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(NO?) Strings Attached:
Female guitarists in contemporary music

(Released July 2009)

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  by Les Reynolds  


Key Citations



The "Real World"


Other notable studies were conducted that bring the issue perhaps closer to a "real world"/practical context.

While still concentrating on the idea of discrimination or social expectations regarding women's instrumental participation in music, McKeage's study (11) at a U.S. Midwestern university explored women's activity in the institution's instrumental jazz ensemble program in which three graduating high school seniors were selected because of their instrumental ability (for this study, on the bass) and extensive background in the jazz genre. Once they enrolled, however, their experiences were less positive than expected.

McKeage was encouraged to delve deeper following an observation of one of the bassists that there were very few, if any, girls in the band on a particular day. McKeage personally observed that of the 30 musicians and teachers present, the student and herself were the only females.

Blossom Dearie at the piano
Classically trained jazz singer and pianist Blossom Dearie, 1981
McKeage counted 13 women of 53 participants in a subsequent jazz concert; but no women in the premier jazz ensemble of student combos-although young women, she notes, are common in high school ensembles. Each year, collegiate jazz programs receive a new infusion of freshman women and a year later, most of them have disappeared.

Once more, McKeage reviewed previous research and found evidence of gender stereotypes linked to specific instruments. Two ensemble directors at the university were interviewed and reported a lack of female role models in professional jazz as the number one reason young women do not pursue careers in this field. One of the directors noted that traditionally, women have simply been unwelcome in the world of jazz. The young women interviewed in the study reported a variety of experiences while in the collegiate program regarding encouragement (or lack thereof) and the creative environment as well as pressure to perform. It appeared that their experiences were overall somewhat negative.

McKeage concluded that while college is the primary training ground for jazz musicians and the teachers of these future instrumentalists, these institutions need to do a better job of mentoring, fostering acceptance of women and creating more constructive types of critique or the genre will remain male-dominated.

Musical genre, upon further investigation, also appears to play a role in gender identification with certain instruments. Once again, the bass, although this time in alternative rock music, was studied by Mary Ann Clawson of Wesleyan University (12). Unlike McKeage's field research, Clawson discovered a plethora of female bassists in a relatively new genre popularly called "alternative rock music." She also surmised that the entrance of women into rock bands via the bass could provide them with new opportunities and help legitimate their presence in a male-dominated site of artistic production and expression. Simultaneously, however, it may work to simply strengthen an already existing gendered labor division and dominant gender ideologies, simply due to the fact that women have historically been "relegated" to the less "glamorous" instruments.

In the 1980s, Endres (13) had already undertaken a broad-based examination of sex role standards in popular music, attempting to find answers through popular music lyrics themselves. The popular music of 1960, 1970 and 1980 was chosen for study due to the burgeoning feminism first truly popularized by the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book "The Feminine Mystique." A sample of 12 number-one rated tunes, for which the majority of the singers were men, was taken from each decade from "Billboard" magazine. Endres noted that differences attributed to both genders gradually changed over the time under review, until by 1980, the difference gap was quite narrow-although in general, men tended to be aggressive leaders while women were still identified as submissive followers.


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