On the Doctorate in Composition

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373114

This article was part of a Symposium entitled The Doctorate in Composition. Other contributors to this Symposium were Edward E. Lowinsky, Arthur Mendel, Henry Leland Clarke, 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.


Throughout the teaching field there is increasing demand for the doctorate. There is a generally held belief that the quality of an institution is in direct relation to the number of its members holding Ph.Ds. In many institutions the doctorate is the minimum standard set for advance beyond the rank of Instructor. There is too much emphasis on degrees everywhere, and their importance should be devalued.

Many institutions (my own is one of them) exempt composers, painters, and teachers of performance from the "Ph.D. or no promotion" ruling. Compositions, exhibitions, publications, and performances are weighed to make an equivalent.

It is difficult for a young composer to get his works performed, and almost impossible to get them published. Therefore this equivalence does not exist for him at a time when it is needed. The composer must compete with his colleagues whose doctorates are clearly indicated in the catalogue, who can more easily get published in journals, read papers at professional meetings, and more easily get foundation support for research. In this situation, the composer is apt to get nervous about his future, and fritter away his time writing articles or rearranging already existing theory materials into work books for pre-beginning beginners. None of these contributes to his art.

If a doctorate is demanded, and if it deals with musical analysis or historical research, the composer will have spent important years concentrating on the music of other composers (and usually a restricted historical period) when he should be putting all his efforts into developing his own style. If a doctorate is given for creative work, it comes at a time when a composer's style is not yet developed. The result will be of eclectic and of slight value. During these important years, the composer should be studying all periods, and trying all styles. He cannot be doing this if he is working on a thesis.

Also, while scholarship can be measured, and references checked, creativity is more difficult to assess. Who is to judge the work, and how is it to be judged? Weight of the score? Clearness of manuscript? Originality? Stylistic preference?

For a composer, I believe the practice of equivalence is preferable to the requirement of a doctorate. At the same time, degrees continue to be important in academic life. These badges of achievement are part of the price paid for tenure. This security is something that composers have enjoyed only recently, and it is very valuable to them. The composer wants to hang on to this privilege, yet he does not wish to waste time writing peripheral articles and doing debilitating research. The composer needs some concrete evidence of approved achievement to balance the theses, published scholarly articles and books of his colleagues.

He needs journals and university presses devoted to the publication, and distribution of scores and recordings, as journals and presses publish and distribute scholarly materials. There is magic in an engraved score, and a well made recording of a good performance is impressive evidence of an achievement completed that can be measured by repeated hearings. A few publications and professional recordings would give the composer the evidence of achievement needed when promotions are being discussed. In addition, this evidence would come at a somewhat later stage in his career when his style and technique are developed. These compositions would be far more valuable than works written earlier to satisfy the requirements of a thesis.

Read 1412 times

Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

Go to top