Simon Zagorski-Thomas (University of West London, UK)


During a discussion on the 2006 AHRC-WORKSHOP-PL@JISCMAIL.AC.UK mailing list-based AHRC Practice-Led Research Review, somebody asked whether participants in the discussion (who were mainly visual artists working in higher education) thought it would be right to grant Pablo Picasso a practice research PhD by submission. Setting aside other issues which clouded the question, I would like to focus on two aspects of this:

  1. Which kinds of activity in the arts, and in popular music in particular, constitute “a process of investigation leading to new insights” – two thirds of the UK’s REF definition of research?
  2. What, if anything, in addition to the creative output (song, recording, performance etc), is required to ensure that this process of investigation and the new insights are “effectively shared” – the other third of the definition?

I am going to use two theoretical models to construct my arguments: firstly, an expansion of Middleton’s (1993) three modes of engagement with music into a more cognition-based version (Zagorski-Thomas, 2019); and secondly, a discussion of the representational system of musical performance by drawing on my notion of sonic cartoons (Zagorski-Thomas, 2014, 2018a, 2018b). These will be used to explore how we can deconstruct the practical, tacit knowledge involved in making music so as to better recognise how and where there may be ‘newness’.

Borgdorf (2012, p. 161) has proposed that it is necessary that “the research is expressly intended to shift the frontiers of the discipline” and that “the research impacts on the development of art practice, and in a cognitive sense on our understanding of what that art practice is” (ibid). I explore, using a series of examples from Björk to Hendrix and from Janelle Monáe to Shoukichi Kina, how we can identify these types of new knowledge, how a practice-led PhD should expose them, and to think about the criteria we might use to assess them.  


Borgdorff, H. (2012) The conflict of the faculties : perspectives on artistic research and academia. Amsterdam: Leiden University Press.

Middleton, R. (1993) ‘Music Analysis and Musicology: Bridging the Gap’, Popular Music, 12(2), pp. 177–190.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2014) ‘Sonic Cartoons’, in Schulze, H., and Papenburg, J. (eds) Research Companion to the Sound in Media Culture Network Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2018a) ‘The Spectromorphology Of Recorded Popular Music: the shaping of sonic cartoons through record production’, in Fink, R., O’Brien, M. L., and Wallmark, Z. (eds) The Relentless Pursuit Of Tone: Timbre In Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2018b) ‘Timbre As Text: The Cognitive Roots Of Intertextuality’, in Lacasse, S. and Burns, L. (eds) The Pop palimpsest: Intertextuality In Recorded Popular Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, pp. 273–90.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2019) ‘Analysing the product of Recorded Musical Activity’, in Scotto, C., Smith, K., and Brackett, J. (eds) The Routledge Companion to Popular Music Analysis: expanding approaches. New York: Routledge.