Journal Article

Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone “Gendered Feminine?”

Sarah Fuller

in Music Theory Spectrum

Published on behalf of Society for Music Theory

Volume 33, issue 1, pages 65-89
Published in print January 2011 | ISSN: 0195-6167
Published online January 2011 | e-ISSN: 1533-8339 | DOI:
Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone “Gendered Feminine?”

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This study reviews how medieval music theorists write about the interval of the semitone and contests the notion advanced in a recent article by Elizabeth Eva Leach (“Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the Leading Tone,” Musk Theory Spectrum 28 (1) [2006]: 1–21) that they collectively associated the semitone with femininity and considered it to carry connotations of lasciviousness. Examination of passages from a wide range of medieval and early Renaissance treatises indicates that a substantial majority of theorists describe the semitone in gender-neutral language. Nor does a contextually situated reading of the theorists bear out the impression promoted in “Gendering the Semitone” that within a central medieval music theoretical tradition the Greek chromatic genus, musica ficta, and progressions from imperfect to perfect consonance (“directed progressions”) in fourteenth-century music were regarded as feminine in nature and erotically charged. A careful investigation of the claims made in the article “Gendering the Semitone” raises significant issues about how historians of music theory reconstruct collective theoretical attitudes from past epochs.

Keywords: medieval music theory; gender; semitone; chromatic genus; directed progression; historiography

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