Is Composition Research?

Lauren Redhead recently posted a thoughtful blog post surrounding the question of whether or not composition is “research”.  As I’m in the writing up stage of my Doctorate at Guildhall, I’m obviously somewhat vested in the matter, and have also had a good deal of time to think over these issues over the past 3.5 years.

The first comment left on this blog summarises the most basic objection to the idea that composition is research:

 Good of you to keep up the thinking and posting on this matter! For me: composition (incl. a score and its performance, also an improvisation) is not research. It can be an application of research, however, like drawing and building a bridge can be a result of research. A score and a performance don’t transmit enough knowledge about how the music is made (has been composed), and – again: for me – dissemination of new knowledge is essential to research. There doesn’t have to be dissemination for something to be research, but the new knowledge must be disseminable, and a performance/score does not make research insights disseminable per se.   (Orpheus Instituut)

There are a couple small, but important errors in the thinking of Orpheus, and the many others who dismiss the possibilities of composition as research in this way.  Most glaringly: The idea that the research insights contained within a score are not ‘disseminable’ is mistaken.

Firstly, as an aside, a score can (and many do) contain performance/explanatory notes that give extensive insight into the way the work was created.  I take the point that these explanatory notes are not “composed music”, but would refer the debate back to Laura’s excellent point that the actual writing of a research document or paper is not technically research either (it is simply “composed language”).  In both instances, the researcher is aiming to compile and/or apply their research and make it available to a wider community.

The more important point, then, is that compositional scores do make research available to the wider community of musicians.  It is not that the idea is available only in the written-language form, while the score itself is an impenetrable scribble.  Nor, for many musicians, is the performance an aural mystery!  Music is a language, both in written and aural forms, and both composers and performers who have spent their lives studying it can decode it. A simple example: How did I ‘make’ or ‘compose’ this chord?

I call this chord: "Knowledge"

The shape of this chord is so familiar that many will identify it as a symmetrical chord without even having to check.  Even those musicians who have never seen or heard a chord like this could figure this out.  When a musician sees this chord for the first time, it becomes an issue of thinking of the chord as collections of intervals (in this case they fan out symmetrically from the ‘C’) instead of as a functional harmonic construction within a scale or key.  The words make it clear, but the idea and the knowledge necessary to come to the conclusion are also contained in the chord itself.
This is why it is a similar fallacy to contend that a building or bridge does not contain within itself the information about how it was constructed.  That particular information might be inaccessible to me, but there are many people who can look at a building or bridge – especially if they are allowed to look closely and over time – and draw out nearly every detail of its construction.

It is true that music is a denser and/or more complex language than most, but when one thinks of the knowledge and ideas that were passed from musician to musician purely in performance (this is particularly true in the field of jazz) the existence of a score becomes positively luxurious in the amount of information and knowledge that it carries.

Finally, with all of that being said, I will now say that I myself do not consider either composition or performance themselves to be research.  This is hardly endemic: As we have already said, the writing of academic papers is not research any more than either of these two.  The problem with calling any of these “research” is not what can be transmitted through them, but that these tasks are all creative processes that seek to make something new.  None are the ‘search for new knowledge’ but the attempt to either codify or deploy the knowledge currently held by their creator.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi,
    I was the one writing that comment on Lauren’s blog. (I have no idea why it said ‘Orpheus Instituut’ – my apologies for having given the impression to want to remain somewhat anonymous.)
    I don’t agree with your response: the chord you show contains knowledge about its structrure, yes, but not about any research. What you had to do to compose that chord is not what I would consider research, either. A harmonic system like Messiaen’s, for instance, can be seen as an application of research. Sure, the way it is set-up is contained in the system, but no one I know would be able to reconstruct this theory, even less the research that went into it, by analysing a composition that was written with that harmonic system. Similarly re the bridge: taking it apart piece by piece and rebuilding it would only enable you to make an exact copy – if you were to assemble it somewhere that is different from the place the original bridge was built on, say a less solif ground, it might collapse. The bridge doesn’t tell you enough about the decisions that were made alongside every step in the engineering process and alonside soem or potentially many steps in the building process. Research results are more than knowledge of how an application was made. Dissemination of research must allow for a view on the research question and an assessment of the method. Every year, I carry out an experiment with the group of doctoral students (composers as well as performers and improvisers) that I coach, having them listen (with score) to a composition that is the result of research. Not a single one can ever deduce any idea as to what the research has been about, and even when I tell them the research topic, they still cannot deduce how the research was carried out and what the findings may have been. Without an understanding of those findings (which includes knowledge of what worked and what didn’t work in obtaining an answer to the research question), they cannot use the results of the research in their own work.
    Best wishes,
    Luk Vaes

  2. Hi Luk, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m sorry it took a couple of days for your comment to appear – technical difficulties with an update. Hopefully all solved now.

    Your original bridge analogy is an interesting one I’ve been thinking about. You are, correct that taking apart a bridge and rebuilding it somewhere else would not necessarily create a standing bridge, but that was never my point. My point is that when any bridge is built, it is possible for those who understand such things to derive the principals that were used to create it. No one would want to rebuild the exact same bridge (just as nobody wants to write the exact same composition). Instead, the ideas behind the bridge (“hey, what if make an arch out of the stones”, “hey, what if I create chords in this way instead”) is what the useful knowledge that is given to the other artists. This is, of course, easier to do with the mathematics and ‘research’ laid out in a written document, but by no means impossible to do without.

    It is odd to me that you suggest that ‘no one you know would be able to reconstruct [Messiaen’s] theory, even less the research that went into it, by analyzing a composition with that harmonic system’ as I have seen a number of composers do this in analysis classes. It is likely, of course, that these composers are aided by Messiaen’s and other’s writing about his music , but I have also seen and undertaken a number of analysis projects that revealed/deduced the harmonic theory or construction of a piece without ever referring to an outside text. One might understand the principals surrounding a composition as context (e.g. “serialism”, in the same way anyone who is to gain value from seeing a bridge must have an intimate understanding of physics).

    I do take your point that listening to a single piece – with or without a score – would never be enough to deduce what the ‘research’ is about. However, I don’t think that this is would be a fair representation of the ‘composition research’ a composer does during their Doctorate. The submission I am currently preparing has NINE pieces. I am confident that any composer who sat down and was presented with all nine scores could quickly deduce at least some idea of what my research had centered on.

    I understand, though, particularly that your students would be unable to use the results of the research in their own work. It is obvious, for example, that your students would not benefit from my research in microphone techniques without some written document. I would point out, again, that some information on this could be contained within the notes to the score and – also – that it isn’t true your students wouldn’t be able to gain anything from a score/performance where they could see/work how a technique was being used and some of the impact it had upon the materials of that work.

    This is where we agree though, in that the biggest issue with calling composition research is that, in composition, the pieces themselves are the findings. Perhaps I find other composers pieces more useful/applicable than other composers, but in any event I do plan on submitting a lengthy document alongside my compositional activity. That document, of course, is also not research but simply hopes to catalogue and illuminate it in another way. I will certainly post it on this website when finished and perhaps you will be able to stump your students with it next year!

    All best,


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