Department of Music

Professor Richard Widdess

Key information

Department of Music Emeritus Professor of Musicology Academic Staff, SOAS South Asia Institute
Department of Music
MusB, MA, PhD (Cantab); MA(London); FBA
Email address
Support hours
By email appointment


Following training in Musicology and Composition at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (1969–73), Richard Widdess' formal engagement with the music and culture of South Asia began with an MA in Area Studies (South Asia) at SOAS (1973–4), where he studied under Rajeshwari Datta for music, Wendy Doniger for history of religion, and John Gray for Sanskrit. He returned to Cambridge for a PhD in historical musicology of South Asia with Dr Laurence Picken. Richard studied dhrupad singing with Nimai Chand Boral, collaborated with dhrupad singer Ritwik Sanyal, and among Indian musicologists has been particularly inspired by Premlata Sharma, N. Ramanathan, Nazir Jairazbhoy and Mukund Lath.

His interests focus on music as a universal human activity, a non-verbal expressive system communicated primarily through sound. Richard is interested in understanding how different musical systems work in the contexts in which they are performed, or were performed in the past, and in developing tools for analysing their structure and meaning. He is interested in the cognitive capacities that link music with other domains of human culture such as language, religion, and visual arts. In regional terms his interests focus on South Asia, particularly classical and religious music traditions of northern India and Nepal (see Research).

Richard Widdess taught at SOAS from 1979 to 2020. He has now retired from teaching but remains active in research.

Research interests

In the field of South Asian music my research began by examining the earliest documentary evidence for the art and theory of melody in India, and for the origins and development of rāga, the most distinctive contribution of Indian culture to music. This project resulted in my book The rāgas of early Indian music: modes, melodies and musical notations (Oxford 1995). A second project was to study the dhrupad genre of North Indian vocal art-music. Collaboration with Ritwik Sanyal of Banaras Hindu University, a leading exponent of the genre, resulted in a joint book, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (Ashgate 2004), examining the characteristics of the genre, its history, ideology, revival, performers, performance and structure.

A third area of interest since 1988 has been the music of the Newar ethnic group in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, which I have been able to observe with the collaboration of Gert-Matthias Wegner, Carol Tingey, and local scholars and musicians. I have published articles on Buddhist ritual song, 17th-century rāgamālā paintings, and the Ghẽtā̃giśi stick-dance, and a third monograph, Dapha: Sacred singing in a South Asian city (Ashgate 2013). In this book I address issues including the meanings of Newar music in its social and ritual context, the historical background to devotional singing in Bhaktapur, musical structure, and cognitive aspects of musical performance.

Cutting across these areas of research is a preoccupation with the analysis of performance, either with or without the involvement of the performer in the analysis. I have published analyses of performances by the singer Ritwik Sanyal and the sitarist Budhaditya Mukherjee. I am also interested in the application of ideas from music cognition and linguistics to the analysis of musical structure and performance, especially syntax, recursion and schema theory. I have collaborated with Martin Rohrmeier (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and others on studies of implicit learning, segmentation and recursion in Indian classical music.

PhD theses completed under my supervision include those of Carol Tingey (Pancai Bājā music of Nepal), Martin Clayton (rhythm in Indian music), Anna Morcom (Hindi film songs and the cinema), Francis Silkstone (learning to improvise in Thai classical music), Nicolas Magriel (sarangi style in North Indian art music), Katherine Brown [now Schofield] (Hindustani music in the time of Aurangzeb), Raiomond Mirza (musical structures in Zoroastrian prayer performance), Dean Morris (transmission and performance in the Gwalior gharānā), Nicoletta Demetriou (ideology and practice in Greek-Cypriot folk music), David Kane (music and Islamisation in Bengal), Jyotsna LaTrobe (devotional singing in Rarh), Jung Rock Seo (court dance in Korea and Japan), Chloe Alaghband-Zadeh (analysing the ṭhumrī style of North Indian vocal music), Morgan Davies (sarangi music and players in Rajasthan), Rasika Ajotikar (women's singing as social protest among Dalits in Maharashtra), Christian Poske (a restudy of Arnold Bake's musical research in Bengal), and William Rees Hofmann (Indo-Persian music and Sufism in the Sultanate period of North India).

I directed the Leverhulme Trust project Musical Traditions of Northern India and Nepal, with Carol Tingey and Gert-Matthias Wegner (1990–94); and the AHRC-funded project The Khyāl Song Repertoire of North Indian Art Music, with N. Magriel and L. du Perron (2002–06). I held an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with the British Library. I received the 2006 Music Forum, Mumbai award for Contributions to the Cause of Indian Music, and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2015.

PhD Supervision

Name Title
Patrick Allen Excellence and Inclusion in Music Education: Working with Chagossian Teenagers in an English Comprehensive School
Ros Hawley A Reflexive Study of Music Practice in a UK Paediatric Hospital Setting
William Rees Hofmann Singing Sufis in Text: Indo-Persian Music and Sufi Poetics ca. 1250-1600
Emily Sayers Cognitive Aspects of North Indian Classical Music: How Children Learn to Compose and Improvise in an Oral Tradition
Vicky Tadros Listening, Khaleeji-Style


Contact Richard