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Schema Acquisition in Indian Music: Learning to Compose and Improvise in an Oral Tradition

Principal Supervisor: Professor Richard Widdess (SOAS)

Co-Supervisor: Professor Susan Hallam (IOE)

While there has been considerable psychological research on the way that musicians learn to play and perform, almost all of this research has been conducted in the Western classical tradition. This means that we have little understanding of whether there are differences in the ways that musical schemas relating to tonality/modality, metre, musical form and improvisation are learned in different cultures and musical systems.

The importance of schemas tends to be especially clear in musical traditions that are not reliant on written notation. In North Indian classical music, most teachers avoid or strictly limit the use of writing, instead requiring the pupil to memorise extensive materials, and to compose and/or improvise new material that is grammatically and stylistically acceptable. The processes of schema acquisition and deployment should be particularly apparent in this context. Schematic organization in Indian music has been demonstrated by several authors and is reflected in the rich indigenous tradition of musical theory. However, music is traditionally taught using little, if any, verbal explanation, through practical demonstration.

The successful candidate will work with teachers and students of North Indian classical music, in India and/or the UK, focussing on vocal music, and on the development of musical schemas and improvisation skills in students at different stages of learning. The studentship will be held in the Department of Music, SOAS.

Candidate requirements

Candidates should have or expect to have a Master’s degree in ethnomusicology, music psychology or music education. Research training will be tailored to the candidate's needs and background, drawing on the expertise available in SOAS and the Institute of Education. Language training is available in SOAS.

Due to funding restrictions, this position is only open to candidates classified as 'Home/EU' student for fee purposes.

We aim to interview shortlisted candidates in the week beginning Monday 2nd March 2015. If possible, candidates will be given one week's notice of interview. Online interviews can be arranged.

Key references

  • Durán, L., Magriel, N., and Baker, G., (2011), Growing into music: Musical enculturation in oral traditions.
  • Hallam, S. Cross, I & Thaut, M. (2009) ‘Where now?’ In Hallam, S. Cross, I & Thaut, M. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (pp561-568) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Snyder, Bob (2000), Music and memory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press).
  • Widdess, Richard (2011), ‘Dynamics of melodic discourse in Indian music: Budhaditya Mukherjee’s ālāp in rāg Pūriyā-Kalyān’, in Michael Tenzer and John Roeder (eds.), Analytical and cross-cultural studies in world music (2; New York: Oxford University Press), 187–224.
  • Widdess, R. (2013), ‘Schemas and improvisation in Indian music’, in M. Orwin, Howes, C. and Kempson, R, (ed.), Language, music and interaction (London: College Publications).

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor: Prof. Richard Widdess,,

Co-Supervisor: Prof. Susan Hallam,,

Further information about PhDs at SOAS is available from:

How to apply:

Applicants should follow two steps

STEP 1:  Apply for the MPhil/PhD Music (

Applicants must submit a COMPLETE on-line application for admission to the MPhil/PhD Music as soon as possible but no later than the scholarship deadline (17:00 UK time, 2 February 2015).

A complete application for admission includes transcripts, an explanation of the grading system for any degrees obtained outside of the UK, two references, CV, research proposal and a personal statement.

Please state in the application for admission that you wish to be considered for the Bloomsbury Colleges scholarship on 'Schema Acquisition In Indian Music: Learning To Compose And Improvise In An Oral Tradition'.  Your research proposal should take account of the project title and outline above, and indicate how you would aim to carry out the research. In your personal statement, please indicate why this project interests you, and in what ways you are qualified to undertake it.

The panel will be considering your scholarship application TOGETHER with your online application for admission.

For any queries regarding the programme application procedure, please see or email

STEP 2:  Apply for the scholarship

You must apply for this scholarship via the on-line scholarship application form (

For any queries regarding the studentship application procedure, please email

For any queries regarding the project, please email the Research Tutor, Department of Music: Professor R Widdess,

Closing date for applications is 17:00 (UK time) 2 February 2015