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Breaking the Silence: Gender Bias in Classical Music

woman conducting orchestra


“You know, half of humanity has something to say, also," said Kaija Saariaho, a prominent female Finnish composer who was ranked the greatest living composer in 2019 during her interview with NPR. Her message was clear: women remain invisible in the music field. Unfortunately, this tendency of ignoring women in the field of classical music has been enduring since its first place. The majority of composers we do know are male., with names like Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, and Chopin…We can’t even count how many male composers are dominating the scene. The number of celebrated female composers, on the other hand, is scant. This raises important questions: why all famous composers are men? Do we have female composers that can be compared to that of Beethoven and Mozart? If not, why?

Women in Classical Music

The classical music we appreciate nowadays was mostly composed during times when women were systematically and culturally oppressed. These were eras in which women were designated with the role of birth-control, household management, and serving their families. Women were confined to have roles within family, being erased their societal impacts. Considering the fact that classical music in the past used to be played in order to fill the elite’s ‘snobbism,’ the upper class did not allow women to compose for them. Even though women had a shining talent in music-making as men, it was surprisingly difficult for women to break into the exclusive male-dominated world. Clara Schumann serves as a case in point. While she is one of the few renowned female composers, unfortunately she was also a victim of gender barrier in the field of classical music. Despite her being one of the most famous female musicians at her time, Clara Schumann was only allowed to write piano pieces. The biggest instrumental music she composed were chamber works. Take a moment and think about her husband Robert Schumann comparing to her. He composed a lot of works in regardless of musical genre from piano pieces to orchestral works. On the other hand, Clara Schumann was not allowed to make music as her husband. It is interesting yet disappointing because she was musically gifted enough to present her own orchestral work. Even with her extraordinary musical abilities, which even stirred jealousy in her husband Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann was only permitted to compose small instrumental pieces.

But what societal barrier deterred Clara Schumann from composing larger work and instead focusing on making piano music? This was because the piano was considered an instrument that cultured women should be proficient in, as it was seen as a means for women to become "angels in the house." To become “an angel in the house,” educated women should know how to play piano, entertaining her husband and making their “home sweet home.” Many magazines for upper class family made images of women playing piano, stimulating women to vigorously learn how to play piano.

Old portrait of woman playing the piano

By simply saying, instruments have been gendered! Despite the fact that instruments are gender-neutral, there is a long tradition in music history of giving gendered roles to instruments. For instance, the piano and flute were often considered feminine instruments, while instruments like the trombone, saxophone, and double bass were deemed masculine. Orchestral compositions required comprehensive knowledge of instrumentation, which hindered Clara Schumann from composing larger musical works.

Another example of gendered instrument is cello. Women during this era were not allowed to perform cello in public space of the instrument’s positioning between the legs. This posture, interestingly, was associated with sexual connotations. While piano was an instrument that women should be learning in order to make pleasures, cello, on the other hand, was something that women should be avoiding of. Additionally, women were not welcomed to play brass family since women should not show their frown face during performance. This belief of women should have good-looking as performers still palpable nowadays. Take an example of Yuja Wang, who always put short dresses on for her performance. Some might consider this as Yuja Wang’s own problem of selling her concert tickets by appealing her sexy-looking dress, the underlying issue is that historical gender stereotypes have played a role in her dress choices.

Female "Invasion"

This remaining gendered role in the music field is still permanent, there are encouraging examples of female ‘invading’ male’s roles. Here, we want to shout out to Guilhermina Suggia (1885-1950), who was the one who broke the societal norm and made success as a professional cellist. A pioneer like her made a path for future generations to break the gendered roles that made difficult for female players to on traditionally male-associated instruments.

Claire Gibault, for another example, was the first female conductor who led famous orchestras such as Berlin Philharmonic. As her being the only female competitor in the conducting competition, she acknowledged the importance of making space for women. She eventually created conducting competitions for women, which allowed women to enter the classical music.


It is obvious that significant progress against gender discrimination in the classical music field has been made over the years. With pioneers like Clara Schumann, Guilhermina Suggia, and Claire Gibault were able to breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations, the classical music field is still deeply impacted by gender roles and biases. Will this be the forever ongoing problem of music? Well, nobody could answer to it but there are some simple practices we can do in order to break the norms. First of all, it is essential that we acknowledge and challenge these biases, Understanding that musical gift knows no gender. How miserable it is that we missed women version of Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms because we simply did not give chances to them? The limited space for women to make music also made us lose our chances to listen to their mesmerizing music. As we grow our attention to female composers and music from women musicians, we will find great composers all the time. In order to do so, we must pay attention to gender equality in the music field, by creating spaces that encourage and empower female musicians, composers, conductors, and performers without restriction.

There are other things that we could do in order to get rid of gendered roles in the classical music field in our daily. If our children are about to choose which instruments to play in school orchestra, never encourage them to learn instruments that are fit into their gender. Encouraging girls to learn brass family, and boys to play flute and oboe. By doing that, the problems of orchestra lacking female players will be gradually solved. Only when we reconstruct gendered roles and biases can we fully appreciate the richness of classical music.

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