Writing conventions in music

There are many kinds of music writing, ranging from research papers and analyses of musical works, to observation reports and lesson plans. This website offers a wide variety of information about writing in general. In addition, when you are doing assignments for music courses that involve writing, there are some important things to bear in mind:

  1. Make sure you understand the assignment. Don’t assume that, because you’ve had a similar kind of assignment in another class, your current instructor will expect the same thing. Your writing should reflect your instructor’s instructions about what kind of research and writing you should do. For example, your writing style in a formal essay such as a research paper will be different that that in a lesson plan, which will normally be a more concise kind of writing. Make sure to ask your professor if you have questions about assignments.
  2. Writing about music can be difficult. Remember that 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.
  3. Use appropriate musical terminology (see Terminology in music). The correct use of musical terms will help you to express your ideas clearly and with precision.
  4. If the assignment is a research paper, and you can choose the topic, choose a topic that interests you. Your professor can help you select a topic and suggest ways for you to fine tune your ideas. Then, make sure you know how to do the necessary research. Consult Working with sources, and make sure you know how to use the music library’s resources. The library staff can help you with any questions or problems you may have. Be sure to use citations as appropriate when you quote or paraphrase another author (see Citation). However the paper should reflect your own ideas: simply copying other people’s ideas without attribution is considered plagiarism, which a serious ethical infraction and cause for disciplinary action (see Understanding and avoiding plagiarism).
  5. If the assignment is an analysis assignment, make sure that you know the piece very well. Play through it and/or listen to one or more recordings so that you can look at the score and hear it in your inner ear. It may also be appropriate to find out what else has been written about the work you are studying and its composer.
  6. In an analysis assignment, make sure that you have done a careful analysis of the musical work(s) before you begin to write. You need to decide what analytical approach is most appropriate. (Usually this will be clear from what you are learning in class.) Think about any special features the work has that are unusual or particularly interesting to you. Make sure that you use the appropriate analytical symbols and language in both your musical examples and in your writing.
  7. Your writing should be clear and well organized. Do an outline before you begin to write (see Outlining) to help you think through you ideas, so that you can express them clearly.
  8. Be sure that you are clear about what you wish to say. A good essay is more than just description: you should formulate one or more main ideas (see Writing thesis statements), depending on the length and purpose of the essay. Make sure that your paper has a structure that presents your information logically and persuasively. Draw on your knowledge of music history, repertoire, and theory when you elaborate on and explain your thesis, using those elements to support your interpretation and ideas. Stay focused on your argument or interpretation – leave out description that is not relevant to your point.
  9. Pitfalls to avoid: being overly repetitive, using flowerly language to inflate flat ideas, and focusing too closely on a composer’s personal life and the influence it has on his or her life.
  10. Once you have written your essay, read it out loud and revise it. Make sure that the musical points you are making are correct and clearly expressed.
  11. An excellent website will help you edit your work: visit http://www.bartleby.com/141.
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