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Forming your topic


In A Short Guide to Writing About Music Jonathan Bellman identifies several different kinds of writing about music:

  • History and biography: examines the circumstances and people that produced a work or repertory, situating works in the musical and cultural environments of their time
  • Music analysis and style study: examines music's raw materials, and draws conclusions on how they work together; analysis can use many different approaches
  • Performance study: examines and makes judgements on how musical pieces work in performance; also can examine the historical context of musical performance
  • Archival and source studies: examines manuscripts of music and other writings, usually in the service of creating authoritative or useful musical editions
  • Criticism: a high-level kind of writing that consists of explanation and evalauation of works or performance, based on an informed opinon; like analysis, criticism can use many different approaches

Even though these types of writing look quite different from each other, the research process will be much the same for all of them.  If you need to study a single work or group of works, you will need to familiarize yourself with those works by studying scores and recordings of them.  For guidance on searching for scores and recordings, see the Searching page in this guide.

If you are engaging in historical or critical writing, you will also need to read studies on your topic, to both learn the background of your topic and to stimulate your thinking.  Reading tertiary sources (such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, or a Wikipedia article) is a good way to start gathering background information on a topic. Tertiary sources also should lead to secondary sources (scholarly articles and books). See the Recommended Resources in this guide for recommended tertiary sources; see the Searching page for guidance on finding secondary sources in the library's collections and in journals.

You can also browse through scholarly journals in music when looking for a topic. This will help you see the current scholarly conversations, models of good research, refine your topic, and find sources that you can use in your project. 

As you study these sources, be sure to note:

  • Topics that interest you and/or intersect with what you are learning in class; engaging with a topic is a key to success. 
  • Keywords and subject terms for main concepts; using these terms will help you find information more effectively in the databases or websites
  • authors disagree (usually in the introduction) or areas for more research (usually at the end of an article); these are subjects you can explore. 
  • Sources in the text and the reference section that may be useful to you.
  • The names of key authors so you can find more of their works; key authors are those names you may observe several times.