The Interdisciplinarity of Music Research: The Perspective of the Music Technology Group of the UPF

The Interdisciplinarity of Music Research: The Perspective of the Music Technology Group of the UPF

by Xavier Serra. Originally published on: Higher Education in the World 7 2019 - Humanities and Higher Education: Synergies between Science, Technology and Humanities. pp. 115-117. ISBN: 978-84-09-14675-8



Music is a complex human phenomenon that can be approached and studied from many perspectives. So it is essentially a multidisciplinary object of study. However, given that most education and research institutions are organized around traditional academic disciplines, the interdisciplinary study of music poses huge academic challenges.

In most European countries the practice of music, thus the study of music making, is taught in Conservatories, while the study of the music phenomenon happens at universities scattered over different departments or faculties. It is different in the UK, USA, and in countries that also follow the Anglo-Saxon education model. In these countries, music is an academic discipline present in most universities with its own music faculty, thus making it somewhat easier to develop interdisciplinary approaches to music education and research.

Each academic discipline is defined by the corresponding university faculties, by learned societies, and by the journals in which the practitioners publish their research results. Each discipline tends to converge to a common practice, based on favoring specific research methodologies and by defining evaluation criteria with which to assess the work done within it. This is a dynamic process that evolves in time, but at a any moment there is a general agreement on what the relevant topics to work on and what are the proper ways to tackle them are.

There are music-focused disciplines within practically all fields of knowledge. The most traditional and broadest research discipline is Musicology, whose origin is in the humanities but that has evolved to include subdisciplines covering methodologies and objectives from a variety of fields. Examples of subdisciplines include Historical Musicology, Ethnomusicology, Systematic Musicology, or Computational Musicology. Within natural sciences, Music Cognition emerged as a discipline to study the brain-based mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes underlying music. Within physics, Musical Acoustics has a long tradition studying music producing instruments. Music Education has also developed its own research personality. A more recent discipline is Sound and Music Computing, which studies music from a computer science perspective. Somewhat different are the research approaches within the practice-based topics. Music Composition, Music Theory and Electronic Music have active research communities and the research around music performance has also emerged as an academic discipline in its own right.

The biggest disciplinary challenge in music relates to practice-based research approaches, i.e. when a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, which is the case in areas like composition or performance. In countries like UK, practice-based research is well recognized by the different stablished academic organizations and research assessment processes, but most countries are far from this situation.

At the Music Technology Group of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona ( we carry out interdisciplinary research in music from the constraints and opportunities that our context gives us. Our case can be used as an example from which to learn some of the challenges that this type of research faces.

Origins and context of the MTG

The MTG was created in 1994 in the context of a research institute of the UPF dedicated to Digital Media and affiliated to its Department of Communication. Then, when several engineering degrees were started in 1999 and the Department of Information and Communication Technologies was created, the MTG moved to this new department. In parallel, the MTG has always been closely connected to a cultural organization dedicated to Electronic Music, Phonos (, and has been collaborating with a music conservatory, Esmuc ( These basic facts give an idea of the interdisciplinary nature of the MTG.

Being in an engineering department forces us to emphasize the engineering disciplinary personality. To support our interdisciplinary nature, we stablished and maintain collaborations with institutions and research centers from other disciplines. The UPF and our department are quite open and supportive of these collaborations, hence we have been able to preserve our interdisciplinary nature.

The faculty, researchers and students working at the MTG come from diverse origins and backgrounds. Typically, they have major computer science training and some musical expertise, but also have experiences in other fields. They all have joined the MTG because they love music and most of them maintain an active musical practice outside their academic work.

Within our engineering context, the research we do pertains to computer science topics such as signal processing, machine learning, human computer interaction, or software engineering. Within these, we explore new approaches and methodologies that can work best for sound and music signals and applications. Then, in collaboration with our partners, we combine our core engineering expertise with topics such as cognition, musicology, composition, education and acoustics.

With this disciplinary context and from these research approaches, the MTG is able to be active in quite a number of interdisciplinary research topics while contributing to a wide variety of social and industrial needs.

Research and activities of the MTG

The MTG aims to contribute to the improvement of the information and communication technologies related to sound and music, carrying out competitive research at the international level and at the same time transferring its results to society. To that goal, the MTG aims to strike a balance between basic and applied research while promoting interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate knowledge and methodologies from both scientific/technological and humanistic/artistic disciplines.

From the way we think about music research and higher education, we have developed an ecosystem within which we can educate future professionals in the field and have a social impact in the process. Apart from the educational programs in which we are involved and the research projects we carry out, we are very active in cultural and social initiatives that are closely tied to our academic activities. Phonos gives us the possibility to be active in cultural and artistic initiatives, accessing funds for them and collaborating with organizations outside the traditional academic context. The Esmuc gives us the collaboration with the practice-based context that is not present at the university, mainly music composition and performance.

To help understand the interdisciplinary nature of our research, I shall present two broad examples of research topics that we are working on.

Computational music analysis underlies most of our research. We study and process music signals developing technologies for specific applications. We analyze audio recordings of different music repertoires in order to identify their musical characteristics. For example, we aim to automatically describe the melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic characteristics of a musical piece or repertoire, extracting musical features with which we can compare pieces and organize large music collections in accordance to them. In order to carry out this type of research, signal processing and machine learning techniques are combined with musicological and music theory approaches. The resulting technologies can be of use for developing music recommendation or music education systems.

Musical interfaces are another broad research topic within which we design and develop interfaces for music making. We study traditional musical instruments from an interaction perspective and develop computer interfaces that can be used to make music in different contexts and for different applications. This is a highly interdisciplinary topic that can cover many technical and scientific disciplines together with practice-based music topics. We seek to build musical instruments with which people can express themselves.


The interdisciplinary nature of music research requires organizations that can cross disciplinary boundaries. That is not easy because of the way that most higher education institutions are structured. In the Music Technology Group at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona we have been able to get around this by developing an ecosystem in which we can join forces with researches from different disciplines, working together and carrying out projects collaboratively. 

However, the context of the MTG is still not ideal for taking advantage of the full potential of music research. A better institutional context could be developed by joining several research groups from different disciplinary contexts, thus establishing a unified framework in which a variety of disciplines would hold the same weight and for which there would be specific funding to promote multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects. This is a worthy initiative to push for, both for the benefit of music and our society.