General Issues around Pop Practice As Research

Pop music as research?

When I started on my journey as an academic – studying music and musicology in a university department with a heavy focus on what we might call ‘classical music’ – I kept my performing world separate. By day I read and wrote about Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, by night I wrote and performed what might be considered new- or alt-folk songs at gigs in dark cellars and bars around Glasgow. But I didn’t read or write about new-folk. Rightly or wrongly, at the time, I didn’t consider writing or performing popular music to be part of my developing research tool kit.

Years later as I completed my PhD (developing a creative way of writing about challenging avant-garde musical works), I spoke more deeply with composers working within university music departments who considered their electro-acoustic or acoustic media compositions to be research. And I began to wonder if my own popular music compositions (now being performed across the world in much more prestigious venues) could be considered that way and if not, why not?

The past 5 years of my academic career have involved me setting out to try and answer that question, by working on a number of research projects where I use my songwriting practice (in collaboration with others) as a form of research. All these projects (bravely supported by the AHRC and the ESRC) so far have focused on the use of popular music to explore important social issues, including environmental sustainability and desistance from crime. This hasn’t been music WITH research (i.e. that writing and performing music alongside conducting research has been helpful to my understanding), or research ON music (i.e. trying to understand how effective music is when used in these settings for various instrumental purposes) but research that IS music. That is to say that music is created as a means of understanding, and that the resultant music exists as an embodied form of knowledge on the subject.

Of course, one of the most important aspects of music is that it plays multiple roles in any given circumstance, and the use of music in these situations has important additional roles and effects – in building community, in creating space for dialogue, in educating participants etc. But the aim for the resulting music, is that it exists as, not just alongside, a form of research.

My aim for this blog is to document my processes, reflections and insights into popular music as research, as I work within a number of key projects, including: Distant Voices: Coming Home (a 3-year ESRC/AHRC funded project looking at the role of songwriting in understanding desistance from crime on homecoming after punishment); Fields of Green: Addressing Climate Change through Music Festival Communities (ongoing work to build upon this AHRC-funded project using songwriting to explore the environmental and emotional/behavioural impact of musician behaviours around performance at music festivals); Pervasive Punishment (the creation of songs to explore and represent the lived experience of supervision to accompany the research of Professor Fergus McNeill on mass supervision, punishment and reintegration) and others.





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