Is Composition Research?

a response to John Croft

Music is a pretty big field; after all, there are as many ways to make music as there are musicians. In the Western tradition, one way to make music is to work as a composer, coming up with music and writing it down for performers to play. Historically, composers have often made their livelihood by getting some kind of institutional support, as from a church, a government, or a conservatory. Today, another institution is available: composers may make their living at research universities. This relatively recent development is the backdrop for John Croft’s essay, “Composition is not research”.

Croft begins with this claim:

There are, by and large, two kinds of composers in academia today – those who labour under the delusion that they are doing a kind of ‘research’, and those who recognise the absurdity of this idea, but who continue to supervise PhD students, make funding applications, and document their activities as if it were true.

From there, he makes the case that composition is emphatically not research, and it’s not useful to treat it like research.

On the first point, Croft is essentially right. He acknowledges that research related to composition, in synthesis, acoustics, perception, etc. really is research, and it’s research that can support composing and enable compositions that would not have been possible otherwise. But composing itself is not research, because the answer to any conceivable research question (“Can I compose this?”) is trivially ‘yes’. Furthermore:

There is a fundamental distinction at work here: research describes the world; composition adds something to the world. Research, at least of the scientific kind to which musical composition is generally assimilated, aims to produce generalisable results; the significance of a piece of music lies, on the contrary, in its particularity.

Croft’s claims are irrefutable, but they also miss the point. For instance, imagine if “composition” was replaced with “engineering”. Then the claim would be “engineering is not research”. This claim would be supported by the distinction that “research describes the world; engineering adds something to the world.” Futhermore, the answer to any conceivable research question (“Can I build this?”) is trivially ‘yes’, given sufficient resources. As Croft tells us, this means there’s no research going on.

And yet, it would be ridiculous to claim that engineering is not research. Certainly, not all engineering is research—much engineering takes place at companies, applying well-understood techniques to arrive at a predictable design. But in many areas, including fields with “Engineering” in the name (Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical…) and others such as Computer Science, Experimental Physics, and Applied Mathematics, plenty of good research is essentially engineering. There is a problem, and researchers seek to design and implement a solution. What makes it research is that they are trying to do something that is not already well-understood, and they document their work, what they learned along the way, and what is yet to be discovered. In academic research, they then publish their documentation as papers in venues (conferences, journals) so that others can benefit from their findings.

The same goes for composition. Research is about gaining new knowledge, and academic research is about sharing it. Your composition need not be research; by all means, Croft can “pick up a pencil, start at the beginning, and stop when the piece is finished” and call it a day, if he’d like. But if you’re a composer at a research university who wants to “forget the nonsense and write the piece you wanted to write in the first place”, as if you had a royal patron, an arts grant, or a commission from an orchestra, it seems to me you are barking up the wrong institutional tree. Research is not about doing whatever you want. Research grants in Computer Science do not go to researchers so that they can have fun coding up a nifty program simply because they want to. Those researchers may well have fun coding up a nifty program along the way, but they got the grant so that they would do novel work and advance the field.

If a composer is in a research institution—if a composer is a “composer-academic”—then it makes sense that some of their effort will go to the “academic” side of the hyphen. That means the job isn’t done just because you reached the end of the piece; the job is done when you have finished documenting the piece, revealing the techniques you developed to bring it to completion, the questions you grappled with along the way, the experiments that succeeded and failed. Composition can be research, as surely as engineering can be research. In either case, to be research, there must be more than the finished product; there must be elucidation, transparency, the inner workings revealed for the benefit of others. Then, composition is research.

I like Croft’s essay. It’s brief and substantive, and it makes some excellent points, particularly regarding the way institutions “outsource qualitative judgement to quantitative measures” and thus limit their ability to evaluate the novelty of compositional research. But the titular claim, that “Composition is not research”, is disingenuous. Certainly, not all composition is academic research—and indeed, most of it isn’t, in the same sense that most engineering is not academic research. But, by the same token, composition can be research, when the composer takes pains to try something new and share what they learn from it for the good of their field.