The Doctorate in Composition

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This article was part of a Symposium entitled The Doctorate in Composition. Other contributors to this Symposium were Edward E. Lowinsky, Henry Leland Clarke, Robert Middleton, George Rochberg, Peter Eliot Stone, and Henry Weinberg. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 3.


Although he was advised against stirring up a hornet's nest, the editor felt that the pages of SYMPOSIUM provided the proper forum for comment on this vexing and controversial subject. He therefore extended invitations for suitable articles with the intent of securing a consensus of current thought on the problem. The response on the whole was gratifying, except for some of the composers who could not find the time to submit their promised contributions. Since the economic issue was raised by several participants, the editor also asked for the statements of two student composers, directly affected by this aspect of the question. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


PREFATORY NOTE: It is in no way my purpose to persuade institutions other than my own to adopt the Ph.D. degree in composition. Since Princeton University in 1961 decided to institute the Ph.D. degree in composition, and since the editor of SYMPOSIUM wrote me that my friend Edward Lowinsky had accepted his invitation to write an article opposing the instituting of this degree, and invited me to present the case for the affirmative, I have felt in duty bound to explain the reasons for our decision. But each university has its own characteristics, precedents, curricula, particular constellation of professional schools, etc. Even for similar problems, therefore, different universities are bound to find different solutions.

Among the particular features of our situation that worked in favor of our decision, but that are undoubtedly different at other institutions, are the following.

  1. At Princeton only two graduate degrees in music are offered: M.F.A. and Ph.D. Except for foreign students, only degree candidates are accepted in the Graduate School.
  2. For the degree of M.F.A. the student must pass a three-day general examination. Apart from prerequisites, such as a year's residence and language knowledge, this is the only requirement. There is no course requirement, and there is no M.F.A. thesis.
  3. In musicology, the general examination for the degree of M.F.A. has always served also as the general examination for that of Ph.D. The only additional requirement for the advanced degree is the submission of a satisfactory dissertation and the passing of a final oral examination on the subject matter of the dissertation. There being no course requirements, and the residence requirement having been fulfilled as a prerequisite to the general examination, the candidate does not have to be in residence while he writes the dissertation.
  4. In instituting the Ph.D. degree in composition we extended the same system, with only slight modifications, to cover it. The dissertation for the composer consists of a composition and an essay. But he is as free as is the musicologist to write it in residence or not. Thus, while any graduate student has to run in academic grooves for a time, this time ends for the composer as well as for the musicologist with the M.F.A. general examination. From this point on his only work is independent. Students of course seek and receive varying degrees of supervision according to their needs.
  5. At Princeton, creative work in the humanities is not represented at any level in the graduate school in any field except music and architecture. Architecture has for some years offered the degree of Ph.D. on exactly the same basis as we now offer it to composers: the dissertation to consist of an architectural composition and an essay. Thus students of musical composition and of theory were until last year the only students in the graduate school for whom the possibility of going on to a Ph.D. degree did not exist.

The following general discussion of the pros and cons can be properly understood only in the context of the situation outlined above.

* * *
  1. Why should there be a doctorate in composition?
  2. Should such a doctorate be called "Ph.D."?


What is a degree? By history and by function, it is a license: to practice (M.D., M.F.A. in Architecture), or to teach. No one needs a license to practice either composition or musicology; in music, as in many other academic subjects, a degree is a license to teach. There are mainly two grades of licenses: the lower grade or master's degree, and the upper grade or doctor's degree.

No license certifies that its holder is of top quality.1 Poor automobile-drivers, poor physicians, poor lawyers, poor composers, and poor musicologists manage to obtain upper-grade licenses. Anyone who wishes to engage a chauffeur, or a doctor, or an attorney, or who wishes to study under a composer or a musicologist, would be foolish to be guided only by licenses. Of course, he cannot engage a chauffeur or a doctor or an attorney who does not have a license; the law prevents. But he may elect to study under a composer or a musicologist who has no license. A university may even engage such persons.

Ideally, everyone would be engaged on his true merits and no licenses would be needed. A beginning musicologist and a beginning composer alike would present examples of their work and letters expressing their professors' confidence in their ability to teach, and on the basis of these and of the personal impressions they made on the appointing authorities they would be chosen. This is not possible at many institutions; or if it would be possible, it is not the practice. Most appointing authorities require that a beginning instructor have the upper-grade license. Many more, who do not inflexibly require it, are strongly inclined in their selection of candidates in favor of candidates having the doctoral degree—or, as applicants non doctores would put it, prejudiced against candidates who do not have it. Some institutions are almost compelled to require it. They cannot hope with their limited reputations and budgets to attract men whose attainments are such that they make the possession or non-possession of the degree irrelevant. So instead of well-known names to list in their catalogues they must be content with an abundance of well-known initials. By presenting an almost solid list of doctors, they wish to assure prospective students, faculty members, donors, accrediting authorities, and themselves that they maintain certain supposedly well-understood standards. It is possible that not all institutions and administrators who take this shortcut to winnowing the candidates for appointment would be compelled to; at any rate, most of them do, even at leading institutions.2

Perhaps they should accept our assurance that while musicologists need the upper-grade license, composers need only the lower-grade one. Or should they? Why should composers need any license? Why should musicologists, for that matter? Any musicologist who writes a good article can get it published,3 while most composers, even those who write good pieces, have to wait years to achieve publication. Thus even a young musicologist of ability can present samples of his work which have been judged worthy of publication, whereas it is rare that a young composer can offer similar documentary testimony to his competence. If either of them has more need for the upper-grade license it is the composer.

Do young composers need less time in the graduate school than young musicologists? Have composer members of the faculty only two years' worth to teach them, while musicologists have three or more? Is there a good reason for cutting the composer-student off from fellowship support when he has achieved the master's degree and reserving such support in third and later years for musicologists? I do not see how these questions can be answered with a definite yes.

But is not the doctoral degree an inappropriate form of recognition for a composer? Is not the judging of a composer's work so subjective a matter that one cannot be sure of applying similar standards to different candidates? If this were true, how could we justify the awarding of the lower-grade license? Is the judging of a candidate for a master's degree different in kind from that for a doctor's degree? I can think of possible arguments against admitting work in the creative arts into the graduate school at all—even arguments for removing composition from the graduate curriculum.4 But while it remains, I can see no reason why the master's degree is legitimate and the doctor's degree illegitimate.

But surely a composer should have imagination, originality, taste—all things that cannot be measured with some doctoral tape measure. Do we not then think that a musicologist should have imagination, originality, taste? Do we judge his dissertations with a tape-measure? Some competent composers, like some competent musicologists, have less of these qualities than others. But we need not fall into the trap of equating "composer" and "genius." If we are teaching composition only for the sake of geniuses, what are most of our students (and their teachers, for that matter) doing here?

But what we mean by imagination, originality, taste in a composer is different from what we mean when we use these terms about a musicologist. Indeed. And different again from what we mean when we use them about an engineer or a biologist or a critic or a mathematician.

"What we expect in a Ph.D. dissertation," said the chairman of a department of mathematics and President of the American Mathematical Association in support of the proposal to award the doctoral degree in musical composition, "is the creation of new mathematics." And in mathematics, or in theoretical physics, lies one of the closest analogies to music (no analogies are perfect). The music a composer-student writes may seem incomprehensible, or crazy, or in bad taste, to some members of the faculty. It may, of course, be bad music; just as some dissertations in mathematics, or in musicology for that matter, may be bad dissertations. But the mathematics department makes no requirement that to every member of its faculty every dissertation seem important or even be comprehensible. Specialists have their specialties, and if they respect each other they must respect each other's ability and right to judge work done in their fields of special interest.

I can think of arguments for not awarding degrees. But while we continue to award them and while composition remains in the graduate-school curriculum, I can see no reason why the doctor's degree is legitimate for the musicologist and illegitimate for the composer.

This does not mean that everyone who needs a license to teach anything should be able to get it in the university. Much of the confusion on this whole subject—and I believe some of the opposition to the awarding of a degree in composition—springs from a failure to keep performance and composition clearly apart. The term "creative arts" is nowadays used so loosely that the adjective becomes redundant and meaningless. (Of course, if one wishes to use the word "creative" in a merely laudatory sense, as vaguely synonymous with "fine" or "original" or "artistic," one can say that musical performance may be "creative." In this sense any human endeavor may be "creative": acting, medical or legal practice, politics, criticism, teaching, musicology, etc. But to use the same word "creative" to describe the playing or the conducting of a symphony that one uses to describe the composing of a symphony is to invite confusion.)

This is not the place to set forth once again the argument against the appropriateness of performance as a part of the university curriculum, let alone as a field for the doctoral degree. For that argument is irrelevant to the degree for composers.


Should a doctorate in composition be called Ph.D.?

I will not argue that it must be—only that there is no compelling reason why it should not be.

At Princeton, the degree of Ph.D. is offered in architecture and in many types of engineering as well as in the humanities and the natural and social sciences. No other doctoral degree is offered in any field. This is why we did not seriously consider using any other name for the degree than Doctor of Philosophy.

The term has long since lost any specific connection with philosophy proper, however that term be defined. A dictionary definition calls philosophy "love of wisdom or knowledge, especially that which deals with ultimate reality, or with the most general causes and principles of things." Are musicologists closer to ultimate reality and the most general causes and principles of things than the composers whose works they study? I think the question is at least debatable.

In some universities, where other doctoral degrees besides the Ph.D. are already in existence, a special degree for music may be considered appropriate. My only question about that would be whether the appointing authorities for whose benefit students need these licenses may not be inclined to consider the initials D.M.A. or Mus. Doc., or whatever other combinations may be suggested, as a somewhat inferior substitute for the "real thing." My impression is (but I cannot say I know) that as a license nothing takes the place of the magic letters Ph.D.

1I should not want it thought that we at Princeton overemphasize the value of degrees. In our Department of Music only one of the eleven members of professorial rank has an earned doctoral degree.

2The fact that some leading institutions have appointed leading composers (and some musicologists) who do not have the Ph.D. to top positions does not affect the question of how the young composer and musicologist are to get their start in the academic world. They are not yet leading figures, and they cannot all hope to start at leading institutions. Even among the latter there are only a handful at which the lack of a doctoral degree is not a major handicap to the applicant for a beginning position. I do not have statistics to prove this; but I have considerable experience as department chairman in receiving letters from other chairmen and from deans inviting recommendations for openings and stating the requirements candidates must fulfill, and then in recommending candidates and seeing what happens to the recommendations.

3The editors of J.A.M.S. and of M.Q. will confirm this statement; they do not receive more good articles than they can print.

4Such arguments are too extreme to be advanced seriously. Perhaps as extreme on the other side is the argument that since the proper study of a biology department is biology and of a mathematics department mathematics—not the history of biology or the history of mathematics—and the proper study of a music department is music, the history of music, like the history of science, belongs in the history department. Needless to say, I do not subscribe to this argument, any more than I favor banishing composition from the graduate school.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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