29 September 2010

Professor Keith Howard
Professor Keith Howard

Keith Howard is on a mission to prove the research significance of music scholars and musicians.

Professor Howard, the Associate Dean for Research at The Con and a world leader in ethnomusicology - the study of music (and dance) in culture - is convinced that artistic research merits the allure and potential returns of scientific research.

By his reckoning, the practice-based creative works of eminent composers and performers deliver a level of advancement of human knowledge equal to their peers in the traditional areas of research, such as science, medicine and economics.

"There is an historical notion that performance and composition are inferior, but that is simply wrong when you consider the substantial cultural impacts of high-end music scholarship," comments Howard.

"In this regard we are looking at levels of sophistication, rigor and innovation, as well as acumen, across the creative development, structuring and delivery of music works, both live and in the studio.

"And, just like in science and medicine, these outputs can be and are fully documented, and shown to have systematic results.

"A new opera, for example, just doesn't arrive. It goes and grows through many progressive layers - the libretto, the music score, the orchestration, the technical and creative nuances, as well as the attention to evocative details to keep the audiences and critics happy.

"This represents systematic investigation of inputs to establish the facts of a cultural work - just like, in its own way, what happens in the laboratory.

"Equally, contemporary instruments are different and sound different to the instruments used when the great classical music scores were written - hence there is a level of research involved in exploring the differences between the original performances and those of today."

Howard, the author of 16 books and more than 100 academic papers on the traditional music of Indigenous nations and communities, was hired last year from London's celebrated School of Oriental and African Studies by The Con's Dean and Principal, Professor Kim Walker, to drive a new regime of research development at the


"Performance and composition are core strengths within The Con so right now we are in the midst of a mini revolution. We are documenting every aspect of every mainstream concert and recorded performance. In this way we will produce CDs and DVDs not only for sale but also to build our catalogue of data to support and quantify our research funding credentials," comments Professor Howard.

And the initiative is working.

In the 2009 'Excellence in Research Australia' trial, The Con achieved a score well above the national average and above the Go8 average, as a result of registering a mix of print-based and creative outputs, including performances, recordings, and broadcasts of new works, and new takes on older repertoire, along with curated events and compositions commissioned for international festivals.

Professor Howards adds: "If you look at academic books, for example, they may sell 300 copies and then grow readership over 20 years in a library.

"On the other hand, one concert performance in the Verbrugghen Hall attracts the same number of audience patrons, and if repeated 10 times, that's an audience reach of 3,000. Same repertory but a maximum number of 'hits.' And if a performance is recorded, thousands will hear it.

"The issue is that the government's funding emphasis is currently on the book, not the concert performance. Now that is patently not fair, and yet it is a problem faced by creative institutions that is based on entrenched thinking and methodology.

"The way forward is to broaden the research base. The Con, for example, is establishing a centre of excellence that incorporates best use of technologies and talent; that gives greater recognition to the techniques of musicians to better their instruments; and to cross-pollinate projects to multiply the pool of knowledge.

"As a minority in the race for funding we literally have to blow our trumpets more loudly and cleverly.

"The fact is, many activities already undertaken by scholars and musicians need only to be written up and methodically recorded to qualify for much-needed additional funding."


  • Last semester, 155 students were registered for MMus, Doctor of Musical Arts and PhD degrees at the Con - and that number is on the rise.

  • In 2006, The Con submitted research work to the Australia-wide HERDC (Higher Education Research Data Collection) and the University of Sydney's research collection worth 44 points. In 2008, submissions were worth 449 points.

  • The research projects that students and staff are developing include:

    - vocal production,

    - music in hospitals,

    - hearing and health issues among musicians,

    - the creation of operas,

    - ensemble pieces and books,

    - exploring sustainability in world music,

    - how verbalising affects our perceptions of music, Christian music, music remembered by Holocaust survivors,

    - music and music education in Australian communities,

    - piano and sound technology, and

    - projects that will hopefully involve commercial partners and government agencies.

Contact: Mick Le Moignan

Phone: 02 9351 1385

Email: 583c070368272f0c5f5e3328051901182f2e3f2b4d4a4e113e612b10