Writing the Music Paper
You have been asked to attend a musical performance at the Hopkins Center and write a review. You choose to go to an opera. After it's over, you meet two friends who have also been to the performance. The first says, "I thought it was terrific." The second says, "I thought it sucked." And the conversation grinds to a halt.
When you are writing a review, these kinds of comments don't really go anywhere. You can't argue with someone's private opinion. Your professor isn't going to be impressed by the fact that you cried at the end of the opera, but were dozing off in Act Two. He doesn't want a "Thumbs up/Thumbs down" sort of paper. You need to do more than simply react to your experience. But what should you do? Any paper for a Music course - whether it be a review or a research paper - must be analytical.
Analyzing music is difficult. First, because music evokes powerful emotional responses, you don't often pay attention to what it is about the music, exactly, that moves you so much. Second, even if you are able to get past your feelings to describe what you hear, simple description isn't enough. You must be willing to interpret the music and then support your interpretation with evidence from the piece.
Let's look at an excerpt from a good musical review. Notice how the writer selectively describes aspects of the Kunju Opera, thereby creating an argument. Notice, too, that the writer doesn't just provide a "roadmap" of the music; in other words, the writer doesn't merely recite the notes and instruments, but instead interprets and analyzes what the music is doing.
...Above all, the music of Kunju Opera Theatre reflects the innermost, even secret feelings of its characters. We understand early on in the opera that the music ---- frantic, disheveled, violent, serene, or mystical ---- is a perfect mirror into the actors' souls. For example, throughout the performance, whenever characters come to important realizations, we hear the dalo gong sound a deep, resonant sigh... Another example is heard in "Walking in the Garden," where the frantic percussion movements heard elsewhere in the piece give way to a softer, sweeter, more serene sound. The harmony created by the dizi flute, sheng organ, and erhu violin evokes Du's tranquil, soporific state as he walks through the garden...
The writer has made the argument that the music in this opera reflects the characters innermost, secret feelings. Note how the writer uses evidence to support the argument. In doing so, the writer progresses from mere opinion to well-supported analysis. Also, note how the language is fairly simple. In other words, the writer doesn't need to use technical terms to convey how music sounds.
Music papers at Dartmouth tend to fall into two categories: reviews and research papers. However, these categories are very broad, and you're sure to find that expectations and forms will vary. For example, just because you've written a review in one Music class, don't assume that a music review assignment in another class will follow the same format. Moreover, if you've written a research paper in a Music course or another humanities course, don't assume that the professor's expectations will be the same on this new assignment. Make sure to consult with your professor if you have any questions about assignments.
Reviews tend to be short papers, 2 to 4 pages, in which you comment on the music of a performance or CD. In a review, you should focus on the form of the music. What sounds make up the music? How does the composer or performer fuse together these different sound elements? How do the different movements work together to create the music's overall effect? Remember to stay away from comments beginning with "I" that reflect only how the music affected you. Instead, question the music using criteria by which we judge excellence, and provide insight into those elements of excellence. (See Sample Papers.)
Research Papers can lead students almost anywhere on the musical map. In some classes, you might be asked to compare music in a given genre or across genres, or to compare composers or musicians. In another class, you might be asked to look at music within historical or social contexts - for example, noting changes in music and science in Soviet Russia after the revolution. (See Sample Papers.) Research papers tend to be 8--10 pages - but again, you should ask your professor about his expectations for length and format.
If you have trouble coming up with a topic for a research paper, please see "Coming Up With a Topic." The general advice given here is applicable to Music papers.
If you are not familiar with writing papers in the Humanities, you might want to read our page on Humanities: General Advice for Non-Majors. In particular, note the difference between a Science paper and a Humanities paper: in the Science paper you will try to derive meaning, or prove a phenomenon, by using "hard" evidence; in the Humanities paper, you will derive meaning, or create an interpretation, from examining texts ---- in this case, music. You are not going to take a piece of music into a laboratory, heat it up or pull it apart, and see what musical truths you can prove. But you will be taking the music or musical text "apart" as you examine its elements, and use those elements to support your interpretation.
The best advice for preparing yourself to write good music reviews is to familiarize yourself with some good examples of this genre. Excellent music reviews appear in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. Think about these reviews before you go to the performance or listen to the CD. What sorts of things did the reviewer make note of? Find out all that you can about the performance that you are about to listen to. What elements do people usually talk about? Why is the piece considered important? What does your professor want you to listen for? These sorts of questions will help you to focus your listening. When you finally are ready to listen, bring a note pad and pen along. Make notes as ideas occur to you. You'll find a CD easier to review, in that you can listen to it again and again, developing a fuller understanding of the piece each time you listen.
When writing research papers, the most daunting task is to pick the topic. Pick a topic that interests you. Professors notice that students who write about topics that interest them write better papers. For example, if you are interested in ballet, you might try to find out how it was that a composer like Tchaikovsky came to compose for the ballet, and what it is about his music that makes it so suitable for dancing. Don't let open-ended assignments overwhelm you. They are an excellent opportunity to enter the world of music on your own terms. However, don't forget to work closely with your professor as you define your topic. Your professor remains the best source for helping you fine tune your ideas. He'll be able to suggest additional music for you to listen to, and additional books or journals for you to read.
The process of writing about music can be difficult. In Writing About Music, Richard Wingell notes that students tend to encounter the following problems:
Assuming that description is enough.If they describe what happens in the music, then they think they've done their job. But, as we've said earlier, description is not analysis. You need to be sure that you are making an interpretation, and that your description is crafted so that it supports that interpretation.
Adding irrelevant description.Again: stay focused on your argument or interpretation. You may find some really pretty phrases to describe what's going on in a particular Beethoven Sonata, but if the description isn't relevant to your point, leave it out.
Being repetitive.Repetition doesn't persuade anyone. Merely, stating something over and over doesn't make it true or convincing. Use evidence and examples from your sources to support your thesis.
Using flowery language to inflate flat ideas.For example, don't say, "The final section rolls in like thunder bursting forth from the sky." This language does nothing except fill up space. Your professor won't be fooled.
Focusing too closely on a composer's personal life and the influence it has on his or her music.Everything Beethoven wrote in the latter stages of his life was not directly influenced by his deafness. Professors generally aren't interested in students writing about music as biography.
Assuming that grammar doesn't count.It does. Without proper grammar, your paper will not flow. The reader will get distracted and be prevented from understanding your points. You can review grammar elsewhere in this site.
Now, consider some of the things you should do:
Ask yourself hard questions.How is the music organized? What unifies the music? What style is the music and from what period? The harder the questions, the better the paper.
Define a thesis.Think about the observations you've made about the music. Look at how they might fit together to create an analysis or an argument. Then work to state that argument in a single sentence, or thesis. (See Developing Ideas and Finding Your Thesis.)
Pay attention to structure.It's important to be sure that you have a structure for your paper that presents your information logically and persuasively. Don't simply organize your paper so that it reflects the musical movement of the piece. Instead, let your argument define a structure for you. (See Writing: Considering Structure & Organization.)
Attend to your sentences.Good sentences are the building blocks of good papers. If you feel that your style is flat, or convoluted, or too extravagant, see our section on Attending to Style. You'll find there some simple principles for improving your sentences.
- Sample CD Review
- Sample Performance Review
- Sample Paper: Historical
- Sample Paper: Comparative Analysis
"The goal is to build intelligent listeners who can develop informed, independent judgements about the value of art. I'm interested in the idea of 'connoisseurship.' By writing and having a deeper, informed understanding, people enjoy music more." ----Professor Theodore Levin
"I have a responsibility to expect a high level of abstraction [from students]. And the expectations are high because they can do it." ----Professor William Summers
"Art matters - simply put. We need to be able to talk beyond likes and dislikes so we can look at how we arrived where we are. Music is economic, social and political art...It's important to understand the position of music in the larger cultural sphere." ----Assistant Professor Steve Swayne
You may be disappointed to find that the Internet does not provide as much research material for Music as it does for other disciplines. Scholarly Web sites exist for Music, but they are not as plentiful as those for a subject like Literature. You'll have to make a trip to Baker/Berry and to Paddock Music Library to do some hunting.
It's important to note that professors in the Music Department hold students accountable for having the proper scope with regard to sources. "Scope" refers to both quantity and range. In other words, using 2 or 3 books isn't going to get the job done, and professors expect that you will draw from sources across the United States.
Note: to find relevant materials, you may have to use the interlibrary loan system and retrieve sources from other institutions. The reference librarians can help you with this or any of your research questions. Don't forget that journals and articles are excellent sources for papers and are often neglected. You can find journals and articles using the DCIS, under the category, "Music." When you click on the folder, several database options appear.
Be sure to check the authority of your sources and to make certain that you are not relying overmuch on one type or on dated materials. Primary source material might be older, but you'll want to supplement this material with more current information and discussions.
You'll find that professors in the Music Department have very different expectations when it comes to citing sources. While Sources is still an invaluable resource, you may find that your professor prefers a different citation method than the one recommended there. (Sources advises using the MLA citation style common in the Humanities.) Guidelines for papers will almost always appear on the professor's written instructions for assignments, but as with any class, check with a professor if you are in doubt as to the nature of a paper, or its format.
- Jonathan Bellman's book, A Short Guide to Writing About Music, is helpful and gives several samples of well-written music papers.
- Harvard Dictionary of Music. Edited by Don Michael Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.
- Wingell, Richard J. Writing About Music: an introductory guide. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:04 EDT
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