Doctorate Debriefing


If you’re reading this you might be wondering one of three things. Should I pursue a doctorate in music? Can this debrief help me with whatever I’m currently doing? What even is a doctorate in music?

I’ll answer these questions in reverse order.

The Doctorate of Musical Arts

The DMA has a rather short, but not uninteresting, history. The degree was first offered in the 1950s to advance the academic recognition of creative musical disciplines. Musicologists and music theorists have their Ph.D.’s, but faculty in performance and composition credentialed out at the Master’s level before the introduction of the Doctorate of Musical Arts.

Belligerents in early skirmishes over the legitimacy of the degree fell into one of three camps. First, there were critics who concluded that the DMA was a fallback credential for musicians who couldn't stand out on the merits of their artistic practice alone. Second were those championing the degree who argued that the increasing competition and diversity among artistic practices made this qualification essential to strengthening their academic profiles. Third were those professors currently on institutional rosters who were doing fine with only a Master's and who now felt a shock of fear at the prospect of being replaced or worse: suddenly sent back to school.

After a few decades, diploma-carrying musical doctors overtook this third group. And in the context of the growth of university music education, a leveling of the field between music research and music practice was ultimately a necessary and helpful thing.

Analyzing some local data

The journey through my DMA culminated in the presentation of an oral exam. On a Tuesday morning, I entered a room occupied by five of the smartest and most insightful musicians I know and presumed to address them as a musical authority in my own right. Instead of immediately shedding myself of the experience, I decided to investigate how I prepared for it to see what broader conclusions I might draw about the effort involved in this.

The exam consisted of three parts. First, there would be a presentation on a topic proposed by me and approved by the doctoral committee. This was not to exceed 20 minutes and would be followed by questions for up to 15 minutes. Next, 20 minutes of questions from my panel on a repertoire topic proposed by me and approved by the doctoral committee. Finally, a listening excerpt was played for which I had to identify its salient features, suggest a time period for its composition, etc.

Here I’ll address my preparation for the first two components of the exam. As for inputs, I read 989 pages on the presentation topic (early Boulez) and 1,071 pages on the repertoire topic (Schubert’s Winterreise). This isn’t counting information on websites or YouTube, etc. The outputs here aren't as apples to apples. I went through ten written versions of the presentation script and recorded myself every time I delivered it, 29 times total. On the day of the exam, I probably ran through the talk another five times without recording. For Winterreise, I whittled all my notes on those 1,071 pages down to a 58-page study guide complete with formal diagrams and broader contextual information (wars, political climate, etc). I averaged 2 pages of notes for each of the 24 songs in the cycle, which fell into the following sections: poetry, composition, text painting, versions, context.

Broadly, the numbers seem to suggest that absorbing 1,000 pages of information is a nice target when pursuing a comprehensive understanding of a subject. It’s not exactly rigorous science and not all content is created equal, but it seems like a good rule of thumb.

The DMA in context

Some problems artists face are contextual and ever-evolving, but there’s a complimentary set of issues that are absolutely evergreen. The trajectory of my doctoral work has been toward better defining and distinguishing between the two. For me, this takes the shape of problematizing seemingly clear-cut notions in how we write about music along with clarifying certain musical problems that we make for ourselves in our cultural, historical, and personal narratives.

The continuous discussion around music and culture needs to take place both within the academe and without. Those in the creative disciplines of music are poised to do this translational work and to be the voice of a deeper musical understanding to artists in other fields and to a wider public.

The significance of the DMA program lies in the fact that it advances this movement of musical knowledge— academic to practical, theoretical to aesthetic, historical to contemporary, etc.— both from within the institution through teaching and beyond the institution through our professional activities.

Drawing conclusions

Back to your initial burning questions. We don’t talk enough about the origins of the degree or reflect on its purpose. I’ve included some links for further reading below, if you’d like to learn more about the degree’s early history.

I would frame my response to the question Should I pursue a doctorate in music? like this: if you find yourself relating to historical or theoretical musical subjects in a visceral, personal way; or, if you find yourself translating or contextualizing music when working with collaborators or students; or, if you can envision yourself as a facilitator in a musical dialogue between academia, a wider artistic community, and a curious public, then you should consider how the degree might further you in those directions. 

Can this debrief help me with whatever I’m currently doing? I plan on applying what I gleaned from looking back at my exam prep to my learning process generally. That is, a focus on inputs and outputs. I started my presentation script and repertoire study guide right from the beginning. I think I was able to wade through and make sense of so much content because I established a concrete outlet for the information. That way, I was always synthesizing what I read.

And when faced with a new intellectual challenge, set yourself a target of 1,000 pages and crack open a book. 

Further Reading:

Latimer, Marvin E. "The Nation's First D.M.A. in Choral Music: History, Structure, and Pedagogical Implications." Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 32, no. 1 (2010): 19-36.

Ross, Ronald D. "To Doctor or Not, That Is (Still) the Question." College Music Symposium 21, no. 2 (1981): 118-25.