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Conservatoire Research Degrees - PhD

  • Level: Postgraduate Research
  • Starting: September 2021, February 2022
  • Study mode: Full Time, Part Time, Distance Learning
  • Location: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Studying with us in 2021/22

It is possible that the 2021/22 academic year may be affected by the ongoing disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any arrangements put in place by the University for the 2021/22 academic year will be in accordance with the latest government public health advice, pandemic-related/health and safety legislation, and the terms and conditions of the student contract.

A PhD at Birmingham Conservatoire will help you create opportunities to develop research skills that support performance, composition or a scholarly career. Whether you are interested in music (including composition, music technology, musicology, performance and jazz) or performing arts (theatre, acting, directing, applied drama, dance and interdisciplinary performance practice), you will be supervised by leading experts in the field.

Choosing to study in a conservatoire environment allows you access to top-level performers, enabling you to situate your research in an environment of practical music making and acting.  

What's covered in the course?

A PhD enables you to follow a programme of self-directed, independent study, supported by experienced supervisors who are themselves experts in their area. Birmingham Conservatoire operates a system whereby you are able to assign your allocated hours to a number of specialist advisors, allowing you to tailor the support you need to the requirements of your own project.

Whilst you will be developing as an independent researcher, you will be supported both by your supervisors and the wider Conservatoire research community. As well as bespoke research skills training for musicians and performing arts students, there are regular opportunities for you to present and share your work with other research students. 

Why Choose Us?

  • Birmingham Conservatoire has a thriving research community, with particular specialisms in composition, music technology, musicology, performance and performing arts.
  • Regardless of your specialism, you will benefit from access to top-level performers and a brand-new, £57 million building with state-of-the-art recording facilities, concert venues and practice rooms.
  • Research students have access to a dedicated work-space. We have close links with the city’s musical and theatrical organisations such as the CBSO, BCMG, The Rep Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre and The Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • Music students are eligible to audition for our ensembles, and in addition both Music and Performing Arts students can take part in a full range of our practical activities and lectures.
  • Our programme offers the flexibility to present your research in a range of formats, depending on the nature of your research, whether it be fully text-based (80,000 words) or practical (composition, performance or scholarly edition) with a written element. 

This course is open to International students

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Midlands4Cities Scholarships

Find out about applying for funding for this course.

Learn more

What is a PhD?

PhD degrees are research programmes. They allow you to learn as you work through the issues associated with solving a particular problem. Each research degree student is supported by a team of supervisors appointed for the particular study. In all years of study, students will be required to present their work in meetings of fellow students and staff conducting parallel research.

PhD Research Interests

We have a large number of research staff who supervise PhD students in a range of different areas. We particularly welcome proposals for projects in the following areas:


(Professor Joe Cutler, Dr Michael Wolters, Howard Skempton, Dr Ed Bennett, Dr Seán Clancy, Dr Andrew Hamilton, Edwin Roxburgh, Errollyn Wallen)

We welcome applications from students with a wide range of compositional interests, including:

  • Experimental and Conceptual approaches to existing genres,
  • Interdisciplinary and Cross-disciplinary work,
  • Jazz composition,
  • Electronic Composition and Composition involving live electronics (Dr Simon Hall, Professor Lamberto Coccioli)

We particularly welcome applications in the following areas:

  • French Music, notably Charpentier, Lully, Rameau, Ravel, Milhaud, Jolivet and Messiaen (within our French Music Research Hub) (Professor Deborah Mawer, Professor Christopher Dingle, Dr Shirley Thompson, Professor Graham Sadler)
  • 17th and 18th Century Music: Professor Jamie Savan, with a particular focus on performance practice and critical editing, including Italian and French Baroque, English music in the 18th century, late 18th century German music (as part of our Forum for Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Music) (Dr Carrie Churnside, Dr Shirley Thompson, Professor Graham Sadler, Dr Jamie Savan, Martin Perkins, Dr Siân Derry)
  • Late Medieval Music, Theory and Critical Editing (Dr Adam Whittaker)
  • Music Critics and Criticism (Professor Christopher Dingle)
  • Performance Practices of the Renaissance and Early Baroque (Dr Jamie Savan)
  • Jazz Studies (in collaboration with Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research) (Professor Deborah Mawer, Professor Tony Whyton)
  • Beethoven and early 19th-century piano music (Dr Siân Derry)
Music Technology

(Dr Simon Hall, Professor Lamberto Coccioli)

As part of the Integra Lab, we welcome applications in:

  • Electronic Music Composition and Performance
  • Musician-centred Interaction Design
  • Music and Audio Software Development
Music Performance as Research
  • Proposals in historical performance practice and/or contemporary practice (including jazz) are particularly welcome.
Performing Arts
  • The contemporary actor
  • Histories of actor training
  • Interdisciplinary and multimedia performance
  • Theatre making and devising
  • Dance performance making
  • Choreographic practices
  • Embodiment studies
  • Eco-somatics
  • Ecology and performance
  • Spirituality, spiritual traditions and performance
  • Applied theatre and performance
  • Contemporary drama
  • Theatre and politics
  • Spatial dramaturgies

PhD Supervisors and Specialisms

Professor Jamie Savan is the Director of Research for Birmingham Conservatoire, whilst Dr Carrie Churnside is Research Degrees Coordinator.They are supported by a team of supervisors (appointed from our Research Staff) who have a wide range of specialisms and expertise including:

  • Composition
  • Music technology
  • Music Performance as Research
  • Performing arts
  • Musicology

Collaborative Doctoral Awards

Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs) are projects co-designed, and jointly supervised, between an M4C university and an external partner organisation. CDAs offer diverse and unique research projects that support the work of the partner organisation. Studentships are four years for full-time study.

Find out more

  • UK students
  • International students

Award: PhD

Starting: Sep 2021

  • Mode
  • Duration
  • Fees
  • Full Time
  • 3-4 years
  • TBC
  • Part Time
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC
  • Distance Learning
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC

Award: PhD

Starting: Feb 2022

  • Mode
  • Duration
  • Fees
  • Full Time
  • 3-4 years
  • TBC
  • Part Time
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC
  • Distance Learning
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC

Award: PhD

Starting: Sep 2021

  • Mode
  • Duration
  • Fees
  • Full Time
  • 3-4 years
  • TBC
  • Part Time
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC
  • Distance Learning
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC

Award: PhD

Starting: Feb 2022

  • Mode
  • Duration
  • Fees
  • Full Time
  • 3-4 years
  • TBC
  • Part Time
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC
  • Distance Learning
  • 4-7 years
  • TBC

If you’re unable to use our online application form for any reason, please email University reserves the right to increase fees in line with inflation based on the Retail Prices Index or to reflect changes in Government funding policies or changes agreed by Parliament up to a maximum of five per cent.

Entry Requirements

To apply for our Conservatoire PhD research degree you should have, or expect to be awarded, a Masters degree in a relevant subject area from a British or overseas university.

Exceptional candidates without a Masters degree, but holding a first class Bachelors degree in a relevant subject area, may be considered.

We also welcome enquiries from potential PhD researchers without formal academic qualifications but with appropriate levels of professional experience.

Please send us an initial PhD enquiry containing your brief PhD research proposal (max. 500 words), and/or any questions or queries you may have.

We will review your initial enquiry to ensure your research proposal compliments one of our PhD research interests and if so we will ask you to make a full application.

English Language Requirements

Please refer to our English Language Requirements.

Interview and Audition Requirements

Musicology (including performance-related topics)

At interview you will normally be asked to bring along a recent essay demonstrating your academic writing skills.


If you intend to use performance as integral to the project you will also need to audition. We would like to hear you perform for about 30 minutes, with a programme relevant to your project if possible. The standard should be equivalent to post-Masters‘ level at a UK conservatoire.


You will need to present two recent scores together with recordings if available. The expected standard, in each case, is equivalent to that of a completed Masters' from a UK conservatoire. Feel free to consult our Research Department for further guidance.

Research proposal guidance

Your research proposal in the full application should address the following areas:

The Working Title of Proposal
Context of the Research

Provide a succinct summary of what has already been done in the field. In the case of practice-based projects this will include compositions and performances as well as literature.

Research Question(s)

What is it that your project sets out to discover? What are your aims and objectives?


How will you go about undertaking your proposed project? Provide a provisional timeline.

Resources Required

Indicate here if you require any specialist resources (e.g. access to studios, performers, specialist software, etc.)

Potential application and impact of your research

What will be the outcome of your project? How will it benefit the research community? Will the findings be applicable outside of academia? 


If your project includes practice (composition or performance) you will be asked to provide a portfolio of recent work and may be required to audition.

Additional costs

As each PhD is an individual research project, it is impossible to specify what additional costs may be incurred. Whilst the Conservatoire is able to offer limited financial support towards the direct costs of research (e.g. the purchase of books or digital reproductions of primary sources; attendance at conferences and workshops, etc.) you may need to supplement this. Any potential costs should be identified in your application.

Initial PhD Enquiry

Before you apply, please send us an initial PhD enquiry containing your brief PhD research proposal (max. 500 words), and/or any questions or queries you may have. 

Send your inital PhD Enquiry

Research phds blog

Thinking about a PhD?

Our PhD section is the place to go for application tips, FAQs, funded opportunities, helpful blogs and more!

Find out more

A day in the life of a PhD student

If you're considering doing a PhD there's probably a lot of questions going through your mind: how am I going to pay for it? Should I quit my job? Will I cope with the workload? But most importantly, what is it really like? Karen Patel, a full time PhD student, shares her experiences of juggling life, a part time job and her studies in the video above.

The PhD journey

Full-time students are expected to complete within 3-4 years, whilst part-time students may take 4-7 years. In your first year (two years for PT students) you will spend time reviewing the field and refining your research proposal and projected plan. You will be supported in this through attendance at the PGCert in Research Practice, which runs for the first semester of your studies.

At the end of your first year (second year for PT students) you will complete a Progression Assessment Panel, at which you will present your work to the Conservatoire research community and undergo a viva with an external specialist. Your second year (years 3 and 4 for PT students) is likely to be spent undertaking in-depth research in your chosen area, with the third year (years 5-6 for PT students) involving writing up your results and presenting them in a suitable format (whether that be through composition, performance, or entirely written).

Modes of study

Our PhD programmes are offered full-time or part-time. These modes of study ensure that we can create a PhD research plan around your lifestyle needs, even if you are in full-time employment or overseas.

Full-time PhD Research: three to four years
  • As a full-time PhD research student you will undertake much of your research on campus using the facilities at Birmingham Conservatoire.
  • You will be expected to complete your research and submit your work for examination within 36-43 months.
Part-time PhD Research: four to seven years
  • You would chose part-time PhD research if you opt to study whilst in employment or if full-time study is impractical.
  • You will be encouraged to use the campus facilities when you can and may often work from home.
  • You will be expected to complete your research and submit your work for examination within 48-72 months.

Examples of classroom activities

As each doctoral project is unique, so is each student’s day-to-day experience. A typical day might include reading, analysis, composition, performance, or critical editing, or any combination of the above. Whatever the nature of your project, all doctorates require independent study and require you to manage an extended, self-directed research project.

We support a range of thesis submissions, including composition portfolio supported by a short written commentary, or a combination of written and performance elements, as well as a traditional written thesis of 80,000 words.

Extracurricular Activities

Birmingham Conservatoire is a multidisciplinary institution that is home to both musicians and actors. Our research students benefit from the opportunity for collaboration between these two disciplines, as well as from working with others from across the faculty, which includes the Schools of Art, Architecture and Design, English, Fashion and Textiles, Jewellery, Media and Visual Communication.

Student work

Maya Verlaak is a composer who creates new music by developing compositional concepts relating to the properties and context of place, performer or instrument.

“Her hands-on composing attitude encompasses the idea that nothing is taken for granted, every single parameter invites reflection. In addition, by being fully committed, open to learn and using creativity, no project is impossible.” (Dr Michael Wolters, supervisor)

“What I most enjoy about the course is the freedom to do anything, and the possibility of doing projects both in the UK and abroad” (Maya Verlaak)

PGCert in Research Practice

For the first six months of your PhD you will undertake the PGCert in Research Practice, which is a taught and compulsory part of the PhD programme. You will meet with your supervisors and attend classes every week. This is an essential part of the PhD which will help you to get your research started and set you up for the rest of your PhD journey. The PGCert programme covers literature review and research methods which are specific to your faculty.

You will also be supported through the activities of our PGR Studio. The PGR Studio  seeks to promote an experimental, creative and practice-based space that resonates across all the academic Schools and disciplines in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media. A studio can be an artists’ studio, a design studio, a recording studio, a rehearsal studio or a writing studio.

The PGR Studio aims to enhance our postgraduate research (PGR) community and student experience through supporting routes into and out of PhDs through professional and career development within and beyond Higher Education as well as the transition throughout PhD study. We run workshops, training, social events and other activities in partnership with our PGRs for our PGRs

You can also strengthen your PhD research and personal/professional development by participating in wider international research communities and conferences, and by helping to teach degree modules to undergraduate students.

The value of a PhD to employability

The Doctor of Philosophy or PhD is recognised worldwide and is often an essential requirement for those wishing to follow an academic or research career in the field. Our ConservatoirePhD research degree has been designed to help you achieve a career in music and performing arts research or academia. Many of our PhD graduates have gone on to have successful careers as practitioners.

Graduate Jobs

Dr Fang Fang completed her PhD in composition in 2016 with a portfolio of works integrating Chinese folk songs into new music. She now works as a lecturer in composition at Sichuan Conservatory of Music, China, teaching composition, analysis of music and musical form. 

PhD graduates often continue their research through post-doctoral fellowships and academic posts. Conservatoire graduates also frequently go on to have successful careers are practitioners in the field.


PhD researchers funded under the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership have the opportunity to undertake industry placements as part of their research. For more information visit the Midlands4Cities website.

For those students not funded by Midlands4Cities, the PhD still allows you the opportunity to work with other institutions and companies as part of your research. You can discuss your options with your potential supervisors, if you feel a placement would benefit your research.


OpportUNIty Student Ambassador

OpportUNIty: Student Jobs on Campus ensures that our students are given a first opportunity to fill many part-time temporary positions within the University. This allows you to work while you study with us, fitting the job around your course commitments. By taking part in the scheme, you will gain valuable experiences and employability skills, enhancing your prospects in the job market.

It will also allow you to become more involved in University life by delivering, leading and supporting many aspects of the learning experience, from administration to research and mentoring roles.


Our Conservatoire PhD will help you create opportunities to develop research skills that support performance, composition or a scholarly career.

Links to industry

Birmingham Conservatoire has close links to arts organisations both in the city and beyond. PhD students and graduates often benefit from these connections. For example, Dr Seán Clancy was composer-in-residence with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) whilst studying here, and current student Patrick Giguère has had a piece commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), following his success in the Panufnik Scheme.

Birmingham City University is a vibrant and multicultural university in the heart of a modern and diverse city. We welcome many international students every year – there are currently students from more than 80 countries among our student community.

The University is conveniently placed, with Birmingham International Airport nearby and first-rate transport connections to London and the rest of the UK.

Our international pages contain a wealth of information for international students who are considering applying to study here, including:

Birmingham City University International College (BCUIC)

International students who have a serious interest in studying with us but who perhaps cannot meet the direct entry requirements, academic or English, or who have been out of education for some time, can enter Birmingham City University International College (BCUIC) and begin their degree studies.


BCUIC is part of the global Navitas Group, an internationally recognised education provider, and the partnership allows students to access the University’s facilities and services and move seamlessly through to achieving a Bachelor’s degree from Birmingham City University.

Learn more about BCUIC

Concert Hall - Copyright Hufton +Crow

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s £57 million music building opened in September 2017, and is located on Birmingham City University’s City Centre Campus in the Eastside ‘learning quarter’ of the city.

This brand new music facility include five public performance venues – a 500 seat Concert Hall, 150 seat Recital Hall, Organ Studio, Eastside Jazz Club and the experimental black box performance venue known as The Lab. As well as these stunning performance venues, we have nearly 100 practice spaces; including 70 small practice rooms and larger ensemble rooms and workshops.

Our new home is the first conservatoire built in the digital age, and as such it has been vital to ensure that the technical infrastructure installed is on par with any advanced commercial facility. We have seven recording studios, a mastering suite, a distance learning hub, and all of our performance venues feature high specification audio-visual equipment that enables interconnectivity and advanced functionality throughout the building.

These impressive modern facilities guarantee that we are excel in our unique dual purpose of providing the highest standard of music education deserved by our students, as well as meeting our role as a concert and performance venue for the people of Birmingham; taking our place in the vibrant cultural landscape of the UK’s second city.


Professor Jamie Savan is the Director of Research for Birmingham Conservatoire, whilst Dr Carrie Churnside is Research Degrees Coordinator. To see a full list of staff and active research interests, please visit the Research Interests tab.

Dr Carrie Churnside

Senior Lecturer in Music & Research Degrees Coordinator

Carrie Churnside is a Senior Lecturer in Music and Research Degrees Coordinator. She is also Director of the Forum for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Music.

Carrie specialises in Italian Baroque music, particularly the genre of the cantata.

After graduating from the University of Birmingham with a BA (Hons, First Class) in English and Music in 2002, she went on to complete an MPhil on cantatas by Giovanni Paolo Colonna ('Colonna's Cantatas for the Medici: A Study of GB-Lbm Add. MS 27931') and a PhD on Bolognese volumes of cantate morali e spirituali ('A Study of Sacred Cantatas Printed in Bologna 1659-1717').

Prior to joining the staff of the Conservatoire in 2010 she held a Rome Fellowship at the British School at Rome (2008-9), studying Roman seventeenth-century sacred cantatas.

Carrie's research centres on Italian seventeenth-century vocal music, in particular the relationship between text and music, and its performance context. She has presented at various international conferences throughout Europe. Recent work includes studies of the relationship between composer and librettist in early eighteenth-century oratorio, propaganda cantatas that discuss the Ottoman conflict, and music printing and publishing in Bologna at the beginning of the eighteenth century. She is also a member of the Council of the Handel Institute.

Current projects include an edited volume, Transitions in Mid-Baroque Music: Style, Genre and Performance (for Boydell press) and a study of musical patronage in Bologna c. 1700, based on newly discovered documents in the Albergati archive. She is also working on a study of Muzio Scevola (HWV 13): an opera by Filippo Amadei, Giovanni Bononcini and George Frideric Handel.

She teaches on a number of modules for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, on subjects including performance practice, Italian Baroque music, women and music, and music and philosophy, as well as supervising research students.

Deborah Mawer

Associate Director of Research: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (Music and Performing Arts), Co-Director, French Music Research Hub

Deborah Mawer is the Director of Research for Birmingham Conservatoire and the Birmingham School of Acting. She joined the Conservatoire in 2013. She is also an international research specialist on twentieth-century French music, especially Ravel, Les Six and Jolivet, as well as in music-dance and classical-jazz interactions.

As an Editorial Board member for The British Journal of Music Education, and former Senior Academic Adviser for PALATINE, Deborah’s long-standing interested in education and pedagogy saw her awarded an individual National Teaching Fellowship. She has written and released a number of books and monographs, has written in scholarly journals and presented at many international conferences. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

She has broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4 (with Robert Winston), is in demand for pre-performance talks, including at Glyndebourne and Music in the Round (2012), and has produced CD essays for Deutsche Grammophon and Hyperion.