A Manifesto for Song Research

Earlier this month I was delighted to present my Professorial Inaugural Lecture-Recital at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts. I was joined by the fabulous song duo Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton, so I was able to offer live performances of the works I research as part of my current major research project, the Baudelaire Song Project.

As I was preparing my lecture, I bumped into a colleague who offered a really helpful tip: ‘think of your inaugural as presenting a manifesto for your future research’. It really got me thinking. I’m already looking ahead to my next research project, and while I haven’t framed it fully yet, I know it will include questions about how we use our voices in different languages, which for me also includes musical language. More broadly, I want to examine the whole idea of song as a fundamental human activity that we don’t yet fully understand. So I decided to close my lecture with my first cut of a ‘manifesto for the future of song research’. I thought I’d share it here on this blog, in part to mark the occasion of my inaugural, and in part to invite conversation around how we talk about song in both abstract and practical terms. À vous de jouer…

A manifesto for song research
We need to…

  • Be less reverent about classical song
    accept that it is part of a continuum which includes a whole range of musics
  • Be less precious about how text is set to music
    there are always going to be hesitations, repetitions, or deviations
  • Promote and probe the inherently universal human experience of song
    the language of the words/lyrics matters but to varying degrees depending on the context; working with singers is a must
  • Apply the most cutting edge techniques to song analysis that we can devise or find
    that will mean going more and more digital (but digital does not mean without human input)
  • Improve access to song networks
    there is no simple model of how words and music interact; songs are a complex and busy network of interactions which push and pull in different directions, because songs are live and lived things


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