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Music Research

Research Basics

The nature of research in any discipline is dependent on the nature of the discipline. The materials you use will vary and so will the way you use them. If you are studying geography, you will be using maps, atlases and GPS systems. If you are studying a hard science, much of your time may be spent with field reports and lab experiments. In the sciences, most study is done with the most current research, and the value of historical documents is limited to those studying the history of the field rather than the field itself. 

  • Read, read, read
    • Questions and answers cannot be arrived at in a vacuum. Even if your research is based very closely on one or more musical works, reading is essential. You have to know what others have written about the works in order for your contribution to fit into existing scholarship. If you don’t know what others have written, your “great insight” may turn out to have been discovered in 1859.
  • Begin with general sources
    • Start with subject dictionaries and encyclopedias. These will give you background information on your topic, provide relevant terminology, and lead you to other sources. If you are working on the Brahms violin concerto, it is important to know that it was written for Joseph Joachim. Now whenever you see references to Joachim, you know that they may be worth following up. 
    • In addition to this, Grove Music Online will also assert that it is “is in many respects a companion piece to the Second Symphony, with which it shares the key of D and a first movement in 3/4 time…” George S. Bozarth and Walter Frisch. "Brahms, Johannes." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessedJanuary 29, 2010
  • Always search the bibliographies of any source you use
    • This will save time and make your research more effective. Most encyclopedia and dictionary articles will include bibliographies, as will books and journal articles. The selective bibliographies in New Grove are a good place to start on this.
  • Write down any relevant citations, in full
    • Make sure to record all the pertinent information: author, title, publication details including date. You may also want to notate context such as how you found the source or when you were using it. Never assume that a source you see cited will be easy to find. If you know where you found the citation, you can go back to it later should you need clarification.
  • Write down a general idea of your topic and try to expand on it
    • Figure out what is known and unknown. Write down any relevant questions.
  • As you learn more about your topic, move on to more specific sources
    • Biographies, period studies, journal articles, dissertations. Don’t be afraid to go back to general sources for clarification of an unfamiliar concept.
  • Try to look at your topic from a variety of angles
    • Think about the context: historical, stylistic, cultural, political, intersections with other art forms. If you’re studying Verdi, there are many relevant concepts: Italy, opera, nationalism, the many librettists with whom he worked, set design, singing style, practicalities of production. This multiplicity of concepts affects both the sources you use and the terminology you use when searching.
  • Refine your topic
    • Narrow it down to what needs to be known and communicated, while expanding on its context.
  • Use a variety of “information retrieval systems” to find materials
    • Catalogs and bibliographies for books; periodical indexes for articles in journals and magazines; indexes for dissertations
  • Think critically and evaluate every source you find
    • Think about currency, scope, authority, bias
  • Outline
    • Once you have a workable thesis statement (or before), put down on paper an outline that gives an idea of the structure of your argument
  • Form opinions
    • To do excellent writing, you must have an opinion on your topic, a point of view
  • Cite your sources accurately and thoroughly