "just" intonation 
available) called "just intonation"? Is that some kind of a former 
aberration akin to "sexist" language?
     One must realize that "just intonation" is the term chosen in the 
early 18th century by the French Académie des Sciences, to describe a 
system that would not have been more "just" than any other, but merely 
whose construction was based exclusively on "just" intervals (resulting 
nevertheless in a system that, even then, must have appeared as anything 
but "just").
     To call "just intonation" by this particular name is to acknowledge 
a historical usage that has its justifications; to denounce it as 
inexact merely fails to see the origin and the history of the term -- 
and, eventually, its true meaning.

At one point, particular rhymes in the French language were dubbed 
"feminine" because they used the mute e which also was a common sign of 
the grammatical "feminine" category. How can one denounce the term 
"feminine rhyme" as sexist without denouncing the grammatical feminine 
category itself as sexist? Are we arguing that gendered grammatical 
categories are to be abandoned altogether? Would _that_ help the 
feminists cause today?
     [Should we follow the recommendations of the former Texas Institute 
of Theory (of which some of you might remember; some of it survives at 

The legitimate case of feminism deserves better than that. The 
"Sensitive Female Chord Progression" that prompted this thread indeed 
must be condemned or, better, merely abandoned, as nasty, ridiculous, 
unneeded, etc. But, even if we might claim that grammatical categories 
are sexist, that languages themselves are, that language itself is, we 
should not advocate the abandonment of language altogether, because that 
would mean as excessive move backwards for humanity. Besides, the 
feminist cause needs language.
     Gendered categories do exist, I think, in all languages and all 
cultures. It will not be possible to eradicate them, and trying to do so 
would be the wrong combat. What must be attacked is not their existence, 
but all what they exclude. What we need to claim is diversity, which is 
the exact contrary to rejecting diversity.
     We may choose not to use such terms as "feminine ending" any more 
in our daily usage, and I'd indeed agree to that; but to claim that they 
are wrong is denying both their history and their true meaning.

Nicolas Meeùs
Professeur émérite
Université Paris-Sorbonne
nicolas.meeus at scarlet.be
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