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How 21st Century Female Composers Challenge the Status Quo

How 21st Century Female Composers Challenge the Status Quo

Unlike previous generations, the stigma of being a female composer is gone.  So it could be easy to assume that contemporary female composers are not challenging the music industry’s status quo.  This is far from the case!  In fact, women today are challenging not only the music industry but societal expectations of women in general.

Who are some of these interesting & trailblazing women?

Keiko Abe

Abe, a Japanese female composer, has spent decades showing the world what ‘can’ be played on a marimba & has inspired percussionists all over the world.  In fact, her collaboration with the Yamaha Corporation led to the 5-octave concert marimba that is standard today.  Abe’s goal had been to take out the inconsistencies in sound & bring a greater range of musical possibilities to the instrument.  And, wow did she succeed!

A favourite quote comes from when Keiko Abe became the first-ever woman to join the Percussive Arts Society.  “I share this honour in celebration not only of the marimba, but also for music, musicians, and music teachers from around the world who create good conditions for better communication and understanding through the universal language of music.” (read the article here)

While Abe enjoyed playing music from other composers, it wasn’t until she started improvising that she began to realize all the possibilities from the marimba.  And, it changed the course of her life.

Graciela Agudelo

Agudelo, a Mexican composer & piano player, never wanted to feel tied down musically.  She always wanted her music to feel “free” & was drawn to the avant-garde style of music.  Rather than creating only piano music, Agudelo also wrote many chamber & orchestral works.

But, creating music wasn’t the only priority.  Agudelo was known as Mexico’s most important music pedagogues.  “Music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also a social sense.” (read the article here)  Ensuring primary schools had access to music education was something Agudelo tirelessly worked to make happen.  Between writing books & lobbying for the musical protection of traditional/folk music, Agudelo saw herself as more than a female composer.  She saw herself as someone who could push the boundaries of music, while also respecting & honouring what came before.

Kaija Saariaho

I was “introduced” to Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish female composer who lives in France when I was creating the “Music Around the World!” music labs.  What originally struck me is her humour as she talked through the challenges of composing using computers back in the 1980s.  Whereas now it’s possible to notate & create sounds instantly, it used to take hours for the programming to finish processing just a few notes.  She jokingly talked about going to dinner with her fellow musicians & visiting over the meal.  Afterwards, they would return to hear whether those notes had turned out.  It struck me how this was a labour of love for Saariaho.

Saariaho was one of the early pioneers of “electro-acoustical” music; a blend of electronic/computer-created music with acoustic instruments.  Yet, as her career has gone on she has expanded to trying new genres, like opera.

Saariaho’s philosophy of, “Everything is permissible as long as it’s done in good taste.” (see here other quotes) is an idealogy that creates great freedom for new composers or improvisers.  The great part is that improvising is a fantastic way to develop ‘good taste’ in a safe way.

Elena Kats-Chernin

Several years ago, I got Kats-Chernin’s ‘Book of Rags’ & immediately fell in love with her compositional style.  It was at times playful, earnest, powerful, & light with each song taking me on a journey.

Born in Uzbekistan, Kats-Chernin moved to Australia in the mid-1970s.  And, I get the sense they have adopted her as their own!  In 2019, she received the “Officer of the Order of Australia” for all she has done for the performing arts as a composer.

Kats-Chernin has an honesty to her work that has only recently become more common.  Whether dealing with the grief of her mother’s terminal illness, her son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia or the works she has created for medical & mental health institutes, Kats-Chernin finds a way to find life & something uplifting in any situation.


Who hasn’t loved singing along to an Adele song?  While I could never hope to have the depth & timbre of Adele’s voice, that doesn’t stop me from singing my heart out along with her.
Adele, a British singer-songwriter, has always had an honesty in her music’s lyrics that draws listeners in.  And, playing them on the piano is so much fun!  Each album is a snapshot of what is going on in her life & how she is dealing with the ups & downs.  
“Be brave & fearless to know that even if you do make a wrong decision, you’re making it for good reason.”  Adele has refused to play the part of a typical singer-songwriter.  Whether it’s her clean lyrics or more conservative clothing, Adele has made her own decisions each step of her career.  And, this has led to more than a dozen Grammys as well as Time magazine naming her (twice) as one of the most influential people in the world.  Wow!


This one may come as a surprise, I know.  And, it certainly was a challenge finding a Lizzo song that didn’t have the b-word in it.  But, I respect Lizzo for the same reason I respect Adele.  She has made her own decisions & refused to let the music industry dictate what she can (or cannot) do.  Lizzo is a singer/rapper/flautist/composer with a classical music education.  And she is on a mission.

Lizzo has become one of the leaders in the “body-positivity” movement & often includes this message in her music.  “Never ever let somebody stop you or shame you from being yourself.” is one of my favourite Lizzo quotes.  We are all unique & have something special to bring to this world.  But, how many of our students choose not to go that route because they worry it won’t be accepted?  How many of us do the same in small (or big) ways?

Taylor Swift

Swift has certainly seen her share of controversy over the years.  And, as I look at her latest ‘quarantine’ album, I see a maturity from this female composer coming through that I’m really liking.  But, one of the things that makes her stand-out is her push for composers to have more rights when working with record labels.  This much-publicized battle between a member of her former record label & her pointed out how much control the labels have over songs.  Even once artists leave them.
“It’s OK that everything isn’t OK all the time.” Swift certainly was right about that.  While her lyrics tend to focus on former or current boyfriends, they share the good & the bad of those experiences.  Seeing how she is remastering some of her best-hits has been interesting to listen to musically & see in the videos.  

Female Composers in 21st Century Music

There are so many female composers to highlight & it’s impossible to all of their contributions to not only to music but the world in general.

Who did I miss from the list?  Let me know in the comments below!

Looking to include more music history in your studio?  I’ve created a series of digital escape rooms that cover a lot of different topics!  To access these, click here or the big button below.

Travel Through Time-Women in Music

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