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Composers in academic institutions are increasingly required to describe their activities in terms of ‘research’ – formulating ‘research questions’, ‘research narratives’, ‘aims’ and ‘outcomes’. Research plans and funding applications require one to specify the nature of the original contribution that will be made by a piece of music, even before it is composed. These requirements lead to an emphasis on collaborative work, technology and superficial novelty of format. Yet the very idea that musical composition is a form of research is a category error: music is a domain of thought whose cognitive dimension lies in embodiment, revelation or presentation, but not in investigation and description. It is argued here that the idea of composition as research is not only objectively false but inimical to genuine musical originality.

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1 I discuss the deleterious effects of the institutional obsession with collaboration in On Working Alone’, in Creativity, Improvisation and Collaboration: Perspectives on the Performance of Contemporary Music, ed. Clarke Eric F. and Doffman Mark (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

2 Factors like the number of people that hear a piece, and how much they are affected by the music, do not count as ‘impact’ in the sense required by, for example, the UK's Research Excellence Framework or Arts and Humanities Research Council. But if I write an opera about global warming, and someone does a survey about whether it has ‘raised awareness’, then that, it seems, is ‘impact’. Needless to say, the impact agenda is harmful to many disciplines, and reflects a profound misunderstanding even of how even paradigmatic research progresses.

3 In general, throughout this article, I have in mind the situation in the United Kingdom; but many of these problems are found to varying degrees in other countries, as research assessment exercises and income-based academic ‘performance metrics’, are adopted, often in imitation of the UK system.

4 Cf. Gadamer's argument that art does not describe but adds being to the world. (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method [1960], trans. Weinsheimer Joel and Marshall Donald G. (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 135ff.)

5 Ridley Aaron, The Philosophy of Music: Theme and Variations (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), passim. The idea of music embodying at attitude suggests an affinity with philosophy – a discipline which, like composition, resists accommodation within a model of empirical research, but which, unlike composition, does at least ask questions and attempt to answer them in a discursive manner.

6 Schopenhauer Arthur, The World as Will and Representation [1844], Vol. I, trans. Payne E.F.J. (New York: Dover, 2000), sections 2 and 3 passim.

7 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key [1941] (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 204ff.

8 Heidegger Martin, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ [1950], in Basic Writings, ed. Krell David Farrell (Oxford: Routledge, 2010), pp. 85139; Gadamer, Truth and Method.

9 Wittgenstein Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1921], trans. Pears D. and McGuinness B. (London: Routledge, 2001), §§ 4.1212, 6.36 & 6.522.

10 Root-Bernstein Robert, ‘The Sciences and Arts Share a Common Creative Aesthetic’, in The Elusive Synthesis, ed. Tauber A.I., A.I. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), pp. 4982, here p. 53.

11 We may sometimes feel, on the other hand, that there is such a thing as bad music well composed. But I think in such cases we usually mean that some aspect of the music (for example, the orchestration) is good, while other aspects are poor; or simply that the music is highly polished cliché.

12 It is also worth noting that moments of ‘inspiration’ in science or any other field are also not ‘research’, and any scientist whose main working method was quasi-artistic would probably meet with similar problems in specifying research plans and objectives.

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  • ISSN: 0040-2982
  • EISSN: 1478-2286
  • URL: /core/journals/tempo
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