Post-graduate study in music is becoming more prevalent and more necessary to a music career, including careers in performance.

Changing Boundaries in Music Research

Grant Collins spends a great deal of his time sitting amidst a mega drum set comprising twenty-six drums, thirty-four cymbals, eighteen foot pedals and various other percussive gadgets. Performing on this impressive array of instruments requires more than just a great deal of his time, it also demands of Collins a unique combination of creativity with exceptional coordination skills, both mental and physical.

It’s a great concept for a PhD! Collins is exploring the parameters of the independent movement which is required of his four limbs, composing multi-timbral soundscapes based on this four-way coordination to demonstrate multi-limbed polyrhythmic ostinati as backdrops for one/two hand soloing. In translation, this study will review the boundaries of the large modern drum set as a new medium for contemporary solo performance, developing new techniques which enable a level of coordination and independence of movement beyond that required on the standard drum set. Collins will create repertoire and studies for training polyrhythmic independence, and present these outcomes in a series of performances and recordings.

Collins’ PhD candidature defines a whole new set of boundaries now applied to higher degrees by research in music. The myth that musicians don’t seek or need higher degrees has long been debunked. Like many others, Collins understands that, although he has a successful portfolio career comprising performance, touring, creating, teaching, demonstrating, and recording, the intensive level of independent research related to his candidature will make him the recognised expert in his field, and bring a higher level of professional credibility to his work. As an added bonus, even casual teaching at a university will attract a higher rate of pay.

Changing Tertiary Sector Requirements

For full-time appointments in the tertiary sector, a higher degree is now more likely a requirement than not, quite the opposite of past practice where a high performance profile was more appropriate. Now an advertisement for a lecturer in violin at a university is likely to require a higher degree, even at entry level. A recent example required not only a PhD, but also the capacity to whip up a recital at minimal notice, and proven experience — all this for a Level A salary, which starts lower than the average wage!

Once inside the university sector, a musician then needs to keep up their research activity in order to survive a system which promotes successful research profiles over performance experience. The best bit of all is that to get to the top, one must be able to find the money which will fund the research which makes promotion possible!

It is more than twenty years since the eradication of the two-tiered higher education system which fostered teachers’ colleges and other allsorts in parallel with universities. One consequence of amalgamating the tertiary sector was that previously independent performance-based music conservatories found themselves living inside universities. Over time, as university funding has remained static, rewards linked with research have become more important and music institutions have found themselves arguing to have creative practice included among higher degree options. Through a chequered history of on-again/off-again recognition for funding purposes, creative practice is now accepted as a vehicle for research as well as object of it. More often than not, it is the university’s choice as to whether this is encouraged (and funded), but despite the challenges a few research centres are beginning to emerge with successful ARC1 profiles.

More Education: Higher Income Prospects Generally

Not all musicians see their futures existing inside a university environment, yet statistics indicate an increase in the number of musicians enrolled in higher degrees.2 The reality is that although music itself might be to some extent “removed from the mundane material world”, musicians exist within an evolving “social and cultural context [which] has a profound influence on the way [music is] produced, distributed and consumed in contemporary society”.3 Those who are training to enter the music industry, along with those who are already a part of it, recognise an advantage in further study, even if it is only one which allows them a greater buffer zone between education and the real world.

Analyses of artists’ incomes indicate that training in a specific artform (in this case, music) has a strong effect on the capacity to generate arts-related income,4 suggesting that more education has an even stronger effect on capacity for income-generation. This is more than a superficial suggestion. Higher degrees usually add an edge of specialisation to whatever the undergraduate degree provides. Whether by coursework or research, a Masters degree allows a candidate to specialise, and doctoral studies give even more narrow focus on one field. That field no longer needs to be entirely text-based. Scholars exist alongside creators and performers, each of them investigating a question unique to their own interests. For young graduates, it’s a luxury which allows more time before joining the real world; for established professionals, a higher degree enables re-focusing, re-training, and enhances the potential for promotion.

The question of when to undertake the higher degree is individual. For some, it is easier to keep going whilst support and funding is available. For others, the time is best invested later, as professional experience might lead them on an unpredictable journey.

Although it might seem superfluous to do so, it is worth noting that an undergraduate music degree is not intended to provide a musician with everything they will ever need. Ideally it can only focus on the importance of continuing to develop “the skills, concepts and sensitivities essential to the professional life of the musician”.5 That being the case, it is not surprising that outcomes for single-degree graduates do not indicate a high level of success in joining the music industry as performers.

Increasing Diversity of Higher Degrees on Offer

A quick glance at higher degrees on offer around Australia uncovers the diversity of options available. Given replication of titles over different types of content and delivery, confusion often accompanies the choice. It is not uncommon for institutions to offer Masters degrees by coursework as well as by research. Like the coursework version, a Masters degree by research might also be called Masters of Music. In some institutions, the Masters of Philosophy offers another research-based Masters.

The M.Phil presents some interesting differences. Unlike its coursework cousin, it is usually government funded, and may offer a pathway into the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Some choose to begin the M.Phil and convert to a PhD before completion. This isn’t as easy as it might sound – the initial months of the M.Phil must develop the topic to such a level that it is seen to have greater potential than required by the Masters degree. Universities are usually very cautious about this transition, and guard the quality of it quite zealously.

Masters degrees by coursework are most often specialist programs, targeting those who seek professional development, and in some cases they are available online. Among the specialisations at Masters level are Music Therapy, Music Education, Composition, Ethnomusicology, Musicology, Instrumental & Vocal Teaching, Music Technology, Music Studies, and Community Cultural Development. Even the bland title of Masters of Music is likely to allow the candidate to specialise in, e.g., Instrumental Performance, Instrumental Pedagogy, or Aural Pedagogy.

Beyond the Masters degrees are the professional doctorate (e.g. Doctor of Musical Arts, DMA; and Doctor of Music, D.Mus) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The differentiation between the two is less obvious now than ever before. Where once the DMA/D.Mus had more emphasis on the practical rather than theoretical, now the PhD might also be based on creative practice, including composition and performance as vehicles for research. Some institutions retain other postgraduate options — graduate diplomas and certificates, and postgraduate diplomas. Where these exist, most are founded on specialisations: e.g. a Graduate Diploma in Composition, or a Graduate Certificate in Music and Imagery, or a Postgraduate Diploma in Performance Creation. Some allow transition into a Masters degree, giving professionals access into postgraduate education on the basis of professional experience instead of undergraduate qualifications.

The Quality of Research is Rising

In an audit of post-secondary music education and training in 2004, Allan Marrett6 noted anecdotal evidence that low funding of musicology affected its position in tertiary music.7 Whilst he suggested the lack of a research culture among most tertiary music institutions at that time, clearly there has been progress since. Recent Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) results for 2010 show that of the thirty institutions assessed for “Performing Arts and Creative Writing”, more than a third are ranked at ‘world standard’ or better. Some music institutions argue that the next round would offer a more accurate assessment because the 2010 report reflects the period 2003-2008, and the greatest increase in research output has occurred in the latter half of that period and in any case, the cluttered Performing Arts and Creative Writing category doesn’t separate the artforms. Moreover, ERA is based on metrics which are more easily aligned with established publications rather than the more subjective judgement appropriate to creative output.

Nonetheless, 30 out of 41 institutions were assessed in this muddled category, and some music-specific institutions believed that their rankings might rise in the next ERA round.8 Together with a perceived increasing interest in research degrees among students, and professional development in the real world, this would suggest that higher degrees are travelling on a rising star in the great firmament of music institutions. Among those higher degrees in music is an increasing interest in research in (as opposed to about) creative practice.

In an article describing examples of this new generation of higher degree candidates in 2005, I noted something of a “boom” in support offered to attract them to music, from scholarships to Australian Postgraduate Awards.9. In preparation for this piece, I came across an even more diverse range of captivating topics among the higher degree candidates at various institutions around Australia, and a greater number of them. Some of these are used as specific examples in Post-graduate Music Study: Buyer Be Aware! which benefits from data gathered by the Music Council’s audit of post-secondary music education and training, Music Study in Australia.

While Grant Collins examines the physical and mental coordination employed in performing on a mega drum set, others are undertaking studies in which will, like his work, be useful in teaching and performance on a broad scale: performers reflecting on their preparation and understanding of particular works, teachers defining common phrases with multiple meanings, technologists evaluating their creative interaction with computers, and music therapists documenting the experience of families as they rehabilitate patients using music – all are now given value alongside traditional musicological higher degrees.


Helen Lancaster. Entered on knowledge base 22 May 2013. First published in Music Forum, Vol. 17, No 3, May (Winter) 2011, 32-34.


  1. Australian Research Council↩︎
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005. Artswork 2: A Report on Australians Working in the Arts. Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, p.35.↩︎
  3. Throsby, David & Hollister, Virginia. (2003). Don’t Give up your Day Job. An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia. Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, p.11.↩︎
  4. Throsby, David. (2010). The Economics of Cultural Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.187.↩︎
  5. National Association of Schools of Music, USA, quoted by Dawn Bennett (2008) in Understanding the Classical Music Profession. Hampshire & Burlington: Aldgate, p.60.↩︎
  6. Allan Marrett (Marett) is a renowned ethnomusicologist and Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Sydney.↩︎
  7. Marrett, Allan (2004). In Lancaster, Helen (ed.). ‘Different Beats’. Sounds Australian. Journal of the Australian Music Centre. No.64. Sydney: AMC, p.24.↩︎
  8. In the ARC’s second round of ERA evaluations in 2012, covering 2005-2010, 21 of 24 assessed “units of evaluation” (defined by field of research in each institution) in “Performing Arts and Creative Writing” were rated at or above world standard (10 above, 11 at, and three below). Ed.↩︎
  9. Lancaster, Helen. (2005). ‘Making Music — art, research, or both?’ Real Time Arts.↩︎

Dr. Helen Lancaster offers advisory services to higher music education institutions, music teachers and arts organisations. She is a former Chair of the Music Council of Australia, and a Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium of Music. For the MCA she established the National Instrument Bank in 2008, and the Australian Youth Music Council in 2009. With a team of distinguished researchers, she undertook the audit of Post-Secondary Music Education and Training published with further analysis in this knowledge base as Music Study in Australia.

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