Nancy Yunhwa Rao has produced award-winning research on a range of topics, including gender and music, sketch studies, music modernism, cultural fusion in music, racial representations, and the music history of early Chinese Americans.
Her publications have provided innovative analytical approaches to cross-cultural music, and enhanced public discussions about cultural encounter in music. Through her scholarship, as well as teaching, she has promoted diversity and advanced knowledge and dialogue about the complexity of diversity issues in music scholarship.
Her book, Chinatown Opera Theater in North America (Illinois University Press, 2017), tells the story of iconic theater companies and the networks and migrations that made Chinese opera a part of North American cultures. Rao unmasks a backstage world of performers, performance, and repertoire and sets readers in the spellbound audiences beyond the footlights. Its stories of loyalty, obligation, passion, and duty also attracted diverse patrons into Chinese American communities. It received Music in American Culture Award, American Musicological Society; Lowens Book Award, Society for American Music; and Book Award in Humanities and Cultural Studies, Associations for Asian American Studies.
As a music theorist, Rao has explored intersections between China and the West, in particular global perspectives in contemporary Chinese music. She has published on the use of music gestures, vocal style, and percussion patterns of Beijing opera in contemporary music by composers of Chinese origin. She also received NEH Research Fellowship and ACLS Scholar in China Fellowship for this project. Her study on the American composer, Ruth Crawford, won her a national award of best article in American music published in 2007 from the Society for American Music. She has continued in the direction of sketch studies, for which her publication can be found in Music Theory Spectrum, as well as Carter Studies Online.