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Music Research
This section will help you find and use music-related materials located at the Ross Pendergraft Library and on the Internet.
Music research is commonly associated with writing term papers for a history or music appreciation class. Yet, research is fundamentally about formal, systematic investigation of a given topic. Thus, music research can be as simple as searching for biographical information on a composer or looking for a specific music recording or edition of a score. Developing good research skills will benefit your future career irrespective of specialization in music education or performance.
In addition to print and electronic resources, consider consulting a music teacher, a specialized scholar, or a librarian during your research process. They can often recommend the best sources immediately, saving you a lot of time and effort which can be devoted to reading and writing the paper. Keep in mind, however, that they will not do all the research or write your paper!
Music Research in Four Easy Steps
Step One: Clarify and Consult
Clarify the main question or topic of your research and identify its subject, author or musician, the title of a specific work, and/or keywords.
Consult a general reference source, either print or electronic and search by subject, author, title or keyword.
  • I want to learn more about J.S. Bach's masterpiece The Well Tempered Clavier. What is the meaning of "Well Tempered" and what is a clavier?
  • Search:"Bach" (author)"Well Tempered Clavier" (title)"piano music" (subject)"Bach" "piano" (keywords)
  • General Music Reference sources:
Step Two: Identify and Evaluate
Identify relevant articles and books from the search results. You may also be limited by the physical and virtual (Web-based) materials available in the library's collection. However, one can also order books, articles, CDs, and DVDs from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan (ILL).
Evaluate the sources. This step is a critical yet often overlooked part of the research process.
Many of us obtain information from popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo. While these sites are indeed powerful tools, they often do not include vast amounts of information located in printed materials or in the "Dark Web" (i.e. Internet sources and pages that search engines cannot track).
Furthermore, many students are attracted to popular online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia. While this latter site can be an excellent source of information, especially for current events, there are often gross errors in this type of "open content" source in which any person can change the information at will. The same holds true for many Web pages found through Google: the information is often not authored by scholars and can contain many factual errors.
When you evaluate a given source of information for your research paper, consider the academic background of the author, the publication source, and the presence of references or citations in the work. If in doubt about something that you have obtained from the Web, you can always speak with a librarian or your professor who can readily provide guidance.
Step Three: Refine and Redirect
Refine your search based on the general sources that you have read. Articles from reference works like the Grove Encyclopedia of Music are excellent starting points for research but often do not explore one topic in great detail. It is important to explore the references that general sources cite.
It is quite common that one will redirect their research to more relevant sources such as specific articles that deal with the topic in greater depth.
  • General article from Music Online: Kassel, R. (Ed.). (1997). Well-Tempered Clavier, The. In Baker's Dictionary of Music (p. 1158). New York, NY: Schirmer Reference. Retrieved from Music Online: Classical Music Reference Library database.
  • Books from the second floor stacks of the ATU Library:Ledbetter, D. (2002). Bach's Well-tempered clavier : The 48 preludes and fugues. New Haven: Yale University Press; Kirkpatrick, R. (1984). Interpreting Bach's Well-tempered clavier : A performer's discourse of method. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Specific article from ATU Library research databases: Larissa Paggioli de Carvalho. (2016). Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier: Pedagogical Approaches and the Different Styles of Preludes. Per Musi, 2016(33), 97-115.
Step Four: Note and Cite
Note taking is an important research technique for collecting information, understanding the material, and citing the article in your paper. One should be careful about writing too much from the original article which almost amounts to rewriting the article itself. Instead, one should note important concepts, facts, and quotes along with the page numbers from where the information is located in the article.
Cite your source following a standard bibliographic format. There are several to choose from and your professor may request that you follow a specific format. See the section on bibliographic styles: Bibliography
Once you have completed the four-step research process, you are ready to begin writing your paper. Here is a useful section on the writing process: Writing About Music
Writing about Music
About Writing about Music
Why write about music if the main purpose of music is to communicate a message, express an emotion or make people dance without speech or the written word?
This question assumes that we do not talk about music or that it plays little or no importance in musical experience. Just a small degree of reflection will reveal that we actually talk about music, constantly!
Anytime we mention our favorite group or singer or instrumentalist or composer and describe what we like about their music, we are talking about music. The act of writing about music heightens our consciousness of what constitutes music in the first place. Even the word "music" is an act of speech or writing that is used in a social and cultural context. Let's face the music about writing about music: avoiding the use of words to make sense of our musical experiences is quite difficult.
Clarify the topic and narrow it down. Keep in mind that a paper about the history of the trumpet could end up becoming a Ph.D. dissertation-scale project entailing years of research. More than likely, such a general topic already has numerous published articles and books which are available through your university library collection or Interlibrary Loan (ILL). The key is to refine your topic and see what is possible given the time constraints of your semester and the library's resources. Ask your professor for suggestions if you have difficulty identifying an interesting topic.
Refer to Music Research in Four Easy Steps (above on this page)
Writing the Paper
Much has been written about the act of writing about music and I have offered only a few Web links available on this topic in the upper right column "Expert Advice."
The Writing Process
While it would be easy to recommend only one method for the writing process, the simple truth is that writers employ a variety of techniques to get ink on paper or more appropriately, digitized words in the computer.
Some people think more clearly in the morning while others late at night, some need total isolation at home while others need the shuffling and chatter of people at a cafe. Some people need to walk or pace or speak into a tape recorder while others have trouble making their fingers move as fast as their thoughts. The secret is finding an environment that will be conducive to effortless production of words.
Analytical Writing
You can write about music in many ways, but what your professor will require is analytical writing. In other words, you will need to refrain from writing about how you personally feel about music or a specific composition. Instead, you will need to adopt a "distanced" approach to your topic, studying music like a lab specimen under a microscope.
Structuring the Paper
At minimum, your paper should consist of three parts: 1) introduction, 2) body, and 3) conclusion. Of course, you will need to provide a bibliography of the works cited in your paper or a general bibliography of works consulted or both.
In many respects, the introduction to your paper is the most critical section and often consists of just one paragraph. In this limited space, you must state the basic topic or question of your paper and then discuss how you plan to write about it. Concision is the key for this section, so avoid discussing the details of your topic or writing a lengthy discourse on your method of analysis.
The body of your paper is where you get to delve into the topic and provide as much detailed description and analysis within the page length as stipulated by your professor or as befits the topic. Although you have relative freedom to write at length in the body of your paper, you will need to provide a flow of ideas that connect each paragraph. You should consider writing a "topic sentence" for each paragraph that is not unrelated to the other paragraphs nor is redundant. After you have explored several facets of your topic in the body of your paper, you are ready to proceed to the conclusion.
Your conclusion should review, briefly, the opening statement that describes your research topic and the methods for answering it. If you simply restate your introduction without providing new ideas or information, then you are writing a summary. A conclusion should offer further insight about the topic as a result of the description and analysis that you provided in the body. Often, one can present original ideas that function as a denouement, i.e. the final outcome or resolution of a narrative as found in a novel or film.
Your paper will be word-processed with one of the many software programs available such as Open Office, Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The paper presentation, however, is a much more involved procedure. The key factor to effective, clear paper presentations is the "KISS" principle: "keep it sweet & simple" or "keep it simple, stupid." In other words, you should seek to simplify your presentation as much as possible. Below are just a few suggestions that will make your paper presentation clear. And remember: a good presentation will likely put your paper in a favorable position when your professor reads and grades it.
  • Use one font style, if possible.
  • Double space your paragraphs.
  • Keep one inch margins at all sides (left, right, top, bottom)
  • Paginate: number each page.
  • Include your name, date, and course number on the title page.
  • Proof-read the final version; the spell checker does not catch the difference between heterographic homophones such as "whole" and "hole" or "bate" and "bait."
Start your bibliography on a new page and use the title "Bibliography" if it includes works that you did not cite. Label the section "Works Cited" if you include only works that you have cited in the body of your paper.
In general, you should arrange your works in alphabetical order by author and then by date of publication if you have multiple works from the same author.
There are many styles for creating your bibliography, and two of the most widely employed are the MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association) standards. Highly recommended are the following links for both citation styles:
  • General Style Guide Resource The Citation Machine - MLA, APA, Turabian, Chicago
  • MLA MLA Style Guide - OWL PurdueGuide to Writing Research Papers - CCCMLA Citation Guide - OSUMLA Style: Kingwood College Library
  • APA APA Style Guide - OWL PurdueGuide to Writing Research Papers - CCCAPA Citation Guide - OSUAPA
A discography is similar to a bibliography, the only difference being that it comprises a list of audio or sound recordings that you have cited in your paper. Sound recordings come in a variety of formats such as LP, cassette, CD, MP3, and even audio recordings streamed from the Web. If you refer to sound recordings in your paper, you will need to create a separate section on a new page entitled "Discography." The same holds true for video recordings that you may cite, thus warranting a section called "Videography." The above APA and MLA links should provide rules and examples of how to create a proper discography and videography.
Note on Plagiarism
The Arkansas Tech University handbook defines plagiarism as the following:
The term "plagiarism" includes, but is not limited to, the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment. It also includes the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.
Needless to say, plagiarism is fully unacceptable at ATU and at all other universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada. While plagiarism may seem to be a convenient method for completing a writing assignment, it can be rather inconvenient if detected, resulting in a zero grade and possibly academic suspension or expulsion.
The bottom line: you must acknowledge your sources of information, whether they be direct quotations or even ideas that you use in your paper. Citation of sources also include images and graphs (e.g. music staff notation).
More about Plagiarism and How to Avoid It Citing Sources - Duke UniversitySources - Their Use and Acknowledgment - Dartmouth College
Further Questions Concerning Music Research?
Please contact Lowell L. Lybarger, Media Librarian, by phone at (479) 964-0584 or email at
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