Music M401
History and Literature of Music I

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music


How to Write a Music History Paper

Table of Contents

  1. Select a Subject Area
  2. Get to Know Your Subject Area
  3. Build a Bibliography
  4. Select a Specific Topic
  5. Figure Out What to Say
  6. Formulate Your Thesis
  7. Plan Your Argument and Gather Evidence for Your Thesis
  8. Hand in Your Prospectus and Bibliography
  9. Draft the First Paragraph
  10. Draft the Argument
  11. Go Back to Your Sources and Revise, Revise, Revise
  12. If It Doesn't Relate to Your Thesis, Leave It OUT
  13. At the End, Answer the Killer Questions
  14. Revise, Correct, Type, and Hand It In
  15. Revise Again, Rethinking It Thoroughly in Response to Feedback and Your Own New Insights

Research Project | M401 Home

Some Suggested Subject Areas | Sample Prospectus and Bibliography
How to Write a Music History Paper
Building a Bibliography | More Help with Research
Research Project Topics for Fall 2013
Research Project Style Sheet
Anthologies and Textbooks on Reserve


How to Write a Music History Paper

1. Select a Subject Area

The first step in writing your paper is to find a subject area you are interested in.

For starters, look around and ahead in the chapter outlines in the Study and Listening Guide or read ahead in A History of Western Music, including the chronologies that are provided in every chapter and the "For Further Reading" section at the end of the book. Listen to the music we will be covering this semester, or to other music from this period. Read ahead in Weiss-Taruskin or browse in the books on reserve listed in the syllabus, such Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music and the specialist histories on the period that interests you. Look at the list of Some Suggested Subject Areas. Select a few general areas you might be interested in pursuing, and get to know them (step 2 and the beginnings of step 3). Also, talk to your section instructor, to Prof. Burkholder, and to your classmates, and bounce ideas off of them.

Settle on one subject area as soon as you can. But don't do this too soon. Before you commit yourself to a subject, you should (1) know it well enough and (2) have gathered enough material on it to be sure that you can write a successful paper. You do not want to discover a week before the paper is due that the library has too few sources on your area.

You should have completed step 1 and started steps 2 and 3 before handing in your Preliminary Topic Idea.

2. Get to Know Your Subject Area

Next, familiarize yourself with your subject area or areas. Read about them in HWM, in the New Grove Dictionary, or in other general works. Pay attention to the bibliographies of each, for these will lead you to materials that focus on your areas more specifically. Read around in the literature on your subject area or areas--quickly, without taking copious notes (there's time for that later). If a subject involves specific pieces of music (such as Monteverdi's operas Orfeo and Poppea ), get familiar with those pieces; if it involves a repertoire (such as troubadour songs), listen to and look at enough examples to have a sense of what the repertoire is like.

3. Build a Bibliography

An important part of getting to know a subject area is building a bibliography. Your bibliography is simply the list of sources you use in writing your paper. So the process of building a bibliography and the process of getting to know your subject area will happen in tandem, and you will continue to expand your bibliography as you write your paper. Hints for finding the sources you need are given in a separate webpage on Building a Bibliography.

From the start, become familiar with the format for bibliographic citations as described in Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers, 7th ed., and in the Cook Music Library webpage on Bibliographic Citations. This is the format you will have to use for your bibliography in each assignment. You will save time and effort in the long run by taking time early on to become familiar with the required format for each type of item and by consistently using the correct format.

4. Select a Specific Topic

Most of the subject areas listed in the webpage Some Suggested Subject Areas are too broad to treat in a 10-to-15-page research paper. As you work, you should limit yourself to a specific topic. Topics can be limited in one or more of the following ways, or others:

Select a specific topic based on your interests and the information you are finding. You should select just one thing to write about, and let go of all the other interesting ideas you have developed along the way. Write down the limits of your topic. You should be able to describe your topic in one to four sentences. If not, you may be trying to do too much in one paper.

Continue to build your bibliography.

5. Figure Out What to Say

After you have hit upon a topic and become familiar with it, you really have to start thinking. You have to figure out what to say about it.

There are two main kinds of writing in the field of music history: (1) writing that summarizes existing knowledge on a topic, like an encyclopedia article or a passage in a textbook, and (2) writing that states a thesis (a main idea) and presents an argument to support that thesis.

The research paper assignment asks you to write a paper of the second type, not the first. Here you must try to come up with something to say about your topic--and again, only one thing. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR PAPER!

Notice that in a research paper you are not writing a "report." Simply rehashing what someone else has said or a bunch of data or telling us your feelings or anything else is not a research paper. You must say something. The rest of the discussion below is focused on figuring out what to say and how to argue for your thesis.

6. Formulate Your Thesis

After you've decided what you're going to say about the subject, write it out as one sentence. This is the thesis of your essay. A thesis is a one-sentence statement of your main point. It is a full sentence: for example, "Seventeenth-century Italian composers of violin sonatas often imitated the style, ornamentation, and rhetorical gestures of vocal music." It is not a sentence fragment ("The relation between violin music and vocal music in the seventeenth century"). Notice that the sentence fragment doesn't say anything, it only names the topic. The complete sentence says something, something that is specific and can be proven (or disproven).

The thesis is often the answer to some question that you have asked about the topic. If you aren't sure yet what the answer will be, but you know what question you would like to ask, start with the question, and the thesis will develop as you try to answer the question.

Of all the dozens of things you know about your subject, you may legitimately choose a thesis that addresses only one of them.

7. Plan Your Argument and Gather Evidence for Your Thesis

Try to come up with reasons why you believe your thesis. That is, try to find arguments for what you believe. When you have some, write them down in a kind of list.

At this point, go back to the books, articles, music, and whatever else you are using as sources for your paper. Don't read every word or analyze every note. Instead, look for more reasons to believe your thesis, bits of information that can serve as evidence to support your main point. Jot these down, and note where you found them. You might also keep your eye out for reasons someone might NOT believe your thesis; you will need these later. (And if any of them persuade you, you may want to revise your thesis to account for them. Remember, you're a human being, and human beings reserve the right to change their minds.)

Using this new information, revise your list of reasons to believe your thesis. Try to make the order of the list reflect the logical order of your thought. Imagine that you are trying to convince your best friend to believe your thesis: would you start with the most convincing reasons first, or save them for last? Try to find the most persuasive order for making the case that we should all believe your thesis.

8. Hand in Your Prospectus and Bibliography

This is the point where you should be when you hand in your Prospectus and Bibliography (Assignment 3): you should have (1) selected a subject area, (2) become familiar with that subject area, (3) assembled a bibliography on that topic, (4) narrowed down to a specific topic, (5) figured out what you want to say about that topic, (6) formulated your thesis, and (7) planned your argument.

To do all this, you may actually have had to start writing the research paper itself. Some people plan everything out before they begin writing; other people only figure out what they are trying to say by trying to write about it. So do not assume all the steps in this process are going to go in order, and you will be all finished with one before you go on to the next one. Thinking and writing are not usually that neat. You may find it helpful to start writing early, and loop back through all these steps often, with a better sense of what you are doing each time. (That's how I write.)

9. Draft the First Paragraph

You are now ready to write the first version of the research paper.

Copy down your thesis. Then write another sentence that begins something like "I will demonstrate this by arguing that . . . " and then copy down your list of reasons to believe your thesis.

Believe it or not, you have just written the first paragraph of your paper! That is, your first paragraph should present your thesis and summarize your argument. Do not "introduce" or "present background" or anything else, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so before your reader is likely to understand what the thesis is saying. After you finish a preliminary draft of the whole paper, you may want to edit for style and clarity, and you may need to state briefly the problem you are trying to solve before presenting your thesis (which then gets put in your second or third paragraph), but forge on for now.

10. Draft the Argument

Take the first reason or the first step in your reasoning in your list (from step 7) and "develop" it. That is, tell us why it argues for your thesis, why you believe it (you may have to make another little list), and so on. That is, try to write a paragraph (or more) to explain what this is and to argue for its truth. Then do the same for the other items on your list. If you've done the initial list correctly, your whole paper will have a logical order to it.

After having said as best you can what you wanted to say, you should consider objections that someone else might raise against what you've said. You may have noted some of these during step 7. How can you reply to these objections? Think again of trying to convince your friend. (This is known in the trade as "anticipating objections," and no argument is complete without this step.)

Your are making progress. By this point you have begun to write your paper, you should have a good idea of what you are trying to say in it (your thesis), and you should have a fairly clear sense of how you are going to argue for your thesis.

11. Go Back to Your Sources and Revise, Revise, Revise

Just as in step 7 you went back to your sources with your thesis in mind, looking for reasons to believe it, you may find it helpful to do so again. Once again, don't get bogged down in superfluous information; instead, go looking for things that will sharpen your argument. (This is a good reason to start writing early on; as soon as you know what you are trying to say, there is a lot you can skip over, instead of reading everything you find. This can save a lot of time.)

Now that your argument is developing in your own mind, you may see things you missed before. What evidence exists for each of your supporting points? What objections to your thesis might be raised by the writers of the books and articles you are reading, if they were looking over your shoulder as you write your paper? And what evidence does what you are reading or the music you are studying offer to counter any objections? If anything new turns up, incorporate it into the sections of your paper in which you develop your argument and anticipate objections.

12. If It Doesn't Relate to Your Thesis, Leave It OUT

Notice that the focus is on convincing the reader of your thesis. Leave out anything that does not help to prove your thesis. Do not tell us everything you know about the subject. Do not give a composer's biography or "analyze" a piece just because you think you have to. You don't have to do anything that doesn't provide evidence for your argument or provide context so we understand what you're talking about and why your thesis is important. If some aspect of the composer's biography or of the way the piece is made is relevant, use it as evidence for your thesis, and explain what about it supports your thesis.

One exception to this rule: if it seems to contradict your thesis, you have to deal with it. Just as a lawyer arguing a case cannot simply ignore contradictory evidence, you should not either. The point is not to distract the reader with irrelevant background.

13. At the End, Answer the Killer Questions

You are now at the end of your paper. Now, most people want to summarize their paper at the end. You have already summarized your paper in your first paragraph. Do not do it again at the end. Instead, tell us the significance of what you have said, or tell us what paper remains to be written now that this one is finished. Try to imagine that your reader asks you the killer questions "So what?" and "Who cares?" and missed the significance of what you have said. Answer those questions.

14. Revise for Style and Smoothness, Make Sure the Format is Correct, Type It Neatly, and Hand It In!!

The first version of the research paper should represent your successful achievement of all these stages. You may find yourself looping back through steps 10 and 11 again and again.

Before finalizing your paper, check the Research Paper Style Sheet to make sure that you are not making any of the common errors in style and format. Please follow the guidelines there for writing, style, and presentation, including musical examples, quotations, and appropriate citation. Make sure that you have credited everything to its source, have enclosed quoted text in quotation marks or set it off as a block quotation, and have not inadvertently plagiarized anything. See Turabian's Manual or the Music Library webpages on Footnotes and Endnotes and on Bibliographic Citations to make sure that your citation style is correct for both your notes and your bibliography (which differ).

When you're sure it's good to go--or you're at the deadline, whichever comes sooner--hand it in.

15. Revise Again, Rethinking It Thoroughly in Response to Feedback and Your Own New Insights

After you receive feedback on the first version from your instructors and peers, you will want to rethink most stages from stage 3 on. Do you have enough sources (stage 3), or would another source or example help your case? Do you still agree with what you were trying to say (stage 5), or do you want to modify it? Is your thesis clearly formulated (stage 6), or can you make it still clearer? Can your argument be improved (stages 7, 10, and 11)? Have you left out all the irrelevant material (stage 12)? Have you shown what is significant in your work (stage 13)? Are all matters of style, format, and presentation correct (stage 14)?

Think of revising not as fiddling with a few words or sentences, or making corrections that your peers or instructors pointed out. Think of this as an opportunity to re-think and re-consider the whole project, to make the paper communicate what you want to say to your readers as effectively as possible. I always find that I feel ready to write a paper only after I have finished the first version of it, because not until then have I really immersed myself in the topic and really explored what I think about it and want to say about it. You will have two to three weeks to rework the paper after you receive feedback on the first version, and that gives you plenty of time to think about what you really want to say and how you want to convince your readers.

When you have made your revisions, hand in the final version of the research paper. The goal here is to make the paper the best you can make it, in the amount of time you have.

We look forward to reading your completed research paper! We hope you are proud of what you have accomplished.


Research Project | M401 Home

Some Suggested Subject Areas | Sample Prospectus and Bibliography
How to Write a Music History Paper
Building a Bibliography | More Help with Research
Research Project Topics for Fall 2013
Research Project Style Sheet
Anthologies and Textbooks on Reserve


Last updated: 24 August 2013
URL: http://courses.music.indiana.edu/m401/M401how2.html

This page was created by Patrick Warfield and J. Peter Burkholder,
using material contributed by Bradley Tucker and others,
and drawing in part on Michael Bybee's "Handy-Dandy Helpful Hints for Writing Philosophy Papers."
This page is maintained and revised by J. Peter Burkholder.

Copyright © 1997-2013 by J. Peter Burkholder