Modelling Music Theory – Two New Postgraduate Scholarships

Two exciting new studentships in music and computer science for postgraduate research students provide both academic supervision and industry experience through collaboration with IBM’s nearby Hursley laboratories.  Details and application information below:

The Department of Music and the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with IBM UK, are pleased to invite applications for two PhD studentships on the project Modelling Music Theory Using Controlled Natural Languages, to commence on 1 October 2016.

iconNoCommunityPhoto155Although music analysis (purportedly systematic and objective) of scores (symbolic notation) is ideally suited to computational analysis, a significant barrier remains the often high level of technological expertise required, which is beyond that of the typical music analyst. In an effort to overcome this barrier, the successful applicants will explore the potential of Controlled Natural Languages (CNLs) (which allow for the application of human knowledge to cognitive tasks and are both human- and machine-readable) for the computational analysis of music scores. You will start by using Controlled English (CE), a CNL designed by IBM researchers to be readable and writeable by an English speaker, which can represent information in a structured, formal and unambiguous fashion, so that it can be applied by a computer system to perform tasks.


  • Develop CNL vocabularies, taxonomies and logical representations for music analysis;
  • Explore the nature and limits of music theories by endeavouring to translate their definitions, rules, schema and methods into a CNL;
  • Assess how CNLs may complement/supersede other computational music-analytical approaches;
  • Use music analysis, as an exemplar advanced cognitive task, to better understand the applications and limits of CNLs.


  • Complete PhD theses;
  • Document the resources, tools and methodologies developed.

We intend to appoint two students with complementary specialisms: one in music theory and one in computer science/music technology. Exact PhD topics will be negotiated between the students and supervisors, although we would be particularly interested in receiving proposals relating to musical cadences and/or modulation. A key task will be to represent the chosen music theories in a CNL, in order to enable computational analysis. Appropriate benchmarking criteria will need to be devised; one consideration will be the system’s ease of use by non-technical users.

IBM's Hursley laboratories
IBM’s Hursley laboratories

The PhD students will be co-supervised by academics at the University of Southampton and by IBM researchers, and will be provided with working space at IBM Hursley and advance access to CNL technology in development by the company. As part of their degree, students will complete a short placement under the mentorship of IBM staff in a variety of IBM contexts, so as to expand their technical portfolios. Students will contribute to IBM’s development of CNLs through the consideration of music as a case study, while at the same time acquiring valuable industry skills for future employment. It is our intention that this will culminate in the students’ participation in constructing materials for IBM’s ‘demo lab’.

The successful candidate for the studentship with expertise in music theory/analysis will likely have the following qualifications:

  • An excellent (upper second or first class) undergraduate degree either in music or music technology; a relevant master’s degree that includes a module or dissertation with a clear music-analytical focus. (In exceptional circumstances, the successful candidate may proceed directly from undergraduate to doctoral study, if qualifications and experience are appropriate.)
  • A passion for tonal music (whether that be classical, jazz, pop etc.) and an interest in explaining to others how tonal music works; experience of working with music notation software. Knowledge of MEI or MusicXML would be advantageous.

The successful candidates for the studentship with expertise in computer science/music technology will likely have the following qualifications:

  • An excellent (upper second or first class) undergraduate degree in music technology, computer science, or an engineering discipline with a significant computer science component; a relevant master’s degree. (In exceptional circumstances, the successful candidate may proceed directly from undergraduate to doctoral study, if qualifications and experience are appropriate.)
  • Expertise in computer programming and representation of knowledge (and ideally experience working with controlled languages and ontologies) expertise in computer programming and mark-up languages (and ideally experience working with controlled languages, and Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies); an aptitude for explaining their work to a non-technical audience; an interest in tonal music (whether that be classical, jazz, pop etc.) and a desire to better understand how tonal music works. Knowledge of basic music theory to the level of ABRSM Grade 5 (or equivalent), and a secondary-school qualification in music (e.g. A level, or a very high grade in GCSE/BTEC Level 2 Music or Music Technology) would be advantageous.

The successful candidates will enjoy a unique opportunity to carry out higher study and research at two internationally leading university research departments, and at one of the world’s leading multinational technology companies. The successful PhD students will be well positioned to secure future careers in an increasingly digital music industry, where musicians and music-lovers routinely engage with music through digital technologies to support listening, discovery and creation.

The PGR Scholarship Fund

The University PGR Scholarship Fund is open to all students – from the UK or any country worldwide. Postgraduate research students recruited under the scheme will receive a centrally-funded scholarship of £7000 per year for three years, provided that they continue to progress well with their degrees. The scholarships can be combined with additional funding which may be available from other sources.

The University seeks the best students whatever their circumstances, and the scheme is designed to be flexible for part-time students. The amount of funding can be reduced pro-rata and the time over which the award is given can be increased pro-rata, so that the total funding of £21,000 is available over the equivalent of three full-time years of study.

In addition, IBM will reimburse up to £400 per student per year for travel between the University and IBM’s Hursley site.

How to Apply

Please apply online at the postgraduate applications page.

As part of the application process, you will need to complete/provide the following:

  • A postgraduate application form;
  • Details of two referees;
  • EITHER a research proposal, on an area that you would be interested in perusing in your PhD research, OR an essay of 700–1000 words with the title ‘What opportunities might the computational analysis of music open up?’;
  • Applicants should clearly indicate whether they are applying as either a specialist in music theory/analysis or a specialist in computer science/music technology.

Information enquiries about the studentships should be directed to Dr David Bretherton (

Closing Date: 3 May 2016

Interviews will held in the week beginning 30 May 2016.