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By Dean Bland



Throughout history, gender profiles have fluctuated in their associations, and what constitutes masculine or feminine has often changed. The traits which define masculinity and femininity differ from what they were in the past, altering the gender profiles of instruments as a result: “the meaning of femininity was not the same in the eighteenth century as in the late nineteenth, and musical characterizations differ accordingly” (Sergeant and Himonides 2016). This change in associations can be attributed to the fickle nature of society: when societal standards change, the way in which music is perceived changes correspondingly, “musical […] codes are informed by the prevalent attitudes of their time” (Sergeant and Himonides 2016). This change also alters the instrumental profiles of instruments that bear strong associations to specific genders today, like the violin, flute, drums and guitar. The profiles of these instruments have suffered from fluctuating social standards with their associated gender profiles altering from what they were previously. For the purpose of this article, the use of ‘social constructs’ refers to an idea that has been constructed and accepted within a society; ‘gender profiles’ refers to the use of personal characteristics or behavioural patterns to make generalisations; ‘social standards’ refers to informal understandings that govern the behaviour of people within a society. This article is structured as follows: the first section explores social etiquette and its relation to music. The second section explores the verbal and visual elements of music (timbre, pitch and aesthetics) to provide insight into individual elements that may persuade the gender profile of instruments. The third section makes the case that a change in attitudes is what instigates change in gender profiling.

There is significant evidence to suggest assigning labels (an example of which being ‘masculine’) to objects is not uncommon, it is ingrained into our nature as a means to prevent us becoming overwhelmed from new encounters, “without this ability, we would quickly get overwhelmed in every new encounter” (Kaufman 2019). Even though this evolutionary mindset is there to aid us in processing information, a point comes when labels become harmful (especially the labelling of people) as it can alter the perception of what is being labelled, even after that label has been lifted. This is illustrated by Foroni and Rothbart (2005) who looked at the effects of labels on perception and judgement, assigning various body types with similar and different labels and then removing them, asking participants to comment on the images in both scenarios. Foroni (2005, pg. 78) concluded that:

When the labels were present, participants actually perceived individuals sharing the same label as more similar than those having different labels. When the silhouettes were shown again without the labels, these effects were reduced but they still persisted. It made no difference whether the labels were merely taken away or the labels were explicitly challenged by an authority.

This suggests that written labels are not vital for their enforcement as after the labels were removed, the view of the person was tainted. Applying this theory to the type-casting of gender profiles provides an indication as to how instruments attain said profiles.

With the theory proposed by Foroni, looking into societal norms allows links to be established between labelling and its effects on the gender profiling of instruments. The playing of many instruments has historically been labelled as “unsightly for women to play” (Doubleday 2008, pg. 18). This has contributed to the lack of instrumental uptake by women, propelling the notion that said instruments were ‘masculine’. These stereotypes were enforced heavily in the 1800s with women’s physiology and sex appeal being a prevalent reason for the lack of instrumental uptake.

Social etiquette

An early example of gender stereotyping of instruments can be traced back to 1432, with Luca della Robbia’s ‘Cantoria’ (a sculpture carved in the loft of the Cathedral in Florence) depicting males playing the trumpet, pipe and timbrel next to separate sculptures of females playing the harp. Within these scenes are very different atmospheric ambiances that begin to explain the stereotypes within the society at that time. The scenes where males are seen playing instruments are scenes within which the characters seem to be dancing and displaying active stances, suggesting that the instruments have an active and enticing effect. The opposite is said for the scenes within which women are playing as little to no activity can be perceived, suggesting a calm ambience. A clear difference in roles can be assimilated suggesting which part each gender played within that society; males being active and females being passive. This notion is further affirmed by the work of Baldesar Castiglione (1967, pg.215), an Italian author who documented the etiquette of the perfect courtier by explicitly describing ideal behaviours and characteristics for women in 1528:

And I suggest that she should choose instruments suited to her purpose. Imagine what an ungainly sight it would be to have a woman playing drums, fifes, trumpets or other instruments of the sort; and this is simply because their stridency buries and destroys the sweet gentleness which embellishes everything a woman does.

The same instruments mentioned in this passage are the same instruments that Della Robbia (1432) depicted, suggesting that society at the time had the same ideal of how women and men should behave. Instruments such as the drums (and in general all percussion instruments) were considered inappropriate for women as they required “energetic and violent movements”. Fifes, trumpets, and the majority of all wind instruments were also disallowed as they distorted the face thus disturbing the feminine ideal of “suave gentleness”. (Steblin 1995).

The Book of the Courtier was significant in influencing the proper etiquette for women in England and France for years following 1432, or as the critics express it: “this work, which portrays the ideal courtier, was a chief vehicle in spreading Italian humanism into England and France” (“Baldesar Castiglione Facts” n.d.). Going back further, to 470 B. C., sculptures can be seen of men playing the harp and women playing a wind instrument called the aulos. As wind instruments were forbidden for women to play in periods after this time, the capricious nature of the associations is apparent.  In summary, the assimilation of societal factors governs how instruments are assigned to genders. No matter the period the instruments are type-cast, the biology within which we are comprised of remains the same, and more recently, common links between the past and present day should be attainable in regards to the association of gender profiles to instruments.

Elements of music

Allocation of gender profiles is not only prevalent in adulthood, it is also apparent from a younger age. Marshal and Shibazaki  (2011) investigated the association of gender and instrumental uptake within children aged between three and four years old. The study found no significant difference between the instruments both genders perceived male and female, “both male and female participants appeared to perceive instruments and styles in similar ways” (Marshall 2011, pg. 500), showing that the gender of the instrument is not bias based on the gender of the child; both males and females alike associate the same gender to the same instruments. Within the same study, the measurement of interaction between gender and styles of music were documented, “the mean rank for each style was 72.95 for classical, which is weighted towards female and 58.05 for popular which is weighted towards male nominations”. Research carried out by Sergeant and Himonides (2016) suggests the attribution of gender to particular styles of music is due to “codes embedded in musical gestures” being transmitted, conditioning the message received from the music. In regards to singular instruments, the theory suggested does apply in reference to the guitar, the same can not be stated for the flute, violin or drums as each instrument holds strong gender associations regardless of the style played.

When participants were presented with a guitar in a study conducted by Marshall (2011), the difference between gender association was minimal, but present the guitar in different styles and the perception changes as stated by Marshall (2011, pg.502):

Results of the nominations for gender by style suggested that the guitar, when used in a rock style, is seen as being ‘male’ (Mean rank = 58) whereas when it appears in a classical excerpt, it is seen as having female associations.

This suggests that it is not solely the instrument that attaches these gendered connotations, it is the style in which it is played in also.

The results attained in this particular study show a strong correlation between what both boys and girls perceive as masculine and feminine. The questions raised following this are whether the children arrive at this association alone or whether there is influence elsewhere. In a study by Ables and Porter (1978), they examined gender associations to instruments in adults. The adults, ranging from 19-52 years of age, were asked to pick an instrument to encourage their son or daughter to play. The results documented stated that the clarinet, flute and violin were the top choices for daughters and the drums, trombone and trumpet were the top choices for the sons.  These results further corroborate Marshal and Shibazaki (2011) in that the flute is perceived feminine and the drums masculine. These associations are unsurprising as the period within which these parents grew up was a period of conformity and gender role expectation. Though the 1950s were a time of traditional conformism, there was an underlying discontent with the status quo.

Kuhlman (2004) suggests that parental influence on the association of gender profiles within children is prevalent as parents are one of the biggest influencers in a child’s choices. While the study gives some credible insight into the gender stereotyping of instruments, it does so in a geocentric fashion. Attaining focus groups from predominantly westernised areas only provide substantial evidence for the culture and society within westernised areas leaving a significant gap in knowledge that does not paint the full picture. To further understand gendered instruments, a look at cultural influences and ways of life is needed.

As discussed in the documentary Music (2018), in westernised culture a major key is seen to represent ‘happy’, whereas in China this key is the foundation for songs played in mourning of someone’s passing. Differences in culture play a big part in stereotypes and, as such, are represented in different ways. To underpin this, taking a look at ‘drag’ culture in western society is a useful way to explain differences within cultures. Drag queens in western society are generally associated with the gay community, especially gay men, “drag queens, […] are most typically gay cisgender men” (O’Brien 2018). As stated by drag queen Gia Gunn (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”, 2014) within Japanese culture, men perform Kabuki theatre which involves the sporting of gowns, application of paint to their faces and the wearing of extravagant headpieces. This artistic representation, within Japanese culture, is not associated with the gay community or gay men. Using this as a foundation for exploration provides substantial links to between the papers of Abeles and Porter, Delzell and Leppla and Griswald and Chroback, which aimed to show that gender associations to musical instruments are stagnant: “Some instruments, such as the tuba and percussion, are consistently categorised or rated as masculine by participants, while others, such as the violin and flute, are consistently categorised or rated as feminine” (Stronsick et al. 2017). This pattern seems to follow suit within age groups also, showing little or no change of gender association between individuals aged between four and eighteen. These results show that gender association, and associations in general, are ingrained in the brain.

Although these arguments give some indication as to why gender profiles are assigned to instruments, they do not explain how people come to make these associations – were they born with them, or are there external factors that contribute to this? Recapitulating the work of Baldesar Castiglione and earlier depictions of instrumental playing, there seems to be a perpetual need to categorise instruments. The gender profiles of instruments may fluctuate, but they always seem to be allocated to a particular gender. To help understand how these associations are made, I will now consider a particular genre that has been widely documented – rock. Rock has been known for its masculinity, ‘cock rock’ being a prime example, and an instrument that primarily affirms this masculinity is the guitar.

Changing attitudes

The guitar, within rock, has gone through many iterations within its time; from a lack of guitar solos to guitar solos being one of the most notorious features within rock music. In an article by Schiller (2017) NME’s list of the top fifty guitar solos features one female guitarist, Joan Jett; the other forty-nine are male which is surprising given the author of the article is female herself. This figure could be seen as a direct representation of how women are perceived in the male-dominated genre of rock, especially as guitarists. This [the results] then raises the question as to why there are no ‘great’ women electric guitarists in rock? While there are great female electric guitarists out there, not many seem to make it into the frontline. One theory could be that women being great at the electric guitar would threaten the masculine integrity of rock. Male guitarists seem to use rock to assert their masculinity, often standing in a position called the “power stance”, sexualising the guitar as an extension of their own body, “[…] for young men playing the guitar in a band directly enhances their masculinity” (Bayton 1997, pg. 40).  Before this period, masculinity was seen to be expressed in the rejection of fashion culture (taking care of one’s appearance, shopping, purchasing of fashion magazines) and other activities deemed as feminine. With the introduction of Glam Rock in the late 60s, fashion culture became acceptable in the realm of masculinity and so a new way of asserting this developed,  “the rhetoric of masculinity was dependent on the denial of men’s fashion and the attribution of fashion to the feminine sphere” (Gregory 2002, pg. 42). The masculine connotations associated with the electric guitar could discourage women from playing, encouraging them to pick up “feminine” instruments such as the violin, piano or flute. The dismissal of women within rock music has been a theme throughout rock’s history, with women only seen as groupies or fans, and if they were to perform rock music, they were to be the singers at the front line for male admiration.

This kind of stereotype can be compared to 18th century England where women were only allowed to perform a select number of instruments, the guitar being one of them. Cultural normalities at this time would have contributed to the decision that instruments requiring too much movement would deem the female unattractive and so the harp, guitar and piano, which only required minimal hand movement, were permitted for women to play, “[…] harp, piano or guitar: instruments they could play while keeping their body in a graceful pose, moving their hands only” (Stenstadvold 2013, pg. 596). In the 1940s and 1950s, society was still gender role dominated meaning that attending to children and running house errands were typically seen as jobs for females – the opposite being true for men, “men spent the majority of their time outside of the house and were thus able to engage in activities which had the potential to generate political structures” (Whiteley 2000, pg. 2). While this is one feminist’s point of view, at the time this was written women were expected to be housewives and brought up with the mindset that attaining a husband, having kids and being a good wife was the perfect ideal. Peggy Lee (1962), an American singer songwriter, also represented this notion in her song ‘I’m A Woman’ (1962) with the lyrics “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never, never let you forget you’re a man”. While these mindsets are still around today, they are less prominent as most young females now choose careers and other pathways, “[…] young women are questioning the need to become moms and recognising that choosing other pathways can be more gratifying” (Walker 2011). While showing independence in regards to following ideals, women are still more inclined to choose the instruments that society (who were influenced by past ideologies) have deemed fit for them, only very few differing.

The introduction of the electric guitar did not change the ideologies discussed above solely, it was the associations made between technology and the guitar that altered the gender profile to purely masculine. This shift changed the way guitarists played; it was not just about the music they played, it was about the performance they gave as well. People attending a rock show generally looked forward to the aggressive, adrenalin, and testosterone-fuelled antics the performer would get up to, as well as the music, “[…] rock does not signify simply as sound and that the music has to be placed within the discourses through which it is mediated to its audiences” (Whiteley 1997, pg.xxi). Remaining ‘feminine’ within these performances became increasingly difficult. The stereotypes associated with femininity are to keep composure, not be aggressive, not sweat, not to go red in the face and for your hair to remain in place, none of which are qualities any female, or male, possess. This view on femininity is old and outdated, but the current definition states femininity as “having characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for a woman”, (“Cambridge University” n.d.). When femininity is linked to rock, it is used to discourage women from partaking in roles which are perceived as masculine: “femininity’ is an artifice: it is assumed that women do not sweat, that their noses do not go red and shiny, and that their hair stays in place” (Bayton 1997, p.40) . As musicians, women are seen as sex symbols and within rock are usually being placed at the front of the band in full view of the audience as singers (Whiteley 2000, p. 52), and so emulating these masculine traits would be seen as unappealing for the males. This also lines up with what Castiglione (1967) and Della Robbia (Steblin 1995) stated in that the dismissal of women playing specific instruments was for male enjoyment. As women were brought up with the idea that attaining a husband was the only way to succeed, it was in their best interest to maintain feminine, in the context that femininity is exuding “suave gentleness” (Steblin 1995).

The introduction of the electric guitar ushered in a new way of showboating a male’s masculinity, “[…] it was used to accentuate the phallic dimensions of the performing male body” (Waksman 1999, pg. 244). As more guitarists became competent at the guitar, new ways for men to compete surfaced in the form of performance on stage. While the guitar may be seen a visual signifier of masculinity, it may also be seen as a verbal sign; the louder and more aggressive the guitarist plays, the greater their perceived masculinity. The visual signification of the guitar may be perceived through the accentuation of the phallic dimensions of the performing male body. Aurally, the volume and distortion generated by the instruments has a similar effect, amplifying the physical presence of the performer (Waksman 1999, pg.243). The performer who succeeded in these criteria was perceived as the dominating presence of rock and can be linked to the natural primitive hierarchy of males competing to be the dominating figure. Primarily associated with masculinity, dominance is a quality females are ‘meant’ to desire as to be subservient is to be feminine. Males, perceived as “strong, logical, sexual subjects” are there to compliment female attributes, attributes relating to females being “weak, emotional, sexual objects”. (Ott 2010, pg. 197), inferring that females need males to function emotionally and so the ‘winning’ male needs to be the strongest, smartest and the most sexual, all of which the guitar is seen to accentuate.

The technological advancements within music in the 1970s profoundly influenced the direction rock took. Using pedals to attain distortion and digital delay to add depth, the possibilities of what could be created increased dramatically and so rock began to take on new technological association within the music industry. These technological advancements proved problematic as traditionally, having logical thinking skills to ascertain technology and its components, was associated with masculinity. The association of technology and masculinity further strengthened the associations of masculinity, the guitar, and rock, “rock is associated with technology, which is itself strongly categorised as ‘masculine’” (Bayton 1997, pg.42). To be technical with the guitar was desirable as femininity, “involves a socially manufactured physical, mechanical and technical helplessness” (Bayton 1997, pg.42) which infers that a male’s technical competency was needed. The status to be attained by using the new technological advancements meant that there were more areas for guitarists to compete and so guitarists who could manipulate the technology to their advantage were seen to be heroic figures. Jeff Beck, guitarist for the Yardbirds, is someone who manipulated sounds to his advantage and stayed at the forefront rock by keeping up with the technological advancements of the time. To be able to manipulate sounds in any way he wanted proved to amplify his heroic status, “his ability to impose control upon the potential sonic chaos of the electric guitar contributed greatly to the perception of the […] heroic figure” (Waksman 1999. pg. 245). To play the electric guitar, according to research explored above, was to be masculine and so for women to prevail playing the electric guitar, they had to challenge or embrace the masculine connotations within rock. Jennifer Batten, a guitarist who played for the likes of Michael Jackson, stated in an interview with Guitar Player that, “the biggest stereotypes about women is that they are ‘too emotional’. But isn’t music pure emotion? If that is the case, there should be 2 percent males in music and 98 percent women” (Gore 2017).

Batten is an example of a female guitarist who took on the masculine connotations head first; using stereotypes to highlight the problems within rock in reference to the stereotypes associated. One particular trait highly associated with masculinity is emotion; specifically, the lack of emotion, “[…] boys learn that sharing their feelings is less than manly” (Shrira 2016). Music is seen as a way of expressing emotions and so according to gender norms, men should not perform music if they want to be perceived as highly masculine. Using these stereotypes as a means to challenge the status quo highlights the limiting nature in preventing women from partaking.

A common occurrence for woman wanting to succeed in the realms of rock, especially as a guitarist, is to be discouraged from taking up instruments heavily associated with masculinity. Chantel McGregor, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, witnessed first-hand the male dominance of the electric guitar as at the age of fourteen, “a major music label told her to switch to an acoustic because men might struggle to buy into her sound” (Spencer 2017). McGregor also describes her experiences trying to browse in a guitar shop and describes the sexist comments and assumptions the sales associates make regarding her competency with the guitar, “you can still go into a guitar shop in a dress and people go up to you and say ‘this is plectrum, do you know what one is?’ and I’m like ‘yes!’”

Women partaking in activities primarily seen as masculine will begin to tarnish the masculine connotations associated with them. Linking this back to Castiglione, this could also disfigure the ideal feminine woman. Men want to affirm their masculinity to avoid social segregation and this provides explanations as to why masculinity is imperative to a males identity. James. M et al. examined the social factors that pressure men into behaving and conforming to gender ideals and is why the need to prove masculinity is essential. They argued the “violation of gender roles can lead to negative psychological consequences” (O’Neil 1986) and so in order to avoid the social conflicts and strains, a man need to prove his masculinity. To prove this [their masculinity] patterns of gender-role conflict and strain emanate from a male’s socialisation and fear of femininity. The research carried out by James. M et al., along with other authors cited throughout, strongly suggests that stereotypes and socially constructed norms are harmful to individuals. The majority of these tend to emanate from a place of gender profiles, the place of which is continuously changing; instruments perceived as masculine or feminine now may not be perceived this way in the future. Gender is a social construct that constantly changes as society does and just as the flute started as a masculine instrument, societal changes transformed its association to feminine. As suggested throughout this article, the determining of an instrument’s gender changes over centuries as most the of associations in the 18th century were based on how females looked as they were merely there for male acknowledgement. Now, the decision is based on more complex factors such as pitch, image, history and style within which it is played.

One of the main factors in changing the gender association is how often it is seen with said gender in the public eye. As stated in ‘We Hate the Guitar’ (Stenstadvold 2013), the negative associations of the guitar and women was prevalent because of the extensive coverage writers and critics gave them. This coverage meant that if the guitar were to be taken out of its ‘natural boundaries’ society would disapprove. This coverage allowed women to be associated (positively or negatively) with the guitar and provided the foundations for social change with the guitar now becoming an instrument more commonly associated with females.


Today, with the likes of Ed Sheeran, the guitar has taken on a more gender neutral stance within society, attributed to the success of his, and others’, songs. Exposure plays a vital part in the association of genders to instruments as the more society is exposed to the sight of females playing the electric guitar, the more the sight becomes normal. There are many factors which contribute to the gender profiling of instruments, but as suggested throughout this article, the preliminary factors of this are societal. Documentation of historic and religious figures paired with books on the etiquette of women heavily suggest that society deemed what men and women could and could not play. Their compliance was only based on the views of others, and not of their own interests, as indicated in The Book of the Courtier. While the initial position to view this from is that of a misandry mindset, acknowledging that both male and females alike had constraints and rules within which they chose to live by is imperative in understanding that society determine how instruments are gendered. As is the case within different cultures, Japan as the example given, musical meaning and associations differ from culture to culture. The main discussion point referred to in this article is that of exposure; the more an instrument is in the public eye, the more it is associated with the gender. This was the case in the Renaissance period when women began to play the guitar on the street, changing the perception that the guitar was a masculine instrument. Even after the introduction of the electric guitar and its abhorrent masculine connotations, the likes of Jennifer Batten and Chantel McGregor began to challenge the status quo and made room for other female artists to feel comfortable in playing these instruments. While there is a correlation between other factors, such as pitch, these associations originate from an already tainted view of what gender profile an instrument is and as documented, is susceptible to change as societies develop.


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