Doctoral Studies in the field of Music - Current studies and latest developments.

 Doctoral Studies in the field of Music - Current studies and latest developments.  (123 Kb) 




By Ester Tomasi (ERASMUS Network for Music ‘Polifonia’) and Joost Vanmaele (Orpheus Instituut Gent)


This article explores the latest developments in relation to doctoral programmes in the field of music. This is a subject that is currently high in the agenda of many institutions for higher music education all over Europe. New approaches to structure and content of such doctoral programmes in music are currently being developed: music, being an academic discipline of a highly artistic nature, may have different points of departures in relation to research than other academic disciplines. At the same time, the developments at the European level are also pointing towards an increased attention on doctoral programmes: in the 2005 Bergen Communiqué the ministers of the Bologna countries underlined the importance of higher education in further enhancing research, with doctoral level qualifications needing to be fully aligned with the overarching framework for qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) using the outcomes-based approach.

Due to these facts, 3rd cycle studies was chosen as a subject of further inquiry in the framework of the ERASMUS Network for Music ‘Polifonia’ . ‘Polifonia’ is the largest European project on professional music training to date, involving more than 60 organisations in professional music training and the music profession from 32 European countries. During the first cycle of the network, which lasted from 1 October 2004 until 1 October 2007 and which was coordinated jointly by the Malmö Academy of Music – Lund University and the Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Academies de Musique et Musikhochschulen (AEC) , ‘Polifonia’ aimed at studying issues connected to the Bologna Declaration Process, collecting information on levels in music education other than the 1st (Bachelor) and the 2nd (Master) study cycles, and exploring changes in the music profession and their implications for professional music training. In May 2007, ‘Polifonia’ was selected by the European Commission as an ‘ERASMUS Success Story’.

3rd cycle studies in the Bologna Declaration terminology are studies that follow the 2nd (Master) cycle study in higher education in the framework of a three-cycle system. They are also referred to as ‘doctoral’ or ‘PhD’ studies but to avoid confusion or exclusion of certain types of study, the term ‘3rd cycle’ is being used in the ‘Polifonia’ project. Until recently, these studies were typically offered exclusively at universities and associated with scientific research. It is a challenge for music institutions to offer musicians, in addition to instrumental training and practice, a reflective environment as well that nourishes innovation and creativity paired with the extension of knowledge and artistic understanding. It becomes equally interesting when attempts are made to bridge the gap between theoretical research and instrumental practice.

A special ‘3rd cycle working group’ was set up in the framework of ‘Polifonia’ to look into this issue. The main objectives of the ‘Polifonia’ 3rd cycle working group were:

  • To provide an overview of trends, types of courses and developments at the 3rd study cycle in music in Europe.
  • To develop learning outcomes for the 3rd cycle and to study the connection of these outcomes to the learning outcomes of the 1st and a 2nd study cycle making use of the ‘Tuning’ methodology in cooperation with the ‘Tuning’ working group in the ‘Polifonia’ project.
  • To study the relevance of a 3rd cycle in music for the profession and the job market.
  • To establish a mechanism for the exchange of 3rd cycle research results at European level.
  • To develop helpful tools for music institutions wishing to establish a 3rd cycle.

The working group members were experts in the field of 3rd cycle courses in music from the Orpheus Instituut in Gent, the Royal College of Music in London, the Universitatea Nationala de Muzica in Bucharest, the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz and the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe.


The nature of doctoral courses in music is largely determined by the two constituents that are implicated by the formulation itself, the courses are at a ‘doctoral level’ and ‘in music’. The combination of these terms also served as a point of departure in defining the Polifonia/Dublin Descriptors for 3rd cycle awards in higher music education and the learning outcomes for the 3rd cycle in music as formulated in Paragraph III of this article. Therefore it seems only reasonable that doctoral courses in music should be in accordance with and oriented towards these basic directives.

As a condensed version of the guidelines mentioned in that paragraph one could state that, after acquiring musical skills and knowledge during the first cycle (bachelor) and applying these skills and knowledge to a certain field of expertise in the second cycle (master), the main objective of a third cycle in music is to expand the musical knowledge and understanding in a certain area.

A standard tool for the production and creation of knowledge and understanding is traditionally covered by the term research. Research, as formulated by the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK is indeed ‘an original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding’. Introducing research into a musical setting, adapting it to the characteristics of the discipline and thus creating a practice-based research environment for music practitioners, are therefore the main motives in the development of a doctoral curriculum in musical arts.

The matter has already been addressed in 2004 in the brochure of docARTES, the doctoral programme in the creative and performing arts organised by the Orpheus Institute, in cooperation with Flemish and Dutch partners:

‘Artists may create or re-create art works using a researching mind. But the PhD in the creative and performing arts is based on research that is deeper or broader in scope. Candidates must already be able to create or perform at a high international level. Their artistic work has raised questions or problems that can be further articulated and analysed only through research. Hence, by posing and resolving such issues, the artists also alter their creative or performing processes.’ (p.5)

To formulate practice-based research this way, explicitly unifies praxis and reflection and leads to new opportunities in the field of musical and artistic development. This approach has important implications on the research questions, research methods and research outcomes that are part of such a type of investigation. The unique view of somebody engaged in the investigation, the blending of subject (the researcher/musician) and object of investigation, the use of aesthetic judgements in addition to critical ones, the introduction of artistic experiments as part of the research process and the fact that the results of the research will also rely on a demonstrable component in addition to a verbal one, all these elements have to be taken into consideration in defining this new (or renewed) concept of practice as research.

Eight major higher education institutions in three European countries are currently joining forces to address these challenges and to create a new blueprint for a Doctoral Curriculum in Musical Arts (DoCuMa) . The DoCuMa project is set up and coordinated by the Orpheus Institute (Gent) and brings together the Royal College of Music, Royal Holloway London, University of Oxford (United Kingdom), the Orpheus Institute, Leuven University Association (Belgium), the Conservatory of Amsterdam, the Royal Conservatoire and Leiden University (The Netherlands). This project receives funding as an ERASMUS Curriculum Development project from the European Commission. Subject-specific topics related to tutoring, content of the doctoral curriculum, admission & evaluation criteria, research questions, research methods, research outcomes, etc. are being elaborated on and are moving towards an integrated approach. Comprising some of Europe’s most highly qualified professors, tutors and teachers, the team will pool its diverse expertise, energies and educational and research experience to develop a framework for a practice-based music doctorate.

The development phase of DoCuMa will last two years. Expected outputs (2008) include:

  • a clear definition of practice-as-research as it applies to music 
  • a doctoral curriculum for the musical arts embodying this definition
  • a pilot for the new curriculum at the Royal College of Music in the UK and at the Orpheus Institute with its partners in Flanders and The Netherlands


In its effort to assist higher education institutions with the implementation of the Bologna Declaration principles, the ‘Polifonia’ project formulated several documents that can be used by institutions in the development of their three-cycle study programmes. The documents are a direct result of developments initiated by the Bologna Declaration Process and explain how some of the ‘Bologna’ principles can be relevant for music, taking into account the specific characteristics of music training. The focus point of the project consists on the following documents:

  1. A set of ‘Polifonia/Dublin Descriptors’ meant to illustrate the typical profiles of the three study cycles in professional music training in higher education. The descriptors follow the official ‘Shared Dublin Descriptors’: these are very broad generic descriptions of the three cycles for higher education in general made by the Joint Quality Initiative. The intention of this adaptation is to show clearly that most of the attributes formulated in the original Dublin Descriptors can be applicable to the music sector as well, but the extent to which colleagues working in higher music education can relate their experience to the descriptors is enhanced when terms are being used that describe the reality of higher music education more specifically and concretely. 
  2. The corresponding AEC/Polifonia Learning Outcomes for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd cycles in higher music education constitute the connection between the descriptors and the individual study programmes. The learning outcomes are described in practice-based, knowledge-based and generic competences, which an average student should have achieved at completion of each educational cycle. By referring to learning outcomes in an individual curriculum the nature and content of the relevant study becomes clearer. The AEC/Polifonia learning outcomes can therefore enhance a shared understanding of individual curricula within higher music education in Europe and further a field as well as informing a broader interested public that maybe less familiar with the specialities of higher music education.

The ‘Polifonia’ 3rd cycle working group was responsible with the ‘Polifonia’ ‘Tuning’ working group for the development of the learning outcomes and descriptors for 3rd cycle studies in music. In the formulation of the learning outcomes, the ‘Tuning’ methodology was also used. The latest version of the descriptors and learning outcomes can be found in Annexes A and B. Although the work on the descriptors has used an overall approach to all cycles, ensuring that there would be consistency and progression between the 3 cycles, only the descriptors and learning outcomes of the 3rd cycle are included here .


As part of their work in the project, the ‘Polifonia’ 3rd cycle working group investigated numerous aspects in relation to 3rd cycles in music at the European level. A questionnaire was set up and sent to 41 European professional music training institutions that offer 3rd cycle studies. The results are based on answers from: Austria (3), Belarus (1), Belgium (1), Czech Republic (2), Estonia (1), Finland (1), Germany (6), Ireland (1), Latvia (1), Lithuania (1), Macedonia (1), Netherlands (3), Norway (1), Romania (3) Slovakia (1), Spain (1), Sweden (4), Switzerland (1), Turkey (2), United Kingdom (6).

The topics of the questionnaire were:

  • Practical questions regarding the title of the 3rd cycle study and the awarded degree
  • Fees and funding
  • Partnership arrangements
  • Process of admission
  • 3rd cycle study curriculum
  • Supervision
  • Promotion
  • Relation between research and artistic practice
  • Civil effect
  • Competences – Learning outcomes

The outcomes of the questionnaire show a fascinating overview of the current status of 3rd cycle courses in music in Europe. It is clear that 3rd cycle studies in music are a rather new phenomenon, although some institutions have already a long tradition in offering such studies. The main reason for this situation could be that institutions aiming at training musicians at the higher education level traditionally offer vocational training that leads to a career as a professional musician or in some cases also as a music teacher. Offering 3rd cycle or doctoral studies has always been the competence of universities. Moreover, institutions that offer professional music training have not uniformly been regarded as higher education institutions by the authorities and in some countries still lack this status or the full eligibility to develop a 3rd cycle structure as defined by the Bologna Process. Historically, universities have been the institutions that were in charge of theory and the sciences.

Conservatoires are dedicated to the artistic training of various musical instruments or the voice. But training in music is not devoid of inquiry, theory and reflection. The highly trained musician also seeks to achieve deep understanding and progress at the forefront of the art not only through playing or singing but also by investigating into the pieces of music, the composers’ intentions with the music, the art of playing by different interpreters or in different musical traditions. In some individuals this methodological search for more in- depth and structured information about music, a more rational and descriptive approach towards artistic reality is an inner vocation equally strong as performing itself. For those purposes, it would seem logical to be able to research and communicate about music in all circumstances and from all aspects within the institutions with the main body of knowledge and by those persons that are performers, not only by the institutions that offer musicology as a scientific study field. For this reason amongst others, professional music training institutions have started to develop doctoral studies of various kinds as well.

The institutions having taken the lead in this development are not very numerous, but it is clear the interest is growing and those that have established such 3rd cycles have had to meet the highest standards in scientific and artistic work. According to data available from 225 members of the European Association of Conservatories (AEC) in December 2005, 44 institutions of higher music education state they offer a 3rd cycle study. Those institutions have been asked some additional questions about the nature and the practicalities of the 3rd cycle studies offered. The results are presented in the short overview below. Please note that additional information on individual 3rd cycle study programmes are available in institutional overviews, which have also been produced by the working group and which will be published on the ‘Polifonia’ website.

Title of the 3rd cycle study programme
There is no uniform denomination of 3rd cycle music studies in Europe. Some are called PhD studies, others research studies, doctoral studies or „Promotionsstudiengang“, to mention but a few of the more common titles. What is notable is that most 3rd cycle studies do not refer to music in the name.

Degree awarded
The actual degree titles awarded differ as well, although there is more uniformity than in the name of the studies. Typically, the address of a graduate of a 3rd cycle study in music is „Dr.“, the qualification can be a PhD. Other titles are DMus or ArtD. Only in one case the institution states that the graduates do not receive a degree title as such.

However, with the title of studies and the degrees awarded it has to be kept in mind that there is a language issue involved. The institutions were asked to give the name in the original language as well as a translation into English. It is clear that, as is the case in other comparability issues, the description of content and learning outcomes are better tools to describe the nature of the study.

Partnership arrangements
More than half of the responding institutions operate their 3rd cycle studies through a partnership agreement. Different kinds of cooperation exist:

  1. Institutions cooperate because the conservatoire does not have the legal position to award the 3rd cycle degree
  2. Institutions cooperate for single courses
  3. Institutions allow for supervision from other institutions 
  4. Institutions cooperate to facilitate student mobility
  5. Institutions cooperate in a unique way – Orpheus Institute, Gent

One third of the institutions offering a 3rd cycle do not have the legal right to award the doctoral qualification within their walls, but rely upon cooperation. Those institutions are situated in the UK, Sweden, Belgium and Belarus. For the institution in Belgium it has to be mentioned that the Orpheus Institute in Gent is a unique institution. As an institution concentrating solely on postgraduate studies in music it offers 3rd cycle studies in music in cooperation with surrounding Belgian and Dutch universities. The institution in Belarus is the only one that needs a state body to confirm the awarding of the degree by the Academy .

The cooperation in the frame of single courses or supervision shows that some institutions allow their 3rd cycles students to gather expertise wherever it is offered. Especially at this level of higher education, specialisation is required to be able to operate on the forefront of the field. This concerns students as well as institutions.

Cooperation in mobility seems to be a less important issue in 3rd cycle studies in music. Only one institution mentions it throughout the questionnaire although it has to be remarked that the issue has not been especially addressed in the questions.

Process of admission
General admission requirements for most 3rd cycle studies in music are:

1. Application
2. Master’s degree, in some cases an equivalent is sufficient (professional experience); in two cases a (high) first degree is sufficient
3. Research proposal/portfolio and sometimes an interview – these are required by nearly two thirds of the responding institutions.

Only some institutions additionally require one of the following:

4. Admission exam and/or audition
5. Professional experience
6. Language skills
7. References

Generally it has to be remarked that the applicants for 3rd cycle studies are apparently very carefully selected in most of the institutions as they undergo a sometimes extensive admission procedure and in some cases even have to demonstrate proficiency in their field of study. On the other hand, nearly a third of the answering institutions do not even require a research proposal by the applicant.

Compulsory course elements
77% of the responding institutions state that their 3rd cycle curriculum comprises compulsory course elements. Mostly those courses include specific seminars for 3rd cycle students, some of which are also meant as an opportunity of information exchange between the different 3rd cycle students. Courses on methodology are mentioned next often; the same applies for music related courses (including performance). Language courses and pedagogy/ psychology are next in ranking, followed by presentation and communication training and philosophy courses. One institution includes basic information technology courses in the compulsory courses.

An overview of the compulsory elements of 3rd cycle studies in music shows the following result:

Specific 3rd cycle (individual) seminars 31%
Methodology 17%
Music related (including performance) 17%
Language 10%
Pedagogy/ Psychology 10%
Presentation/ Communication 7%
Philosophy 7%
Information technology 2%

The ‘seminar’ category that scores highest according to the above displayed list has been set up as a common category for the specific 3rd cycle courses that have not been defined in more detail. It can comprise elements of the less frequently mentioned course topics or be related to the student’s inquiry topic and therefore individual to each doctoral candidate.

Duration of studies
Study duration varies among institutions. It reaches from 2 years up to 8 years in full- or part- time studies. The average duration of full-time studies is 3.6 years.

Part time
Most of the 3rd cycle studies offered can be studied part-time, which extends the length of the study from one more year to even double the time in some cases. The average duration of part time studies is 5.6 years.

More than half of the institutions offer their 3rd cycle students supervision through a single supervisor. In 31% of the cases the students are supervised by at least two people, often by a research and an artistic supervisor, an internal and an external supervisor or a main tutor and an assistant tutor. In about 15% of the 3rd cycle studies students are supervised by more than 2 people. Most institutions, however, allow team supervision. In some cases there is a general supervisor and a specialist supervisor who is an expert in the field of study which the student is investigating.

The supervision consists of regular meetings with the supervisor(s). In one case this happens on a weekly basis, in others at least twice a term. Some institutions mention that in the initial phase of the studies the student is given more guidance than in a later stage. 6 institutions also mention that there is a regular possibility for students to discuss their work and progress with a team of peers and/or academic staff involved in research and 3rd cycle work.

In more than half of the institutions the student is involved in the process of, or solely responsible for, choosing the supervisor(s). In the other cases it is a committee or a 3rd cycle/research commission that chooses the supervisor(s) or the head/dean/chair of the faculty or research department.

The supervisor(s) are in most cases not appointed by the same body that chooses them. The appointment is in one single case a matter for the Ministry of Education and Research . In another case, all staff members with a 3rd cycle degree appoint supervisor(s). In some cases, this is a task of a special board but in most cases the supervisor(s) are appointed by senior administrative staff. Most supervisors have to be teaching staff members in the institutions where the student studies. Sometimes supervisors additionally need a PhD or 3rd cycle degree themselves or equivalent artistic experience. In some cases they are not required to be teachers but can also be researchers only, holding a 3rd cycle degree. Some institutions allow supervision only by staff members that already have supervising experience; this is usually connected to team supervision, where not every supervisor has to be qualified in the same way, but is usually a specialist in his own field. In some exceptional occasions an external consultant can be allowed to supervise and is chosen according to his/her outstanding expertise.

Prof/ university teacher








Requirements for teaching staff on 3rd cycle level
Requirements mentioned for those teaching 3rd cycle students are quite similar to the qualifications supervisors must have with the exception that a 3rd cycle degree is not always necessary to teach 3rd cycle students. In addition, external experts are sometimes invited to lecture to 3rd cycle students. The external experts usually are not required to have academic qualifications but equivalent qualifications, including career experience.

The institutions offering a 3rd cycle were asked to explain which kind of presentations they require from the students for promotion.

Nearly all 3rd cycle studies in music for promotion require a thesis and a public defence. This is logical for theory/research based 3rd cycle studies. It is remarkable that for most 3rd cycle studies that have an artistic emphasis, the candidates are asked to give a concert or a similar event, and to write a thesis, which has to be defended in public. There are few variations of this concept to reach the artistic aim of the courses and it is combined in a sensitive way with research or inquiry that has to be explained to an examination board in a final presentation. In theory, the nature of a 3rd cycle qualification in music could be purely scientific (musicology), a combination between theory and artistic practice or purely artistic. However, the purely artistic doctorate is hard to imagine as it would not involve any of the classical elements of a doctoral thesis, which traditionally is the final outcome of research/inquiry related to one or more initial hypotheses based on some kind of revisable and traceable documentation. As the survey in the frame of the ‘Polifonia’ project showed, in none of the existing 3rd cycle studies in music the approach is purely artistic. Therefore, a written piece of work of one or the other kind is always part of a 3rd cycle in music as well.

An example of the range a 3rd cycle promotion can cover in higher music education institutions is stated in the regulations of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance:

"RSAMD will accept any one of three possible forms of submission for a research degree. The final proposal as to which form of submission is most appropriate to a student’s work will be agreed between the student and her/his supervisors and submitted to the Research Degrees Committee for approval in good time before the anticipated date of submission. Three forms of submission for the degrees of MPhil and PhD will be acceptable. In the following examples (which relate to PhD), the word “portfolio” is used to signify the presence of performance-centred and/or practice-based work in a submission, and therefore in a student’s research processes throughout her/his programme of study. Candidates will be examined on their submissions through a viva voce.

  • Portfolio accompanied by Written Commentary: A substantial body of original work that represents or embodies new knowledge, derived from original research. It will be accompanied by a succinct written commentary (of around 3,500/ 5,000 words) contextualising the production and/or presentation of that original work. The original work submitted must be documented fully in appropriate forms that will be accessible to future researchers. 
  • Joint Portfolio with Dissertation: A combination of original work and an extended written text (of around 40,000/50,000 words) which together (but not necessarily separately) represent or embody new knowledge and derive from original research. The original work submitted must be documented fully in a form that will be accessible to future researchers.
  • Thesis: A substantial written thesis (of around 80,000/100,000 words) representing or embodying within the text, new knowledge deriving from original research."

Composition of the final examination/evaluation committee
Most of the final examination panels are composed of a combination of internal and external members. A substantial amount of commissions are also composed of internal examiners only. Only one commission in one responding institution consists of external evaluators only.

Most committees are composed of 3 people or more, up to 12 members. Only in 3 institutions there are only 2 people sitting in the final examination committee.

For the most part, the qualification of the members in the final exam is an academic one. They are professors or senior teaching staff members in higher education institutions. Sometimes experts can be invited to take part in the committee. Students do usually not take part in the committee. Only one institution declared that this is the case in their final evaluation commission. The supervisor of the student is sometimes part of the board, sometimes only allowed to be present without a voice in the final discussion.

Relation between research and artistic practice
The institutions that offer a 3rd cycle in music studies were asked to describe their 3rd cycle studies according to three categories:

  • Research
  • Combination research – artistic practice
  • Other

13 of 30 respondents classified their studies as research-led. 17 stated that their studies are a combination of research and artistic practice. In the later category, one statement made under ‘other’ has been included, which read ‘practice-led research’. The majority of the 3rd cycle studies offered in professional music training institutions are therefore a combination of research and artistic practice, which indicates the importance of having a clear picture of what this means in terms of content, outcome and evaluation standards.

It is not a big surprise after having learned this fact that institutions give much attention to the student’s artistic development during 3rd cycle studies. More than two-thirds of the institutions declare that they do so, which means that this happens even in some studies that are research-based only.

Civil effect
Asked about the civil effect of 3rd cycle study in music, the questionnaire shows that in a slight majority of institutions, having done a 3rd cycle study can have an effect on career opportunities. In most of these cases it is necessary to lecture on higher education level or become a professor. One answer pointed out the positive effect of a ‘Doctor’ title in public culture work. It is interesting that in quite a lot of institutions a 3rd cycle study is required not only for scientific teaching at university level but also for the artistic professor. All institutions where this applies offer a 3rd cycle that is a combination of research and artistic practice.

In more than half the institutions, a completed 3rd cycle has also an effect on the salary of the teacher holding a 3rd cycle degree. Surprisingly enough, a 3rd cycle, and therefore a better education, in nearly half of the institutions does not lead to higher payment.

Competences – Learning outcomes
5 out of 30 institutions have defined learning outcomes for their 3rd cycle studies. This shows that learning outcomes connected to 3rd cycle studies in higher music education are not very common at the moment.


In addition to the mapping-exercise and the work on the descriptors and learning outcomes, the working group developed a ‘Guide to Third Cycle Studies in Music’ , containing the main issues related to 3rd cycle programmes, including texts on admission processes, curriculum, intermediate evaluation, final examination, quality assurance, internationalization and the research environment.

In addition, a seminar on 3rd cycle studies in music also took place at the Staatliche Musikhochschule in Karlsruhe on 29-30 March 2007 , during which the work of the ‘Polifonia’ working group was presented to a wider audience and feedback from the participants was invited. The above-mentioned guide was also presented at this event.

Finally, the role of research in conservatoires in general will be discussed in the second cycle of the ERASMUS Network ‘Polifonia’ in the period 2007-2010 . In the framework of this project, research will be approached from the perspective of all cycles, not just related to the third cycle.