Streams for Contemporary Musicians

The two traditional routes would be to either do a music degree at a university that specialises in composition (eg. Huddersfield or Royal Holloway etc.) or to apply to one of the conservatoires as a composer. A university degree is likely to provide a broad educational experience encompassing performance, musicology and composition, while conservatoire training is more focused on developing the composition portfolio. There are a great many composers, however, who studied at university first before going on to study at a conservatoire as a postgraduate. It can be a useful way of discovering exactly what it is you are interested in before making a choice about what you want to pursue. A university degree is likely to provide a broad educational experience encompassing performance, musicology and composition while conservatoire training is more focused on developing the composition portfolio.

Music courses can be researched on the UCAS website, which provides a list of all courses available in Higher education in the UK

Listings for all conservatoires are detailed on the CUCAS website.

Another factor that may influence where you study is who you will study with. Look at the existing musical output of lecturer there and see who else has been taught by them.

Not all musicians or composers take music as a first degree. See our case studies.

Raymond Yiu

“I was self-taught as a composer. When I started composing seriously, I was doing my undergraduate in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College. A pianist friend knew about this and she recommended me to send my works to SPNM's shortlist. As a result, three of my pieces were selected in three consecutive years in 2000, 2001 and 2002. It was about the same time that I got to know the American composer, conductor and pianist Lukas Foss, who was very encouraging and eventually did the world premiere of one of my early works Distance of the Moon.

My interest was (and still is) very broad – everything ranging from plainchant to Cantopop, Eastern European folksongs to heavy metal, Chinese operas to broadway musicals. It is mainly to do with the way I listened to music when I grew up in Hong Kong where no music strand dominated, ie. a not clearly defined musical heritage.

I did not think [studying] was important, until very recently, when I started my PhD at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Partly, it was more an excuse for me to leave my life as a IT consultant behind me and channel my energy entirely into music, and partly I was at a point in my creative career where I felt I want to reassess the work that I had done so far, and understand myself as a composer more objective and find a way to move forward. After the completion of The Original Chinese Conjuror, I did not write a single note for two years; I just felt that I had nothing more to say.

For studying, the only thing I can say is that it may not be for everyone, any time. There was a time in my life I finally felt the need to study, to concentrate on learning, with someone I respected. I am thrilled to have Julian Anderson as my supervisor for my PhD at GSMD.”

Raymond Yiu

Raymond Yiu (姚恩豪, b. 1973) is a composer, jazz pianist conductor and music writer. Born in Hong Kong, he came to England in 1990 and started piano lessons at the age of four. He began writing music as a teenager, and took up composing again while he was studying at Imperial College. He is the recipient of spnm 2003 George Butterworth Award, and is currently represented by the bmic's New Voices scheme. 

Mark Bowden

“My compositional career began during my undergraduate degree at Huddersfield University under the guidance of Richard Steinitz. After Huddersfield I was accepted into the Royal College of Music to study with Julian Anderson. He has been a very influential figure in my musical development; his open-minded and wide-ranging approach to many genres of contemporary music allowed me to further explore my compositional palette and take risks with the ideas that I was developing at the time.

Alongside my formal studies at the RCM I supplemented my training with summer courses at Dartington and Aldeburgh. These experiences gave me the opportunity to work with a diverse range of composers and to explore new approaches to my own work including the incorporation of technology and film, and collaborations with artists from different disciplines.

After graduating from the RCM I began my part-time doctoral studies at Royal Holloway with Philip Cashian and was appointed the first Composer-in-Residence at Handel House Museum. During my postgraduate studies professional commissions started to come in. In 2006, I was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize and since then I have worked solidly as a freelance composer and I have taken up a part-time academic post as Director of Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The influence of my studies with Richard Steinitz and Julian Anderson combined with new ideas from Philip Cashian have led me to develop what I consider to be my own distinctive compositional voice. I do not know what direction this will take in the future, but for now I feel that I have developed techniques that allow me to write flexibly within a variety of media, but with an overriding sense of musical architecture, drama and harmonic development."


Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden is a composer living and working in London. His music has been performed and broadcast by many leading performers and ensembles at festivals and events throughout the UK, Europe and America. He is a founder member of the critically acclaimed Camberwell Composers’ Collective and is currently New Music Associate at Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge.


Making the Decision

In order to decide how to navigate through the myriad of choices, there are three main things to think about:

What kind of course would you like to spend three or four years of your life doing. It could be a broad course encompassing performance, musicology and composition or it could be specialised with perhaps just one or two areas studied in more detail.

Do you want to go to a university or a conservatoire? Of course you can apply for both types of institution, but you would need to complete a UCAS and a CUCAS application.

Where in the country do you want to study? Perhaps somewhere close to home, or maybe somewhere quite far away. Consider if you prefer studying in a city or a campus institution in the countryside.

Once you've thought about these things, draw up a list of possible places and arrange a visit. All music departments and colleges have open days
throughout the year, but you can always make your own trip if the official open day is not convenient. If you do decide to make your own trip it's often best to let somebody know that you’re coming and have somebody from the institution to meet you and show you around.

It might be helpful to think about education to develop your future career in music. There is some helpful information on the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ website.

Fundraising Regulator
Sound and Music|3rd Floor, South Wing, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA|Tel +44 (0)20 7759 1800||Registered Charity: 1124609|VAT Reg No: 937 5533 96 

Designed by Fitzroy & Finn|Built by Platform3|Copyright © Sound and Music 2016