Musical Ways of Knowing

Our long-time blogger David Canter considers what he has learned while completing his PhD in music composition. He spent a lifetime as a social scientist, requiring every argument to be bolstered by some form of empirical evidence, or at least a supportive citation from the works of others. The contrast of developing an approach to composing music that can be regarded as ‘a contribution to knowledge’, has made him aware that there are many ways of knowing which scientists, especially social scientists and psychologists, ignore at their peril.

Part of the composition Allegre Tuttavia included in David Canter’s portfolio for his PhD.

How can the active process of composing music be presented as a ‘contribution to knowledge’? That requirement has been the hallmark of an acceptable PhD for over half a millennium. For scientists the ways of doing this are well-established. Hypotheses are promulgated, data is collected to test them and the results are presented in established formats. If supported hypotheses throw new light on recognisable questions then they contribute to a greater understand of the issues those questions enshrine. The whole package thereby contributes to knowledge. That at least is the mantra of how science accumulates explanations and understanding. There can be variations on what is meant by an hypothesis and there is no necessity for research to conducted in a strictly hypothetico-deductive sequence. However, the end result needs to be integrated into an existing knowledge framework. It must clearly contribute to identified scientific knowledge.

The humanities have a somewhat more open-ended set of requirements, but the result still has to throw new light on some established areas of expertise. Whether this is a new way of making sense of a poet’s work, clarifying the machinations giving rise to historical events, or even revealing the existence of new oeuvre by a well-known composer.

The full thesis is available from

How can this translate into creating a musical work? It has to translate, because universities typically use exactly the same guidelines and requirements for a successful PhD for every discipline, including music composition – right down to the font size of any written document and the color of its cover. It should be clear I am not talking about musicological research – revelations of the recurring structures in early plainchant, demonstrating the narratives at play in a Schoenberg quartet, or the importance of recognizing Paul McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” is just a rehash of Brahms’ “Wiegenlied.”  In my experience, the process of composing a piece of music does not have the tidy beginning, middle and end that can be draped over even the most innovative and exploratory research projects.

The end result of a composition is the result of many false starts and blind alleys. The handwritten scores of many famous composers are covered in scratching-outs and revisions. Some composers, such as Boulez, very rarely regarded their works as completed, constantly revising them.  I discovered that composing is an interactive exploratory process. Once a finished score is available, musicologists can take it apart and show how it is constructed, but it is rare that the composer had all those details in mind before he started putting dots on the page. Even a work as elegant, and almost obvious, as Mendelsohn’s “Fingal’s Cavetook him two years of struggle to complete, although the opening bars and central theme came to him soon after his Hebridean visit. 

Thinking I had too many recurring habits as a composer, I determined to write a piece entirely using random numbers. Rather than random number tables I used the winning lottery numbers, so I could call the piece “Winning Ticket”! But what I realized is that I had to create rules of how to convert the numbers into notes. If a 9 turned up should this mean the next note would be a crotchet, or the 9th of the previous note? This is the essence of the struggle that most composers must deal with. If I start with this chord, instrument, motif, etc. what do I do next? There are all sorts of patterns to draw on, what other composers have done and indeed how they have explained their workings. This might be thought as akin to a scientist’s seeking out what earlier studies have been carried out in her chosen field. But there is crucial aspect of what a composer draws on from earlier examples. The decision is fundamentally personal, subjective even.

That does not imply that composing decisions are random or arbitrary. There are nonetheless many personal decisions to make when starting with a blank page. I actually made the mistake in a talk to musicians by presenting a picture of an empty orchestral score with the comment that this is the challenge a composer starts with. The audience reprimanded me, saying many decisions had already been made by choosing that particular mix of instruments as a starting point. But once early choices have been made, they influence later decisions. A scientist may have choices of the sources of data but most decisions thereafter are more or less inevitable. That is no more the case for a composer than for a painter whose first mark on the canvas influences later marks. This is the case even when those first strokes are later removed or hidden.

Although there are established patterns within music, such as eight or 12 bars for a blues, conventional chord sequences, sonata or rondo form, when and how they are drawn on or ignored is a personal choice. Where the goal of any experiment is to describe it in a way that can be, and should be, reproduced, it is never possible to create a new Beethoven quartet, or piece of Shoenbergian serialism. The various examples being generated by the emerging artificially intelligent algorithms demonstrate that what they produce are little more than a pastiche. The human creative process derives from being a person in the world, interacting with other people, growing up in a family and surrounding culture(s). It is always unique, no matter how much it builds on what has gone before.

What emerges from the composing process is a musical work which embodies the personal decisions of its creator. To the extent that it can be appreciated, even enjoyed, it can be regarded as a successful work. Intriguingly, in all my studies of composition, it was extremely rare to hear whether a piece of my music was liked; the comments were always whether it ‘worked’ or not. A composition ‘working’ has similarities to an experiment being successful. But where a scientific study can be evaluated against overt, objective criteria, a musical composition relies on individual, subjective reactions. What I’ve realized, though, is that this does not mean the musical work is necessarily any less of a contribution to knowledge than a scientific study. The results of science may contribute to developments in technology with possible benefits (or disasters) for humankind. Music contributes in other ways, but it is still a way of knowing.  

The central challenge of composing elucidates what makes musical knowledge elusive. I named this the Stravinsky Paradox because in his autobiography, Igor Stravinsky states categorically:

“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc… Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this only an illusion and not a reality.”

Yet he composes pieces that are clearly intended to express something with titles such as “Fireworks” and “Homage to J.F.K.,” as well, of course, as his ballets which have strong narratives.

As a composer, how can I begin to create something when, on the one hand, it cannot express anything and, on the other, it will always be reacted to by people wishing to explore its emotional qualities or wanting to know ‘what it is about’? This is not just an issue illustrated by Stravinsky’s inherent contradictions. It is a central debate in musicology. One faction explores music as a form of language, elaborating its ‘meanings.’ Another deals with it as an abstraction that can only be considered in its own terms.

Composers who follow the abstract line of argument, ignoring the paradox, may use mathematical formulae, or apparently random processes to produce their scores. There is even a school of totally graphic, or purely verbal, composing that eschews conventional notation, thereby seeming to avoid reference even to earlier musical forms. Yet the audience for such music still seeks some form of emotional, or intellectual engagement with it.

Those who embrace the tradition of music as a form of expression nonetheless embody structures, frameworks and musical traditions that have abstract qualities which go beyond any emotional strivings the composer may seeking to reveal.

My struggle to deal with these issues, to resolve the paradox, forced me to generate a process of composition that recognized the two frameworks were two sides of the same coin. There are patterns of musical activity within any culture that, to quote Stravinsky again:

“[have] additional attribute[s] which, by tacit inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention -in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Particularizing what these ‘attributes’ are and how they are related to particular aspect of a composition provides the toolkit from which a work can be crafted. But the crafting process is an inherently personal, abstract activity. I cannot disregard the musical traditions within which I operate, as much as I can try to ignore them. The end result is always a discovery. It derives from a combination of abstract exploration of what is technically and musically possible and the search to find something that ‘works’, which expresses what I am searching for and opens the way for others to find interest and/or enjoyment.

A musical composition is, therefore, a form of knowing. Like all knowledge, it is grounded in a culture and is open to many interpretations. It has a recognizable structure and can be dissected into its components. Some aspects of it may be questioned or dismissed. It may be incoherent or only open to those who have some prior knowledge or experience. But when you come to think of it in this way, scientific knowledge has the same characteristics. The pretense that science knows things in the abstract, representing existence as it actually is, is as satisfying as a Beethoven quartet to those who will listen carefully and as enjoyably.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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