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Music Research

The Literature of Music

The way we study music is shaped by the way music is created and disseminated. Music and scholarship on music can take many forms. We call each instance of a work a manifestation. For any given performance or paper, we may need to use one or all of these formats. It may help to think about these forms sequentially, from the point at which a work is conceived.

  • The first "form" of a piece of music is as an idea in a composer's mind. That initial concept could be a snippet of melody, a rhythmic idea, or occasionally a fully-formed work. The genesis of a work can also be influenced by outside factors such as a commission, another work of art, a mathematical abstraction, or a collaborator.
  • Traditionally, the first physical manifestation of a work is a manuscript written down by the composer. Again, this could be written out fully, or it could be sketches to be completed later or to be harmonized and orchestrated by students or other collaborators.
  • In the 21st century, of course, this initial form is just as likely to be a computer file created in Finale, Sibelius, or another program.
  • Once written down in MS form, a work can go through a number of stages before publication. These may include copyists' MSs and printer's proofs. 
  • If a composer is successful (or lucky) enough, her work may get published in some printed form. This could be score, parts, lead sheets, or piano/vocal/guitar book. A small but growing number of works are self-published by the composer. Today, works can also be published online in a downloadable format.
  • Many works also appear in arrangements, which vary widely according to their purpose. Some of the more common types of arrangements through the years have been piano (and two-piano) arrangements of orchestral works (particularly important before the advent of recorded sound); piano-vocal versions of operas and musicals; chamber arrangements of all kinds of works; piano-vocal-guitar arrangements of rock songs; simplified arrangements for musical amateurs. These arrangements may sell more copies and make more money for composers and publishers than do the originals.
  • The composer hopes that somewhere along the way, her work gets performed by competent musicians. This may happen before publication, with musicians performing from hand-written parts or, nowadays, from printed (but not published) parts produced by the composer on a cheap PC and printer. Hopefully, though, publication leads to more widespread performance.
  • If the performance is recorded (live or studio), it may be published on a bewildering array of formats over the years: cylinder, 78, LP, tape, CD, or online. Even unpublished recordings may be preserved by libraries and collectors, witness the 1,600 cassette tapes of Conservatory performances that Jones Library holds (and is beginning to digitize).
  • Video recordings can preserve performances of a work, as well as biography, commentary, and analysis.
  • If a work does get published, performed, and recorded, it may be written about in a variety of publications. Typically, the first writings about a piece of music are reviews of performances, scores, or recordings. These can appear in newspapers, the popular press, or scholarly journals. Program notes and liner notes can also be an important source of early writings.
  • If the work is successful or influential enough, it may be written about at more length in articles in various periodicals. Eventually, it may appear in books about the composer, the era, or, rarely, the work itself.

So to do thorough research in music, you need to be able to locate, use, and evaluate printed music, various types of recordings, newspaper reviews, articles and essays in periodicals, and books.