Music is not a topic that commonly comes up in academic research assignments, at least beyond the realm of musicology. This is why so many students feel at a loss when they have to write such a project – even with all the modern technology at your disposal, dealing with unfamiliar topics can be challenging.
So, how do you write a paper about music? Be it an essay, a dissertation, a thesis, or something else, there are a few common points that you should take into account. So let’s get right to it.
1. Listen to the Music You Write About
And by “listen”, we mean “really listen”. Do not just pop in your headphones and turn the track on as you do some chores or gather information related to your essay. Sit down, stop doing anything else, close your eyes and listen. Make note of different instruments you hear, individual parts of the track, rhythm, harmony, and any other significant aspects you can detect. Jot down your thoughts about it. Mention anything that caught your attention. Write down any ideas or questions that popped up in your head.
2. Get Background Information on the Piece
Before you start writing, you have to find out more about the musical piece you are covering. What is its genre? Is it classical or modern music? Is there anything unusual about the history or its creation? What is its title? Who is its author and in what ways is he/she important or known? With technical information out of the way, delve deeper into more interesting stuff. Look for sources of information dedicated either to the piece in question or other relevant topics (i.e., its author, people he/she is associated with, historical period, etc.). Look for both peer-reviewed articles in scholarly magazines and other types of sources, such as popular books or online publications. Try to make your bibliography as diverse as possible.
3. Choose a Topic
Music research topics can be much more diverse than you probably think. You are not limited to basic approaches like analyzing the structure of a particular piece or its role in the biography of the composer in question. You can start by posting an interesting question that would be related to the piece you research. For example, how does it reflect the psychology of its author? In what ways it is determined by the musical education received by the author? What are the major influences that led (at least in your opinion) to the creation of this piece? Feel free to be bold and creative. Remember that your teachers or professors have already seen dozens if not hundreds of essays about this piece or similar pieces, and saw typical topics many, many times before. If you manage to think of something unusual, you already get bonus points for this alone.
4. Use Jargon Carefully
Musical theory heavily relies on jargon, and the meaning of terms that crop up in thematic discussions is often completely obscure to uninitiated. Keep note of this and make sure you use jargon carefully. If you can avoid it, do not use it at all. If you have to use it, be careful to keep your text understandable to the majority of readers. The usual rule of thumb used in such cases is to aim your writing at an average university-educated person who does not have a special musical education. Therefore, you can assume that the reader knows terms like “symphony” or “sonata”, but more obscure words like “bariolage” or “cadenza” have to be explained. If you are not sure whether you have to explain a term, err on the safe side.
5. Make Sure You Know the Meaning of the Words You Use
In the same vein, when you use a word or a term, always make sure you are 100 percent certain of its meaning. If you are not confident about it, either look it up in a reliable source or do not use it at all. Nothing is more detrimental for your position as a specialist in a topic than misuse of words and terms. It is particularly bad if you misuse technical terms – and musical terminology is chock-full of words that do not mean what you think they are supposed to mean. For example, an “orchestral work” is a piece of music that is written for and played by an orchestra. But “orchestral sound” does not necessarily refer to something that is played by an orchestra – it is an effect the sound has on the listener, creating an impression that it is played by an orchestra.
6. Know when to Use First Person
Usually, you are not supposed to use the first person in academic writing. However, music is one of the areas where students are sometimes given some leeway in this respect. You can use first person when you write about your own personal experiences, and when discussing music it is often difficult to differentiate between an objective impartial look on the subject matter and one’s personal impressions and perceptions. Therefore, you may use the first person and do it for great effect, but make sure you do it when it is appropriate.
7. Learn Accepted Ways of Describing Sound
Music and sound do not lend themselves easily to the description. They are too abstract, and their perception is too individual for it. However, musicology has some commonly accepted ways to describe certain qualities of sound, like calling it “rounded” or “harsh”. To be able to use such terminology in your writing, you should get a clear idea of what these terms mean and study their examples. It may be hard to begin with, but as you learn the intricacies of this descriptive terminology, you will find it easier and easier to talk about musical pieces.
As you can see, there is a lot more to writing about music than one may think. Follow the suggestions offered here, and assignments of this kind will no longer cause you any difficulties.