10 Revolutionary Women in Music Education

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By Elisa Janson Jones

If you've ever done a music history unit with your students, you've probably come to realize that the vast majority of the composers we teach about are men. And why is this a problem? Why do we need to seek out diversity? We talk so much these days about reflective practices and social justice, but why? 

It's because our students are diverse. We want to be able to show them that there are musical heroes and musical geniuses who look just like them. By helping students see the diversity that reflects them, we help them envision their own future in music.  We need to make an effort to select music by diverse composers and to be able to teach about women in music, right alongside men. 

Hildegard von Bingen

If you have ever studied music history, you will remember that one of the earliest well-known women composers and performers was Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a German nun. She was a writer, composer, philosopher, and visionary. She is even considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving play to teach morality. In addition to her songs and poems for the church, Hildegard wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters.

As most of us are not 'just' teachers, Hildegard was not 'just' a composer. She was a naturalist whose work is still celebrated today. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, her surviving works include sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text. Hers is one of the most extensive repertoires among medieval composers. As one of the few prominent women in medieval church history, Hildegard has become a stunning example of the impact of women from that period. 

Kassia 

Did you know there was a famous female musician even before Hildegard? Kassia was an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. She was born around 805/810 to a noble family and was courageous, highly educated, and beautiful. She was so stunning that the Emperor of Constantinople at the time wanted her as his wife. Not thrilled by the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia chose instead to become a nun and poet.

While living at the convent, she became a prolific poet and composer of both secular and sacred works. Her songs were incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. Documents about her show her wit with quotes regarding her distaste of thoughtlessness: "There is absolutely no cure for stupidity" and "knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig's snout."

Her works live on today as a shining example of a woman in a man's world, composing courageously and doing what she thought was right.

Clara Schumann

This remarkable pianist and composer was a true pioneer who had a profound impact on the history of music. Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck, is considered one of the most talented and distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. She started playing when she was very young, and excelled quickly, giving her the reputation of a prodigy. Her father forced her to practice for hours every day: piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition, and counterpoint lessons. 

Clara was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, a tradition she began at the age of 13. Playing memorized is now standard practice because of her. She also knew how to put on a show and build her reputation. She was an engaging performer and always took the stage in a white dress. 

She met her future husband, composer Robert Schumann when she was only eight years old. Clara's father was against the match and even threatened to shoot Robert should he go through with the marriage. Eventually, he gave his consent, and the two ended up becoming one of the greatest love stories in music and having ten children along the way. Clara was the breadwinner of the family, which was extremely unusual for the time. Even after Robert died, Clara continued to compose and perform into her old age, leaving a robust legacy for all women. 

Sister Rosetta Thorpe 

Sister Rosetta was the first guitar heroine of the modern age. Her bluesy voice and folksong spiritualism helped audiences connect with her and her music. 

Sister Rosetta became famous in 1938 with a record called Rock Me, and her popularity continued through the next decade. She was a stunning performer: a woman singing gospel music to the accompaniment of her own driving electric guitar – howling and stamping to the rhythm and song. Her music crossed over from gospel to the foundations of what would later become R&B music. She performed to sold-out venues into the 1950s and created the music that inspired the great creators of Rock and Roll. 

Delia Derbyshire

Living in a time when women weren't considered 'fit' for the recording studio, Delia refused to submit to the norms at the time and became a thought leader and creator of electronic music.

She spent much of her career in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where she used the technology of the day to experiment in creating music using electronic sounds. She created songs and soundtracks, the first techno music. She recorded and arranged robotic noises creating innovative soundscapes. She was inventive, creative, and an example of doing things in a new way, using modern materials and devices. Her legacy lives on in electronic and music technology being created to this day.

Carole King

You may think of Carole King as a singer and performer, but her greater legacy is in songwriting. Carole wrote her first song when she was 17. She has since become one of the most celebrated women composers and performers of all time. More than 400 of her songs have been recorded by thousands of artists, with hundreds of those becoming hits. 

She's won awards from the GRAMMYs®, the National Academy of Songwriters, the Recording Academy®, and BMI. She's been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was even awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee. The Library of Congress also awarded her the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and had a broadway musical written of her life. 

As if her music career isn't impressive enough, Carole has been an environmental activist, using her celebrity to help change the world. She continues to be an inspiration to many famous artists and women, inspiring them to not only create music and innovate, but do so regardless of any boundaries of society. 

Madonna

Though a controversial figure in music, Madonna has long been referred to as the "Queen of Pop," who has pushed boundaries on stage, screen, and video. She is a master of adaptation, and her music remains relevant today, more than 30 years after her first hit singles rocked the pop music charts. 

In addition to her musical career, Madonna won a Golden Globe for acting and has created multiple successful businesses to boot. She's been a fashion designer, written children's books, and made films. To this day, she holds the Guinness World Record for best-selling female recording artist of all time. She remains an influence for many young female artists who grew up listening to her music and watching her music videos, like Lady Gaga. 

Björk Guðmundsdóttir

At the age of 11, Björk began her music career. She is famous for her eclectic music styles that pull from every genre, creating something truly avant-garde. She's had 31 singles reach into the top 40 pop charts over her career of 4-decades, bringing her unique voice and arranging style to radios around the world. Her music has won her many awards, but her talent doesn't end there. In addition to being a singer, songwriter, composer, record producer, and DJ, she's an award-winning actress, receiving the Best Actress Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

We especially love Björk because She's the first composer to utilize modern technology in a new way- creating an album within an app that includes a proprietary educational program. Today, She continues to create innovative music, having recently released the world's first full VR musical album.  

There are so many more amazing women you can explore with your students:

Aretha Franklin. A woman whose voice embodies the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Marin Alsop. The first female to conduct a major U.S. symphony orchestra when appointed to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007 and the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. 

Louise Farren. A French pianist and the first woman in Europe to be an instrumental professor at a conservatoire, who composed one of the greatest symphonies of all time. 

Andrea Quinn A former music director of The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, who has conducted most of the world's leading ballet companies.

Xian Zhang. Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi since 2009, and regular guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Lady Gaga. the woman working her way toward an EGOT: winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award, while breaking the boundaries of performance style.

A list of 10 women in music education is hardly enough to cover them all! There are so many more amazing and brilliant composers, conductors, and of course, music educators that are women, with even more joining the ranks today. 


Elisa Janson Jones

An experienced K8 music educator, Elisa Janson Jones specializes in helping music educators build, manage, and grow thriving school music programs and have long and happy careers. She holds a bachelor of music, a master of business administration, and is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Education in Instructional Design. She is a master of time management. In addition to writing for Choral Director, serves as conductor of her local community band, is a columnist for SBO Magazine, and maintains a private lesson studio. Elisa is an internationally-recognized speaker, and has presented at national, state, and local conferences as well. She is the host and producer of the Music Ed Mentor Podcast, founder of the International Music Education Summit, author of The Music Educator's Guide to Thrive and The Music Booster Manual.