Amy Mallett

A mixed method approach to auto-ethnographic study of the compositional process

Methodologies applied in the study of the creative processes utilised by composers have historically been shaped by Soloboda’s acknowledgement of the problems associated with this subject in his work The Musical Mind: the cognitive psychology of music (1986). After discounting the value of critical analysis of the musical score as a useful tool, Sloboda outlines the dependency of other methods on the composer’s willingness to be scrutinised, citing the rarity of co-operation as a significant barrier to interview and observation as reliable means of research (1986, p.103). Other researchers into collaborative artistic endeavours have highlighted the dangers of over reliance on one particular method such as discourse analysis or interview (John-Steiner, Weber and Minnis, 1998; Rossmanith, 2009). Consequently, any methodological approach adopted by a researcher attempting to de-mystify the process of musical composition will need to address a range of problems; the reluctance of composers to examine their practices, the interruption of creative flow, and limitations of particular methods of investigation. More recent studies have attempted to counter the challenges of observing artistic and collaborative practice by adopting the stance of researcher-practitioner (Collins (2007), Newman (2008), Bennett (2014)). Examining an artistic practice from the perspective of participant provides the researcher with a unique insight, which if applied with authenticity may increase validity of findings.

This paper documents the author’s experience in the role of composer-researcher over multiple composition projects, and the refinement of an auto-ethnographic mixed method approach to studying the compositional process that combines:

Linear event analysis of the composition process recorded via self-administered stimulated recall method

Deconstruction of completed lyrical and musical content of own writing, including analysis of composer notes, sketches and scores

Interviews with co-collaborators

Discourse analysis (email based)

Whilst initially distracting, if embedded within a compositional approach encouraging reflective praxis, self-scrutiny is shown to be a useful tool that can help promote innovation, efficiency and development of craft, with the rewards offered by a composer-as-researcher approach outweighing its objectivity-based limitations. It is further argued that composers experienced in auto-ethnographic research practices are well placed to conduct observational studies of fellow composers, thus offering opportunities to widen the field of knowledge in this elusive area.


Bath Spa University, UK

Is a composer and interdisciplinary artist whose work takes musical influences from jazz, folk, rock and classical styles. Often inspired by contemporary and historical stories, she enjoys collaborating with practitioners from other art forms to create multidimensional works. Having completed a degree in music at the University of Leeds (majoring in alto saxophone), she was awarded a Masters of Music (Composi- tion) from Anglia Ruskin University at distinction level. More recently she was awarded a PhD from Bath Spa University which involved the creation and production of four works of musical theatre within different collaborative models. As a researcher, Amy is interested in interdisciplinary collaboration, practice-based research and creativity as a catalyst for change and growth. Having many years’ experience teaching in college and university settings, Amy now works for the internationally renowned Snape Maltings Creative Campus, developing programmes that enable and facilitate arts participation and creativity.