Research Through Music

McCaleb, Murphy (2012) “Research Through Music: Reflecting on Practice-as-research Within a Conservatoire Doctoral Programme” delivered at the Association Européenne des Conservatoires sponsored European Platform for Artistic Research in Music, Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 10–12 May.



    Musical practice, be it composition or performance, permeates the research department at Birmingham Conservatoire (Birmingham City University). In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise Peter Johnson, then Head of Research, outlines the Conservatoire’s committed strategy to 'develop academic and technological infrastructures as complements to practice-as-research’ (Johnson, 2008: 3.1). Four years later, to what degree may this strategy be considered successful? Through a series of semi-open interviews, this paper examines the individual impact musical practice-as-research has had on eight doctoral students at the Conservatoire. The students range from first-year candidates to recent alumni, and include musicologists, composers, and performance theorists. In addition, this paper includes interviews with faculty members who have been integral in developing this academic strategy, particularly Peter Johnson and Ronald Woodley (current Director of the Centre for Music and Performance). This combination of interviews provides the basis upon which a broader picture of a doctoral programme of study rooted in artistic research may be painted.

    This paper presents an opportunity to reflect upon integral questions surrounding the use of practice-as-research within doctoral programmes. These include, but are not limited to:

  • What difficulties and benefits have been encountered when conducting this form of research?
  • To what extent have individual doctoral projects evolved through practice-as-research?
  • How may this form of research be affected through being conducted within a Conservatoire environment?
  • To what extent have current doctoral students chosen to attend Birmingham Conservatoire due of its emphasis on practice-as-research?
  • What additional methodological and academic support has been required by doctoral students in order to pursue this form of research?
  • To what extent have students drawn on practices from elsewhere?
  • Do students identify and participate within a significant community of practice-as-research scholars outside of Birmingham Conservatoire?

Exploration of these questions and others allow for two distinct outcomes. First, these questions enable a critique Birmingham Conservatoire’s efforts in promoting and sustaining a culture of practice-as-research. Second, they allow investigation of the extent to which practice-as-research may serve as an effective methodological and epistemological tool within academic research in general.


Introduction and Context

    Musical practice, be it composition or performance, permeates the research department at Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise Peter Johnson, then Head of Research, outlines the Conservatoire’s committed strategy to ‘develop academic and technological infrastructures as complements to practice-as-research’ (Johnson, 2008: 3.1). Four years later, to what degree may this strategy be considered successful? This paper explores the current state of musical practice-as-research at Birmingham Conservatoire from two perspectives: ‘downward’, from the perspective of university faculty and administrators, and ‘upward’, from the perspective of current and former students. The combination of these two approaches provides the basis upon which a broader picture of a doctoral programme of study rooted in artistic research may be painted.

    Before explaining the particular details of this exploratory study, it is necessary to provide some brief background on research at Birmingham Conservatoire. Founded in 1993, the research programme was the first of its kind to be established at a British conservatoire (Birmingham Conservatoire, 2012). This occurred shortly after its parent institution, Birmingham Polytechnic, was granted university status, becoming the University of Central England (Ibid., 2012). The practice-oriented culture of study inherent in the polytechnic model proved to be helpful in the construction of research programmes within a conservatoire setting, as other constituent bodies within UCE such as the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design had already been conducting similar research (Johnson, 2012: 2:23). Peter Johnson describes how interdisciplinary collaboration was integral to the construction of the programme, particularly in terms of finding an appropriate balance between compositional output and written commentary (Ibid.: 4:19). From its original focus on ‘traditional’ (i.e. historical and analytical) musicology and composition, the research programme expanded to include aspects of performance research by the end of the twentieth century. This growth paralleled concessions made by British funding councils throughout the course of their Research Assessment Exercises (and the other various names such evaluations have taken); composition-based research became increasingly well-received in the late 1990s, followed by a similar gradual acknowledgement of performance-based research in the early 2000s (Woodley, 2012). Whilst the output of such a practice-oriented research programme is increasingly accepted by formal funding bodies, the structure of these programmes remains flexible, a point which will be discussed further within this paper.

    Currently, Birmingham Conservatoire has thirty-nine doctoral research students, of which eleven are full time (Reeve, 2012). Fifteen students are local to Birmingham, enabling them to participate more extensively within the day-to-day activities of the Conservatoire than they may otherwise. Dissertation topics range from compositional commentaries to historical musicology and performance studies, with a strong emphasis on practice-based methodologies. Within the last year, there have been six successful completions. This paper critiques the effectiveness of the Conservatoire’s research strategy and efforts to promote practice-as-research.


Method and Results

    This paper is grounded in two primary sources: faculty and students. The first consists of a semi-open interview with former Head of Research Peter Johnson and email correspondence with Professor Ronald Woodley, current Director of the Centre for Music and Performance. In addition to their administrative roles, both professors have actively advised research students throughout their tenure at the Conservatoire. Technical details of the Conservatoire’s research student population have been provided through personal correspondence with Liz Reeve, Research Administrator for Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Performance, Media and English. The information from these interviews and correspondences provide a staff perspective on the administration and advising of practice-oriented research degrees.

    The second primary source drawn upon in this paper is the research students themselves. In order to examine the impact musical practice-as-research has had on the individual doctoral programmes taking place at Birmingham Conservatoire, an online survey was devised consisting of three sections. The first section establishes the particular technical details of each respondent: the year their doctoral programme began, their mode of study (full or part time), the musicological area they focus upon, and the their previous musical background. The second section poses a series of short answer questions as to the development of each respondent’s doctoral programme:

  1. Has practice-as-research impacted the course your doctoral research has taken? If so, in what ways has this happened?
  2. What difficulties and benefits have you encountered through using practice-as-research within your doctoral programme?
  3. Has your research been affected through being conducted within a Conservatoire environment? If so, in what ways?
  4. What specific methodological and academic support have you required in order to pursue musical practice-as-research within your doctorate?
  5. To what extent has your research drawn on practices taken from areas outside of Birmingham Conservatoire? Are you aware of a larger community of scholars conducting practice-as-research? If so, do you participate within this community?

The third section presents a Likert scale consisting of five statements which the respondents are asked to rate in terms of agreement or disagreement:

  • Practice-as-research is actively conducted by Conservatoire faculty.
  • Practice-as-research is actively conducted by Conservatoire doctoral students.
  • The Conservatoire publicly promotes practice-as-research.
  • My choice to attend the Conservatoire was affected by its emphasis on practice-as-research.
  • Practice-as-research is actively promoted by my advisors.

At the end of the survey, respondents are asked to provide any additional comments that are not addressed by previous questions.

    The survey was administered to nine current and former local research students, including myself. Of these students, five are composers and four are performance theorists. All but one of the students studies full time, and three of the students (myself included) have successfully completed degrees within the last year. The students were asked to participate in the study due to their extended exposure to Birmingham Conservatoire’s environment as local students and to provide a balance of research focus between composition and musicology. All of the students surveyed have agreed to have their responses attributed to them by name.

    Responses to the short answer questions posed within the survey as well as the results of the Likert Scale have been integrated into discussion on emergent themes and trends found later within this paper. The results of the Likert Scale have been analysed in three different groupings: all respondents, purely those students focusing on composition, and purely those students focusing on performance studies (See Tables 1–3 and Figures 1–3. NB: The Likert items have been truncated to represent the content of their statements, i.e. ‘Practice-as-research is actively conducted by Conservatoire faculty’ has been condensed to ‘Faculty Conducted’, etc.). Due to the ordinal nature of the responses to each Likert statement, the results have not been subjected to statistical analysis or averaging.

 Table 1: All respondents.

Table 1: All respondents.

 Figure 1: All respondents.

Figure 1: All respondents.

 Table 2: Composition-focused students.

Table 2: Composition-focused students.

 Figure 2: Composition-focused students.

Figure 2: Composition-focused students.

 Table 3: Performance-focused students.

Table 3: Performance-focused students.

 Figure 3: Performance-focused students.

Figure 3: Performance-focused students.

Emergent Themes

    The responses collected from the survey questions, Likert statements, and correspondences with university administration highlight benefits and deficiencies to Birmingham Conservatoire’s research strategy. These issues fall into the following broad categories: structuring the doctoral programme and output, support required for research, the current research environment, and the Conservatoire within the wider academic and musical community.

    All but one of the students surveyed responded that they actively use practice-as-research within their doctoral programme. Of the students that use practice-as-research, there are certain trends to the positive and negative aspects to this methodological approach. Positives include the emphasis on what Sebastiano Dessanay calls the inherent ‘self-assessment process’. Seán Clancy remarks that this reflection may result in ‘a stronger body of work as an artist through the process of research’. Likewise, Joanna Szalewska-Pineau comments that practice-as-research has ‘expanded my awareness as a musician, and has given me tools for researching music from the performer’s perspective and possibly for my future pedagogical practice.’ However, practice-as-research may also present difficulties in structuring a doctoral programme and resulting thesis. Tychonas Michailidis writes that ‘there is no specific approach in conducting that type of research’, a point echoed by Joanna, who ‘encountered certain problems first finding appropriate vocabulary to discuss performance issues in my thesis, and second finding useful methodological tools for analysing performance different than acoustic analysis’. In my survey response, I note that there are ‘very few models of practice-as-research theses in music, which makes it difficult to see how to actually structure and report results from your own experience’. Sebastiano similarly remarks that, even when writing a composition commentary, his research ‘may appear/sound too personal’. Peter Johnson explains how these difficulties in finding appropriate ways to structure doctoral programmes has historically encouraged some students to migrate from practice-oriented research to more traditional musicology (Johnson, 2012: 18:30). That being said, Carolina Noguera Palau writes that the lack of standardisation is a benefit, allowing her ‘more freedom (less guidance, in a way) but more allowance to be creative and original’. Looking at the variety of responses dealing with the benefits and drawbacks of using practice-as-research, it should be noted that the majority of those students who report issues relating to structure and terminology are performance theorists rather than composers. This may be explained by the existence of a larger pool of composition commentaries available to be used as representative models. Along these lines, Ronald Woodley remarks that ‘of the two main arms of practice-as-research (composition and performance), it is certainly the case that composition is the more developed and mature; it still seems somewhat easier to articulate the original research component here than in many performance activities’ (Woodley, 2012). As numbers of performance-oriented theses utilising practice-as-research increase, issues surrounding doctoral programme and thesis structuring may decrease accordingly.

    The survey responses bring to light some of the specific issues surrounding the role of the advisor within a doctoral programme based on practice-as-research. Several students comment that their advisors act as a ‘constant sounding board’ (Seán Clancy), providing feedback and critique (René Mogensen): characteristics which could theoretically apply to any higher education advisors. More specifically, Joanna remarks that she has needed support learning how to ‘theoretically contextualise my reflections as a practitioner and clearly convey my arguments’. I was fortunate enough to work with two advisors (Peter Johnson and John Sparrow) who were both very passionate about practice-as-research, continually pushing me to ‘be as rigorous and as exploratory as I could be’ by drawing on all of my experience as a performer. The results from the Likert Scale are particularly revealing, however, in terms of the relationship between students, advisors, and the perceived use of practice-as-research. Whilst the composers are fairly neutral as to whether or not they perceive that faculty actively conduct practice-as-research (and are in relative disagreement as to how much their individual advisors promote this methodology), the performance theorists surveyed indicate that they perceive that their advisors promote practice-as-research considerably more than they actually conduct it. Five of the nine respondents perceive that Conservatoire doctoral students conduct practice-as-research more than the faculty does, with two respondents not noticing a difference and two feeling the opposite. These responses suggest that there is more of a research student environment of practice-as-research than necessarily such a faculty-led environment. This has been noted by Johnson, who says that ‘the environment is dramatically changing from the bottom up’; in his promotion of practice-as-research at various conferences, he encountered great enthusiasm from students about practice-as-research, yet general reluctance from other established members of academia (Johnson, 2012: 47:28).

    All of the respondents report, to varying degrees, that the Conservatoire environment is beneficial to their research. René Mogensen writes how he values the ‘access to environment with many performers and composers’ found within the Conservatoire, a feeling shared by Seán Clancy:

Having a multiplicity of performers in this environment allows for a great degree of experimentation and a quick turn around in results in relation to research questions. This kind [of] environment also steers research more towards practical application as opposed to theoretical/philosophical applications.

Sebastiano, who plays double bass, comments that ‘taking part in many performances with many different ensembles keeps the reflective process alive and makes you continually re-assess and re-weigh your output’—a reflective process which has been integral to my own research as well. Roberto Alonso Trillo reflects somewhat more philosophically, writing that:

the Conservatoire provides the most adequate environment to undertake performance-based research, creating a unique scenario where musical scholarship coexists with musical performance and composition. In doing so it undeniably affects, positively, the way research is undertaken.

It is important to note that of the nine students surveyed, six remarked that their research was impacted by experience gained outside of the Conservatoire, either through previous degrees or non-musical fields of study. As will be discussed further within this paper, the Conservatoire exists within a much larger musical and academic community, which necessarily affects how research may be carried out within its doctoral programmes.

    Whilst I do not wish to overly focus on any one student’s experiences, I would like to briefly explore a comment made by Joe Scarffe, a performance theorist who does not actively use practice-as-research within his own ethnographic study of graphic score performance. He notes that ‘being surrounded by so many specialist performers and composers has allowed me to discuss the effect of graphic scores on performance practice and the act of performance at a depth that is just not possible at a University’. It appears that Joe’s doctoral research thrives in an environment where he has easy access to those who engage with musical reflective processes, even though his work does not, as he says, ‘feature any practice-as-research inherently’. Thus, the practice-oriented environment innate to the conservatoire model does appear to have an impact on the kind of musical research taking place at the Conservatoire, even in the case of those not actively conducting practice-as-research.

    To what extent does this research environment contribute to the identity and positioning of Birmingham Conservatoire within the wider academic and musical community? The students surveyed perceive that the Conservatoire actively promotes musical practice-as-research, a sentiment much stronger in the performance theorists than the composers (who are relatively neutral on the matter). More importantly, however, the identity of the Conservatoire as an institution focused on practice-oriented research may have impacted students’ decisions to attend. Of the nine students, six students agree or strongly agree that their choice to attend the Conservatoire was affected by its emphasis on practice-as-research, with two other students undecided and one strongly disagreeing. Recalling Johnson’s remark as to the ‘bottom up’ evolution of this practice-based research culture, as well as the existence of a research student environment which encourages practice-as-research, the Conservatoire’s largest asset in promotion of its research strategy may be its students themselves. Six out of nine students surveyed are aware of communities of practitioners and academics outside of the Conservatoire who share similar research interests, and five of those six have already been active members of those communities. Through continued participation in conferences, journals, and external engagements, the students may effectively promote their own research: that which their advisors are continuously encouraging them to conduct and that which exists fruitfully within the academic and musical environment of the Conservatoire.


Overview and Conclusions

    This paper presents an exploratory examination of the doctoral research programme at Birmingham Conservatoire. Of the local students surveyed, most are involved in practice-as-research to varying extents. The benefits of this methodological approach include increased critical self-assessment and practical applications of findings. Even so, there continue to be issues around how to effectively contextualise and structure practice-oriented research in a way that does not feel overly ‘personal’. Several students, particularly performance theorists, identify this issue as being an opportunity for advisors to provide further support. As more theses utilising practice-as-research are written, however, future students will have a larger resource available from which to take guidance. Overall, the conservatoire model is recognised as being integral to conducting musical practice-as-research, both in terms of having a ‘massive pool of musicians to work with’ (as I write in my survey response) and working in an environment where, as Roberto writes, ‘musical scholarship coexists with musical performance and composition’. Whilst there appears to be a large amount of enthusiasm and support for practice-as-research from the Conservatoire faculty, doctoral students perceive that they are more actively involved in this form of research than their advisors. This involvement includes participation with communities of musicians and researchers in the wider professional world, an avenue which the Conservatoire may be able to build upon in their own promotional material.

    This study raises several questions which extend beyond the scope of Birmingham Conservatoire itself. First, it appears that there are different levels of awareness of practice-as-research between composers and performance theorists. Is this due to composition’s innate nature as a practice-based endeavour (and only second as articulated research), or simply because there has not needed to be a distinction between ‘non-practice-based’ research (i.e., analytical or historical) and practice-based research through composition? Whilst this distinction may be purely academic, a clearer understanding of how the concept of practice-as-research has been subsumed into doctoral programmes in composition may provide insight into how faculty may advise students in other musicological areas. Second, just as some students have commented that there are issues finding the right terminology to describe practice-oriented issues, clarification may be required as to the differences between practice-as-research, practice-oriented research, and practice-based research. Differentiation between these three categories (if they are three categories at all) may enable institutions such as Birmingham Conservatoire to more accurately and effectively explain their research output to funding institutions.

    This exploratory study highlights an opportunity for academic institutions such as Birmingham Conservatoire to reassess their doctoral research programmes. Through situating commentary provided by current and former doctoral students within a context provided by university administration, this paper illustrates that the Conservatoire’s strategy to ‘develop academic and technological infrastructures as complements to practice-as-research’ (Johnson, 2008: 3.1) has been ostensibly successful, in part due to the research student environment which has been cultivated over the last decade.

    I would like to express my gratitude to the participants of the survey reflected upon above: Seán Clancy, Sebastiano Dessanay, Tychonas Michailidis, René Mogensen, Carolina Noguera Palau, Joe Scarffe, Joanna Szalewska-Pineau and Roberto Alonso Trillo. In addition, I would like to thank Peter Johnson and Ronald Woodley for their reflections, as well as Liz Reeve for providing technical information about the Conservatoire’s research programme.


Works Cited

Birmingham Conservatoire (2012) Birmingham Conservatoire: Our History. [online] Available at [Accessed 8 May 2012].

Johnson, Peter (2012) Practice-as-Research at Birmingham Conservatoire. Interviewed by Murphy McCaleb. [audio recording] Birmingham Conservatoire, United Kingdom, 10 April 2012.

Johnson, Peter (2008) RAE 2008: RA5a - Research environment and esteem. Birmingham, Birmingham City University.

Reeve, Liz (2012) RE: Conservatoire Research question. [email] (Personal communication, 9 May 2012].

Woodley, Ronald (2012) RE: EPARM Paper. [email] (Personal communication, 3 May 2012].