Popular music

Just for the record, Tim Pike ­ Senior Lecturer in Music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) ­ notes courses that could help in the search for chart success in popular music
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The Independent Online


There are a number of careers in the area of popular music, not least the acts that grace our screens every Friday night on Top of the Pops. However, in the lottery of the popular charts, it would be a brave institution that would set up a course guaranteeing chart success.

Such a course, if it existed, would most likely be a cross between a finishing school, a talent-spotting agency and a music-industry introduction company. It would not necessarily have a place in higher education but it might make good television. It could even be called 'Pop Stars' or something. Hmmm, I wonder...

That is not to say that chart success does not happen. A number of LIPA graduates - and those of other institutions offering courses in Pop Music - have gone on to chart success but the majority go on to work in the many ancillary areas of the industry. These include writing music in a huge range of areas, from writing for others through publishing deals or writing for media such as TV, film and video games to producing their own music. Performing will also feature in their careers in situations ranging from theatrical engagements and cruise ships to support gigs for bigger acts (until they become the big acts themselves!)

Many of our graduates will probably go on to work in a number of these areas during their careers and it is with this in mind that many pop music courses, including those at LIPA, aim to give students the breadth of skills and experience to enable them to have sustainable careers.

The sound of music

Careers in sound technology used to refer primarily to jobs in recording studios. However, the explosion of computer technology in every area of the media from graphics to video to sound has led to career openings in a number of related fields that are as much 'sound' as 'music' orientated.

The previously accepted view of the roles of producers and engineers have blurred in recent years. Producers are no longer restricted to creative and directorial roles, having to rely on engineers to press the buttons for them. Consequently, a career solely as a studio engineer is becoming quite a rare thing. The traditional apprenticeship route of progressing from tea girl/boy to producer has been largely replaced by direct entry as a freelance producer in a studio once the necessary skills are acquired. Added to this is the relative affordability of quality digital recording equipment, whether through PC or specific hardware.

This is a mixed blessing for Sound Technology graduates. While there are fewer permanent positions in studios (because there are fewer studios), there are many more opportunities in freelance music production, TV, film, radio, live sound mixing in a variety of situations from theatre to TV to gigs, and multimedia specializing in sound. Graduates need to be adaptable, flexible, and skilled in a number of disciplines.

Getting your act together...

There are quite a few options for school leavers wanting to study popular music or sound technology or a combination of both. In further education, the BTEC Diploma in Pop Music is offered in many colleges across the country. Facilities vary between institutions but the courses contain the same content and they are usually free.

There are a number of independently funded institutions which offer courses, some of which can lead on to degree level study validated by established universities. Degree courses should attract the usual funding of fee costs but independent diploma courses may not. It would be worth your while visiting the private institutions to assess their fees and facilities and inquire about the amount of tuition time and studio access that you would get.

Finally, there are universities and colleges offering degree courses. Each of these will have a slightly different emphasis and you will have to research each course to make sure that it is the right one for you.

Common threads

In Pop Music there will be a number of courses or modules that these degrees may have in common:

  • Performance - including instrumental/vocal tuition, improvisation, music reading, bands
  • Song writing/composition and arranging
  • Sequencing/hard disk recording or PC music
  • Sound recording - studio based, including production
  • Music theory/harmony - preferably relevant to pop music
  • Music business studies
  • Large-scale performance project work
  • An academic component. This often takes the form of cultural studies, concerned with placing the art form within its social, economic and political context

Assessment of these courses is usually continuous rather than through formal written examination. You will be marked on the process of learning and project work, as well as the product.

It is important that you are given the opportunity to strike the right balance between specialisation and breadth of study within the structure of the course, so that by the third year you can spend your time working in the area/areas that you would hope to pursue when you graduate.

Sound skills

Courses in Sound Technology seem to be split between the vocational, real-world application of the technology, and the more theoretical, physics-orientated approach covering acoustics and electrical engineering. The more vocational courses will probably contain modules on:

  • Studio recording skills, including production techniques
  • Sequencing/hard disk recording or PC music
  • Signal processing
  • Sound reinforcement and theatre sound design
  • Live sound
  • Sampling & synthesis
  • Broadcast systems and radio production
  • Multimedia
  • Practical project and recording work
  • An academic component probably leading to a dissertation in the third year

Entry requirements for degree courses vary from institution to institution. The more traditional, academic courses tend towards A level results. Maths, physics and music are a good combination for sound technology. Music and other humanities (or the BTEC diploma in Pop Music) are good for Pop Music courses, although many are in conjunction with auditions. The more vocational courses weigh their selection more heavily on interview/audition. It is at these auditions that experience and practical ability will be tested.

Demand for these courses is very high and as a result competition for places can be fierce. For practical pop music courses, students must have been active in the field for a number of years to gain the necessary level of skill, whether instrumental, vocal, technical or musical. Often, further education can provide the arena for these skills to be developed prior to degree level study.

For further information

You can obtain details of all degree and Higher National Diploma courses in Popular Music through the UCAS website at: www.ucas.com

Search on undergraduate courses, followed by 'Popular,' and you will find 125 to choose from.

Try the following websites for more general supporting information:

Musicians' Union www.musiciansunion.org.uk

Incorporated Society of Musicians www.ism.org

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