SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Cultural understanding and the music of the world

SOAS is home to the only music department in the UK exclusively devoted to the study of world music. The Music Department’s research and teaching foster greater understanding of traditional and contemporary musical styles and music-making. Its research has also proved to be a powerful tool for exploring cultural identity, preserving endangered traditions and even supporting literacy.

The focus of the Department is both local, within the SOAS regions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and global, as musicians and mediated sounds circulate the globe and performance contexts undergo rapid change, impelling new forms of musical experience and creativity.

Engaging audiences for world music through performance

Audiences are engaged through recordings, live performance, the SOAS World Music Summer School and the high profile external activities of SOAS staff. The reach of their research and teaching is extended through collaboration with the BBC, the Aga Khan Music Initiative and other development and community organisations. The annual SOAS World Music Summer School provides performance opportunities for beginners and advanced musicians in many non-Western traditions. This unique programme attracts around 250 students across 18 week-long courses, ranging from the seven-tone Balinese gamelan to the Jew’s harp and the didgeridoo. The Department’s rich output of recordings showcases African and Asian music recorded by performance teachers and students of the Department. Examples include Professor of Music Keith Howard’s films exploring endangered shamanic traditions in Siberia and work by Lucy Durán, Senior Lecturer in African Music, on children’s acquisition of performance skills. Performance includes work by Nick Gray, Senior Lecturer in the Music of South East Asia, who runs a Balinese gendér wayang group and Rachel Harris, Reader in Ethnomusicology, who performs regularly in two ensembles, one presenting Central Asian repertoires, the other Chinese.  

Putting music at the heart of education


Peter Bol Deng, Dinka musician Credit: Angela Impey

SOAS music research has made an impact on the field of education. Examples include the provision of lesson plans, lectures and workshops in schools, through to the more far-reaching example of Professor Howard’s engagement in policy-making decisions about the national curriculum, in which he advocated the inclusion of world music at the heart of the curriculum at all levels.  Dr Duran has played a leading role in a collaborative research project into the ways children acquire skills orally/aurally within musical lineages. Angela Impey, Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, has led a major collaborative research project in the new state of South Sudan, producing a collection of recorded songs and related texts which have been welcomed as an important aid in the spreading of literacy and, ultimately, participation and social cohesion in a fledgling state. Read more...

Working with cultural and creative industries

One strand of the music department’s impact strategy focuses on collaborations with the BBC. Dr Durán has presented a regular weekly one-hour radio show “World Routes” and other occasional programmes on Radio 3 for more than a decade. This collaboration has drawn on her own research and research generated by the department, such as Dr Harris’s research on Uyghur Muqam and field research in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal undertaken by Richard Widdess, Professor of Musicology. Dr Duran has also been active as a record producer, with two albums to her credit that have not only won or been nominated for awards, but have also been significant in raising general awareness of a repertoire and style associated with a little-known West-African lute: indeed, they have had the effect of raising its profile in Mali itself (Read more: Securing a global stage for Malian artists and their music).

The School has recently launched a new MA in Global Creative and Cultural Industries, incorporating elements of vocational training and work experience that directly address an employability agenda for students of music and other forms of performance and culture.  Whilst this programme is still at an early stage, it represents a development route for stronger research connections between the Music Department and organisations and companies working in music production and performance.  This commercial expertise will be harnessed both to benefit our students and to enhance the impact of our research. A BA World Music will parallel these initiatives at undergraduate level.

Promoting the value of musical traditions

Scholars at SOAS have played a significant role in helping to influence public policy: Dr Harris, Professor Howard, Dr Impey and Professor Widdess and have produced expert reports for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage initiatives. However, the impact of the Department’s research is sometimes felt most strongly within the regions and communities of focus. For example, there has been increasing awareness among performers of Turkish classical music of the riches of the 17th-century Ottoman tradition resulting from the transcription and publication of notations of the period. Likewise, a new book by Owen Wright, Emeritus Professor of Musicology of the Middle East, opened the doors to the music scholarship of early fourteenth century Cairo. His book, Music Theory in Mamluk Cairo, provides a critical edition of the text of ġāyat al-maṭlūb fī ‘ilm al-adwār wa-'l-ḍurūb, the most significant music theory text to survive from the period. Detailed commentary and analysis places the work in the theoretical tradition of the time and paints a picture of the author, Ibn Kurr.