Writing Research Papers in Music - A Guide

A successful term paper is the result of examining a topic or question through the reading, analysis, and synthesis of a variety of sources of information. Successful papers require adequate time to find and evaluate sources of information, read and reflect on the information, take notes, create an outline, and write a first draft, a second revised draft, and a third and final version.


Start early! Term papers should be the result of 11-14 weeks of effort and activity. It is important to establish a timeline for completing the various steps needed in the creation of a term paper. Use the following semester timeline to gauge how far along you are in the process:

Weeks 1-3: Identify 4-5 paper topics, do a preliminary search for sources in the library (consult with librarian), get approval from your professor for topic.

Weeks 4-6: Identify sources that you will use to write the paper. These will include books, encyclopedias, journal articles, scores, recordings, and theses/dissertations. Identify items that will need to be ordered through Interlibrary Loan (ILL) and order them in weeks 5- 6. The majority of your sources should be from Rod Library. Pick another topic if you are relying on ILL to find most of your sources.

Weeks 7-10: Read your sources. Evaluate what you read and think critically. Take careful notes and write down full bibliographic information for each source. Bibliographic information includes title of book or article, author(s), publisher, date and place of publication, and page numbers for the information that you are taking from the source. This is a critical step! Keeping track of where you found the information now will save you from having to retrace your steps when it is time to create a bibliography for the paper.

Week 11: Create an outline of your paper and write a first draft. Write the bibliography. Consult a guide to writing about music (Irvine, Bellman, or Wingell) to learn how to incorporate musical examples into the paper.

Week 12: Critique your first draft. Does it contain the essential information from your notes? Be sure to cite every source. Does the information in the paper actually support your thesis statement at the beginning of the paper? Write a second draft. Clean up the citations in the body of the paper and make sure the bibliography lists every source that you cite in the paper.

Week 13: Read your second draft aloud. Critique the sentence structure and grammar. Does this draft successfully convey the ideas that you want to convey? Have you cited every source? Have you plagiarized any sources? (click here for more information on plagiarism and academic integrity http://www.uni.edu/pres/policies/301.shtml)

Week 14: Write the final draft. Read aloud and look carefully for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. Do not rely solely on your computer’s spell check function. Save the final draft on a disk or CD! Print out two copies of the final paper (one to turn in and one to keep).

Identifying a topic for your paper:

Although it seems obvious, you should explore topics that are directly related to the class that you are taking. For instance, if you are in symphonic literature class, a paper on jazz great Charlie Parker, while interesting, doesn’t really have anything to do with the focus of the class, while a paper on Haydn’s use of monothematicism in his symphonies is directly related to the content of the course. Avoid overly broad topics like “Romantic Music” and too narrowly focused topics like “Cross-Dressing Bolivian Flutists of the Rococo”. Talk with your studio instructor about topics that relate to the course that you are taking, then develop a list of 4-5 ideas for your paper and ask your classroom instructor if the topics merit further exploration. Consult with the Fine and Performance Arts Librarian to see if there are adequate sources available in Rod Library to cover the topics.

Finding and evaluating sources:

Term papers are meant to be scholarly papers. You will need to use legitimate scholarly sources. Begin with a broad overview of the topic by reading articles in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Use the bibliography of the New Grove article as a starting point to find other sources. Look for books and scores related to your topic in UNISTAR. Look for articles on your topic in peer-reviewed journals. Use the following databases to find articles: 

  • RILM
  • International Index to Music Periodicals
  • Dissertations and Theses Full Text
  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index

Ask for help in locating sources outside of Rod Library from the FPAC Librarian. Order all Interlibrary Loan (ILL) items early. Allow 2-3 weeks to receive books/scores through ILL.

Reading and taking notes:

Skim through the books and articles that you have collected and determine which sources to concentrate on. Read your important sources carefully and critically. Do not accept everything that you read as fact or truth. Evaluate the source of the information. Is the book or article written by a recognized scholar in the field? Has the article been through a peer-review process? Does the source use footnotes or endnotes and give citation information for its information? Take careful notes. Many educators advise using 3”x5” cards for taking notes. Be sure to write down the page number and title/volume/edition number of the source that you are taking notes from.  

Read your notes, organize your thoughts, create an outline:

After you have read all of your sources and taken notes, carefully read your notes and organize the material in your head. Which elements from your notes strike you as important or interesting? Write down an outline of the important points from your notes that you want to address in the paper. To see the value of spending time on an outline, imagine that you have to write a paper about making and serving a glass of chocolate milk. How many steps are involved in making chocolate milk? Here is a sample outline of how a paper on making and serving chocolate milk might look.  The value in creating an outline is that it helps you organize your materials and your thoughts. See http://web.uvic.ca/wguide/Pages/EssayOrgOutStruct.html for more information on how to construct an outline. Read your outline and then synthesize the information into a whole. What does it all mean? Why is it important? What do you think the reader of your paper should learn?

Write a first draft:

Following your outline, write down what you have found to be interesting and important about the subject of your paper. Make sure that the thesis statement at the beginning of the paper is clear and unambiguous and that it accurately expresses what you intend to do in the paper. Does the body of the paper explore, explain, and illuminate the topic that you introduced in the opening thesis statement/paragraph?

Critique the first draft:

Read the first draft as if you were the professor. Does the thesis statement reflect what the paper is really about? Have you given musical examples to support your argument? How many quotations are there in the draft? A few direct quotes are fine, but excessive direct quotation of sources is irritating and is viewed as filler. Identify everything in this draft that needs to be cited. As a general rule of thumb, anything that you write in the paper that you did not know before you began reading from your sources for the paper must be cited. In other words, if there is an idea, fact, figure, chart, diagram, or drawing that you were unaware of before you read about it in your source and you then use the information in your paper, you must give credit to the person, persons, or organization that you are taking the information from by citing it. If there is any doubt about whether to cite a source, then cite it!

Write a second draft:

Refine your arguments in this draft. Be aware of the flow of ideas and connections between paragraphs. Consult a style manual to see how to do your citations in the body of the paper and how to construct the bibliography or works cited page (ask your teacher which manual they prefer, the Chicago Manual of Style is often used for writing about music). Read this draft aloud. Critique this draft for the flow of ideas, correct punctuation, and grammar. Read it again as if you were the professor. Are the paragraphs connecting the ideas? Look for short, choppy sentences and long, rambling sentences. Refine any areas that sound disjointed when you read it aloud. Does your paper now have an opening thesis statement/paragraph that introduces what the paper is about? Does the body of the paper contain all of the information that you decided was important during your reading and research? Does the paper now have a concluding paragraph that ties everything together?

Write a final version:

Write a final draft with all sources correctly cited and a properly formatted bibliography or works cited page. Do a final check for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Do not rely on the spell check function of your computer to find and correct errors! Save a copy of the final draft onto a flash drive or CD. Print out a copy to turn in to the professor and another one to keep for reference.


Plagiarism and Academic Integrity

Plagiarism is using someone else’s ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information. Plagiarism is cheating. It is dishonest and unethical. The University of Northern Iowa has developed a policy regarding plagiarism and issues of academic integrity. (click here to view this policy http://www.uni.edu/pres/policies/301.shtml)

To avoid plagiarizing someone else’s work, you must give credit (cite the source in your paper and your bibliography) whenever you use:

  1. Another person’s idea, opinion, or theory

  2. Any facts, statistics, graphs, or drawings that are not common knowledge

  3. Quotations of another person’s actual spoken or written words

  4. Paraphrase of another person’s spoken or written words.

Style Manuals:

You will need to use a style manual in the preparation of your paper. The style manual will give you information on how to format your bibliography, correctly cite your sources within the body of the paper, and how to cite sources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and internet sites and databases. Most teachers in the humanities areas, including music, prefer the Chicago Manual of Style. A copy of the Chicago Manual is kept permanently at the reference desk on the 2nd floor of the library. 

Ask your professor which style manual to use for your paper. Another possibility for humanities papers is Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, which is based upon the Chicago Style Manual. A copy of the Turabian is also kept permanently at the reference desk in Rod Library.

Guides to writing about music:

For more guidance on the research process and how to plan, structure, and write a paper on music, you should consult one of the following guides to writing about music:

Bellman, Jonathan. A Short Guide to Writing About Music. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers. 2000.

Irvine, Demar. Writing about Music. Amadeus Press. 1999 (the library has a copy located in the A&M Reference collection ML3797.I79 1999). An electronic copy of the book is also available and can be accessed by doing an author search in UNISTAR for “Irvine, Demar” and then clicking on the Ebook link for the title “Writing about Music”.

Wingell, Richard J. Writing About Music: An Introductory Guide. Prentice-Hall Inc. 1997.

 These books contain information on how to:

  • choose a topic
  • determine if you are going to write a biography, style study, analytical study, or performance study
  • how to evaluate sources
  • how to write about musical analysis
  • how to deal with musical examples
  • how to organize a paper from outline to final draft

For information on how to use any of the sources/materials listed on this webpage, contact the Fine and Performing Arts Librarian in Rod Library.

Jeff Coon  (jeffrey.coon@uni.edu)

Rod Building
About Us
My Account
Ask Us!
Site Search
Floor Maps
Staff List