What it's like to pursue a PhD in music technology
Lisa Zahray, now a first-year PhD music technology student at Georgia Tech, started playing piano when she was five, and trumpet since fourth grade. While having a passion for music, Lisa went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to major in computer science and electrical engineering for both of her undergraduate and graduate degrees, minoring in music at the same time. During her time at MIT, the musician took a class in music technology, where she realized that the field offered a plethora of opportunities to help other people create art with the help of new algorithms and software. With that, she decided to pursue a PhD in music technology.
Pictured: Shimon, the robot musician Lisa has been working on
Photo credit: Gil Weinberg
"I was looking at music technology programs, and there aren't many, first of all," Lisa says, laughing. "It is a very specific subfield." Being particularly interested in Georgia Tech's Robotic Musicianship Lab, where she is currently studying, the musician found out they were doing a lot of projects that were interdisciplinary, which she thought would be a great fit to meet people from different backgrounds. "When I visited the school I really liked the people, the community, and the fact that it was a larger type of music technology program," Zahray shares, mentioning it would be a good opportunity to focus on what she wanted to pursue but also get to see other fields and talk to people with interests in various disciplines.

The decision to do a PhD came last-minute, the musician remembers. "I was applying for jobs at the end of my master's [degree], but hadn't realized that music technology programs existed," Lisa recalls, admitting she wouldn't want to do a doctorate in any other field. "I did it more for the experience of a PhD itself than kind of furthering my career." This offered her the possibility to work on the projects she truly wanted to do and have the freedom with experimentation.

The first two years of the doctorate program is structured similarly to that of master's. "You take three classes every semester, and classes will usually be a few from the music technology department, but also classes from other departments," Lisa explains. The courses you take can vary, too — last semester, she took all of her classes in the music department: Recording and Mixing, Interactive Music, and Computational Music and Audio Analysis. This past semester, on the other hand, Lisa is taking a Video Game Design class and Theory of Computer Animation. "You have a few requirements — a number of electives, do a minor, and certain classes that you definitely take," she continues. "Then there is a qualifying exam, where you basically take two days and read a bunch of papers, write essays on [those papers], and defend your answers to these questions to a room full of professors." After that, you work on your thesis, which the program is centered around, and defend it.

Discussing her own plans after graduation, Lisa isn't sure what she wants to do. "An interesting thing that's happening right now with the research that I'm doing in my lab is that because it's interdisciplinary, I'm actually getting to see a lot of research fields that I might have not been exposed to otherwise," she tells me. For example, the musician's lab is working on creating gestures for the robot to dance to the music, and as the project develops, she learns about other topics like animation, signal processing, and machine learning.
Photo credit: Gil Weinberg
There are a lot of different subfields students can go into after this program, which allows for a lot of experimentation to get a sense of what it is that you like. While the university gives a lot of knowledge, the real value comes with project-based learning, which, according to Lisa, makes you learn more because you are doing it on your own and trying to grasp the concepts behind it. "You probably won't have happened to have learnt the exact thing you needed for your job, you will have to figure out how to find the answer for yourself, and learning how to do that is important," she believes.

What Lisa loves most about Georgia Tech, however, is the merging between arts and science that, in her words, she couldn't find in any other school. "Even the fact that they have a music technology program is already something that a lot of schools don't offer," she notes, mentioning that while studying at MIT, she was able to attend one or two classes dedicated to the field, but the university didn't have a music technology department as it wasn't the focus of the schools.

There is also a strong collaboration between the community on many different levels: there are a few PhD students, many graduate students, and a small number of undergraduates. "There are a lot of classes where we have all of these levels working together," Lisa says. "This allows undergraduates to see what the higher-level people are working on, and usually brings a different experience than we [PhD students] have to the project." On top of that, there is a lot to learn by attending seminars, which are held every week. Sometimes, guest speakers come to talk about their industry and what they do, but then there are talks where professors and students are given the chance to share their research. "It is really cool to see what's going on in the field and what your fellow classmates have been working on," she elucidates.

When asked what her favorite project so far was, Lisa mentions her Computational Music and Audio Analysis class, where there was a project that lasted half of the semester. "Our group decided that we were going to do a very silly project — we did an automatic harmonizer so that you could sing or play a melody into your computer and then it would create chords (not in real time) to harmonize in the style of a Bach chorale," she adds. But it isn't your typical harmony: they weren't musical notes, they were animal sounds, with cats on the soprano line and goats on the tenor and base line. Although it was, as Lisa says, silly, the team had an actual algorithm behind it, and a lot of effort was put into building and developing it.

Doing a PhD in music technology has helped Lisa manage her time more efficiently. "Research is very open-ended, there are no right answers, you can keep working on a problem forever, and never stop and never be done," she says. "Learning how to manage a project and be able to try to get results that will lead to a paper in some kind of timely manner [is vital]."
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