How to Write a Music History Paper

(This was written for Music 213, Summer 2002, however could be used in any music class)

1. Select a Subject Area  (Week of the semester)

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

 For starters, look around and ahead in Grout-Palisca, including the chronologies that are provided from

time to time and the “for further reading” sections at the end of each chapter. Listen to the music we will be covering this semester, or to other music from this period.

 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 Nyack or NYPL  libraries have too few sources on your area.

2.  Get to Know Your Subject Area 

Next, familiarize yourself with your subject area or areas. Read about them in Grout-Palisca, in the New Grove Dictionary, or in other general works. Pay attention to the cross references, “for further reading” sections, and 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).  

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.

4. Select a Specific Topic 

Most subjects are too broad to treat in a 10-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:

 •   Period of time

•   Geography or nationality

•   Genre, text, or repertoire

•   Musical technique

•   Person or group of people

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 (Week 3) 

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, say 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 music history 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 (“Some Gregorian chants derive from ancient Hebrew cantillation formulas.”), not a sentence fragment (“The relation between Gregorian chant and Hebrew cantillation.”) 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 millions 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 chronological 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 Research Paper Proposal (Week 4 of the semester)

 This is the point where you should be when you hand in your research paper topic proposal: you should have (1) selected a specific topic, (2) assembled a bibliography on that topic, (3) figured out what you want to say about that topic, (4) formulated your thesis, and (5) planned your argument.

 9.   Draft the First Paragraph   (Week 5)

 You are now ready to write 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. 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, but forge on for now.

 10.    Draft the Argument  (Week 6)

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.)

 11.    Go Back to Your Sources and Revise, Revise, Revise (Week 7-8)

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 the writers you are reading raise? 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 Support Your Thesis, Leave It OUT (Week 9) 

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; use it as evidence for your thesis, and explain what about it supports your thesis.

 13. At the End, Answer the Killer Questions (Week 10- Paper due this week)

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 cosmic relevance 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!! Double spaced, one inch margins and 12 point text as I can’t read smaller print easily.