Writing About Music 



About writing about music

Why write about music if the main purpose of music is to communicate a message, express an emotion or make people dance without speech or the written word?

This question assumes that we do not talk about music or that it plays little or no importance in musical experience. Just a small degree of reflection will reveal that we actually talk about music, constantly!

Anytime we mention our favorite group or singer or instrumentalist or composer and describe what we like about their music, we are talking about music. The act of writing about music heightens our consciousness of what constitutes music in the first place. Even the word "music" is an act of speech or writing that is used in a social and cultural context. Let's face the music about writing about music: avoiding the use of words to make sense of our musical experiences is quite difficult.



Clarify the topic and narrow it down. Keep in mind that a paper about the history of the trumpet could end up becoming a Ph.D. dissertation-scale project entailing years of research. More than likely, such a general topic already has numerous published articles and books which are available through your university library collection or Interlibrary Loan (ILL). The key is to refine your topic and see what is possible given the time constraints of your semester and the library's resources. Ask your professor for suggestions if you have difficulty identifying an interesting topic.

You will need to engage in the four step research process that is outlined in the Webpage Guide to Music Research:

Step One: Clarify & Consult

Step Two: Identify & Evaluate

Step Three: Refine & Redirect

Step Four: Note & Cite

After locating, reading, and taking notes from numerous sources, you are ready to write.


Writing the paper

Much has been written about the act of writing about music and I have offered only a few Web links available on this topic in the upper right column "Expert Advice."

The Writing Process

While it would be easy to recommend only one method for the writing process, the simple truth is that writers employ a variety of techniques to get ink on paper or more appropriately, digitized words in the computer.

Some people think more clearly in the morning while others late at night, some need total isolation at home while others need the shuffling and chatter of people at a cafe. Some people need to walk or pace or speak into a tape recorder while others have trouble making their fingers move as fast as their thoughts. The secret is finding an environment that will be conducive to effortless production of words.

Analytical Writing

You can write about music in many ways, but what your professor will require is analytical writing. In other words, you will need to refrain from writing about how you personally feel about music or a specific composition. Instead, you will need to adopt a "distanced" approach to your topic, studying music like a lab specimen under a microscope.

Structuring the Paper

At minimum, your paper should consist of three parts: 1) introduction, 2) body, and 3) conclusion. Of course, you will need to provide a bibliography of the works cited in your paper or a general bibliography of works consulted or both.

In many respects, the introduction to your paper is the most critical section and often consists of just one paragraph. In this limited space, you must state the basic topic or question of your paper and then discuss how you plan to write about it. Concision is the key for this section, so avoid discussing the details of your topic or writing a lengthy discourse on your method of analysis.

The body of your paper is where you get to delve into the topic and provide as much detailed description and analysis within the page length as stipulated by your professor or as befits the topic. Although you have relative freedom to write at length in the body of your paper, you will need to provide a flow of ideas that connect each paragraph. You should consider writing a "topic sentence" for each paragraph that is not unrelated to the other paragraphs nor is redundant. After you have explored several facets of your topic in the body of your paper, you are ready to proceed to the conclusion.

Your conclusion should review, briefly, the opening statement that describes your research topic and the methods for answering it. If you simply restate your introduction without providing new ideas or information, then you are writing a summary. A conclusion should offer further insight about the topic as a result of the description and analysis that you provided in the body. Often, one can present original ideas that function as a denouement, i.e. the final outcome or resolution of a narrative as found in a novel or film.


Your paper will be word-processed with one of the many software programs available such as Open Office, Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The paper presentation, however, is a much more involved procedure. The key factor to effective, clear paper presentations is the "KISS" principle: "keep it sweet & simple" or "keep it simple, stupid." In other words, you should seek to simplify your presentation as much as possible. Below are just a few suggestions that will make your paper presentation clear. And remember: a good presentation will likely put your paper in a favorable position when your professor reads and grades it.



Start your bibliography on a new page and use the title "Bibliography" if it includes works that you did not cite. Label the section "Works Cited" if you include only works that you have cited in the body of your paper.

In general, you should arrange your works in alphabetical order by author and then by date of publication if you have multiple works from the same author.

There are many styles for creating your bibliography, and two of the most widely employed are the MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association) standards. Highly recommended are the following links for both citation styles:

General Style Guide Resource The Citation Machine - MLA, APA, Turabian, Chicago

MLA MLA Style Guide - OWL PurdueGuide to Writing Research Papers - CCCMLA Citation Guide - OSUMLA Style: Kingwood College Library

APA APA Style Guide - OWL PurdueGuide to Writing Research Papers - CCCAPA Citation Guide - OSUAPA Style.org



A discography is similar to a bibliography, the only difference being that it comprises a list of audio or sound recordings that you have cited in your paper. Sound recordings come in a variety of formats such as LP, cassette, CD, MP3, and even audio recordings streamed from the Web. If you refer to sound recordings in your paper, you will need to create a separate section on a new page entitled "Discography." The same holds true for video recordings that you may cite, thus warranting a section called "Videography." The above APA and MLA links should provide rules and examples of how to create a proper discography and videography.


Note on Plagiarism

The Arkansas Tech University handbook defines plagiarism as the following:

The term "plagiarism" includes, but is not limited to, the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgment. It also includes the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.

Needless to say, plagiarism is fully unacceptable at ATU and at all other universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada. While plagiarism may seem to be a convenient method for completing a writing assignment, it can be rather inconvenient if detected, resulting in a zero grade and possibly academic suspension or expulsion.

The bottom line: you must acknowledge your sources of information, whether they be direct quotations or even ideas that you use in your paper. Citation of sources also include images and graphs (e.g. music staff notation).

More about Plagiarism and How to Avoid It Citing Sources - Duke UniversitySources - Their Use and Acknowledgment - Dartmouth College

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Further questions concerning music research?

Please contact Lowell Lybarger, music librarian, 479.964.0584. llybarger@atu.edu