Music & Eugenics: Preliminary Observations

[This post introduces research from my Master’s dissertation, submitted as part of the MMus Musicology at King’s College, London. As far as I am aware, this is original research, and any errors are therefore mine.]


Between 1925 and 1935, students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY were the subjects of an experiment. In addition to the usual grind of weekly lessons and assessed recitals, musicians were made to sit regular standardized tests of ‘musical capacity’: psychological tests modeled on the then-popular Binet-Simon IQ test, that claimed to measure an individual’s innate musical talent.

The chief investigator in these tests, Hazel Martha Stanton, gave the following, somewhat puritan, rationale:

There is yet too much in music education dependent on showmanship. It is recognized that individuals who sing or play an instrument may or may not possess a high degree of innate musical talent. With music steadily gaining a foothold in education it is becoming increasingly more important that we have a means of identifying musical talent other than personal opinion based on performance, important as that may be.

Hazel Martha Stanton

In other words: our enjoyment of music is irrelevant, and perhaps even too sensuous to be entirely above-board. What we need is data.

The goal of the Eastman experiment was twofold. First, to establish that this hard data was attainable through scientific measures—specifically, the battery of tests devised by Stanton’s supervisor Carl Emil Seashore: the Seashore Measures of Musical Talent. And second, to build up a store of information on the possibility of this musical capacity being a hereditary trait.


The experiments run by Seashore at his University of Iowa laboratory inherited a number of European émigré sciences—experimental ‘brass instrument’ psychology, anatomy, acoustics, physical anthropology—but ran them through an American filter, one that valued academic knowledge by its industrial application. Psychology and biology were gaining ground at the same time as those great sciences of mass production, Taylorism and Fordism, were the hot new thing in labor force manipulation. Efficiency was the watchword, and, as ever, capital was king.

As well as being a heyday for the biological sciences and mass production, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries saw a shift in American racism, coming about with the introduction of ‘free’ Black labor into the industrial workforce, and a new anxiety over whiteness that incorporated both anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments. This cultural intersection—science, industrial capital, and racism—is the founding cocktail of the American eugenics movement, and Seashore’s lab was at its center.

What was musical eugenics?

Carl E. Seashore

Going back to Eastman: the twin goals of the experiment—to validate the Seashore Measures, and to point to their use in tracing the inheritance of musical talent—are expressly eugenic concerns. We do not need to infer this from subtleties of wording or critical reading: they explicitly state as much in the results published during the decade-long tests. Seashore and Stanton presented preliminary reports on the Measures at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921, and fourteen years later presented conclusions from Eastman at the Third. In his contribution to the Second Congress, Seashore makes his ambitions plain:

My proposition is that if certain musical talents are heritable, as we believe them to be, it is quite within the power of future generations to enhance the quality and degree of musical talent by conscious selection.

Something about this proposition rings as ludicrous to twenty-first century ears—innate gifts, selective breeding of supermusicians, it’s all a bit crypto-fascist. And sure, what makes for sound science in 1921 rings as distinctly false today: the Seashore Measures are scuppered by a basic methodological error, that practicing music (and particularly Western art music) makes you perform better in the tests.

Charles Davenport

But these ideas were the bedrock of a certain kind of musical thinking, and were hugely influential among those with the power to shape public musical policy. Seashore was well-connected. Sitting on the Advisory Council to the Eugenics Committee of the USA, he was in close personal contact with Charles Davenport and Madison Grant, linchpins of elite society and eugenic ‘thought leaders’ to the wealthy and powerful. For example: it was this high-society connection that put Seashore and Stanton in contact with George Eastman, Kodak millionaire and founder of the Eastman School. He was so intrigued by the Iowans’ talk of eugenic musical efficiency that he not only allowed them to experiment on ‘his’ students, but oversaw the project personally, and swung Stanton a permanent staff position as school psychologist.

Their efficacy apparently ‘proved’, the Seashore measures were used throughout the US in explicitly racialized studies. The new racial typography of eugenic theory offered opportunities to put long-held beliefs to the test, and, these Measures being a somewhat biased instrument, the results confirmed every stereotype: African Americans were poor musicians but had strong feeling for rhythm; Italians had a rare melodic gift but only Germans could put it to use, and so on. Eugenics was not only a science but a policy platform, and studies like these laid the groundwork for segregation in musical education.

What did it do, and why should we care?

The specific impact of these studies is hard to assess—while their published output is part of the scientific archive, the impact this experiment had on Eastman students, or the effect of Seashore’s speeches at the ICE, is for now out of reach.

But I would offer two preliminary observations. First: Not only has music always been a part of eugenic thinking, but it was an active priority of those at the very heart of the American movement. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s less-celebrated cousin and the first person to theorize a post-Darwinian eugenic platform, wrote extensively on musical skill in Hereditary Genius, a founding text for the global movement. And while Carl Seashore was always at the outer rim of the inner circle, Charles Davenport and Madison Grant are no minor figures—their personal involvement indicates a centrality of music as yet unappreciated in the history of the discipline.

The Seashore Measures, in their 1957 LP form. You can play along.

And second: that the synthesis of uncritical faith in science, rapacious capitalism, and all-pervading racism might have emerged in the early twentieth century, but we’re lying to ourselves if we think this toxic combination is out of our system. The eugenic research of the early American university would score highly for ‘impact’ under the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, its industry-facing STEM initiatives a model of corporate-academic cooperation. While it remains to be seen whether the resurgent populist Right will side with science (like its 1930s cousin) or against it, the case of musical eugenics at least offers lessons for contemporary music psychology, and for all those whose research intersects with—or resists—a government agenda.

It’s easy to point to ideological continuities between the eugenics era and the present day. But more revealing are material ties. Results from racialized musical experiments, carried out using the Seashore Measures, found their way into Richard Lynn’s 2006 diatribe Race Differences in Intelligence—a ‘dysgenic’ opus tracking humanity’s supposed decline, a eugenicist’s grand ‘I told you so’. Until his recent retirement, Lynn was employed by the University of Ulster, and before that, Exeter, confirming that eugenics is still part of the makeup of the academy, even if it no longer enjoys a starring role.

Lynn’s more controversial research, though, was privately funded. In a reminder that there is no such thing as coincidence: His publisher, Washington Summit Publishing, is a front for the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that was set up in 1937 to administer the fortune of the dying Madison Grant. (Both publisher and foundation are designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Centre). The Pioneer Fund was in its earliest days run by Harry Laughlin, formerly assistant to Charles Davenport at the Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, the same organisation that funded and oversaw the creation and use of the Seashore Measures. The same money that gave musical eugenics to the world is to this day working to defend it.

What’s next?

The limits of a Master’s dissertation kept my inquiry centered on Eastman and Seashore, but the story is bigger. Eugenics was an international enterprise, and a quick survey found admiring references to Seashore and Stanton in proto-Nazi Rassenmusik journals. Following these leads, as well as those from published studies from outside the American Northeast, would build up a broader picture of what musical eugenics meant worldwide in the early twentieth century.

And second: to get further away from published material. The scientific record is the easiest to trace, but it is mostly proselytizing eugenics’ virtues. Who were the critics? What did teachers at Eastman think of scientists barging into their classrooms with phonographs and standardized tests? How did it shape policy, and did these ideas persist after desegregation?

Philip Bohlman writes that ‘the science of race and the science of music are sister-discourses of modernity’. But these sisters were closer than we thought, and the transition through postmodernity hasn’t consigned their work to history. As historian Ann M. Little notes, most people in the past were awful, but through studying history we have the capacity to do better. Picking through the racist history of music psychology offers a way into how music and science have been used as tools of ‘racecraft’, and technologies for social control, in a hope that these mistakes are not repeated.

Image credits:

‘Individual and racial inheritance of musical traits’:

Hazel M. Stanton: University of Nebraska Yearbook, 1912

Carl Seashore:

Charles Davenport:

Seashore Measures:


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