Advice For Students Writing Music Papers

The last semester of 2010 just wrapped up.  Due to the nature of two of the lecture courses I just taught, I ended up with a lot of papers to grade during the last 3 weeks of the semester.  While reading them I made note of some of the common traps that my students run into when writing about music.  Even when I go over these mistakes in class, some of them are easy to make.

There are plenty of common writing issues that crop up regardless of the topic of the paper, such as grammar and proper form and style.  Different teachers will have their own policies.  Personally, I don’t care too much if the paper is done in MLA, APA, or Chicago style, as long as it is consistent (although I’m speaking here for mostly non-music majors taking elective courses).  Don’t make up your own system of citing and such.  Find out what your teacher wants you to use and make sure that you’re following it.

Here then are some common traps to avoid when writing papers about music.

Properly capitalize and use italics for composition titles

Titles of compositions need to be capitalized and should be set off as italic text.  Personally, I’m OK with just using quotation marks around the title too, but usually these are reserved for individual movements of larger works, with the larger work title being italicized.  However, you should look up and follow the correct format of whichever style you’re using.

The first composition the orchestra performed was Smells Like Teen Spirit, by the grunge band Nirvana.

Use musical terms correctly

Too often my students throw in musical terms we use in class or from reading, but don’t demonstrate that they really understand what they mean.  Sometimes it’s an understandable error because the term might be applied similarly when discussing something other than music.

After hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit done as a symphonic work, the Nirvana recording sounds flat.

In the above context, it’s obvious that the term “flat” refers to the energy level, but understand that it can also mean out of tune or simply lowered by a half step.  I typically recommend that you use a different term here, for the sack of clarity.

During the bridge the pitch got brighter, resulting in a faster timbre.

OK, I made that sentence up, but I have read similar ones in papers recently.  Don’t just use terms you heard in class hoping that it’s what the teacher wants to read.

Use tenses consistently

I’ve had arguments discussions with some colleagues about which tense to use when writing about music, so there are some differences of opinion here.  I personally ask students to use past tense when discussing a particular performance, as when writing a live performance review paper.

In this performance the violins and trumpets play played the role of the electric guitar while the drum set is was replaced by the woodwinds striking their mouthpieces on the brass players’ bells.

When writing an analysis of a particular work, present tense seems most common.

Cobain’s composition represents the next stage of classical music.  Notable features included include the use of woodwind and brass as percussion instruments while violins played play the melody.

It’s possible to correctly go back and forth between these two types of discussions in the same paper, but be careful to make sure that the situation applies.  It’s not uncommon for students writing about music to go back and forth between past and present tense in the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence.  Be consistent.

Capitalize proper names only

Be careful with your capitalization.  Instruments are not proper names and shouldn’t be capitalized (trumpet, not Trumpet).  Musical styles are also not capitalized (baroque, jazz, neoclassicism, etc.), but stylistic eras should be (Baroque era, Swing era, etc.).  Since styles and eras often use the exact same term, you need carefully consider which context you mean.

Describe the music too

Too many students writing concert reports or research papers tend to focus on anything but the music.  The purpose of assigning these papers is to see if you can take your newly acquired knowledge about music and apply it to a new experience.  In the case of papers about music you should make a discussion of the music your focus.

Too often I get concert reports that discuss the audience, the venue, the mood of the author, and the lyrics of the songs to the exclusion of writing about the music.  Certainly those things can be relevant to the overall experience you’re writing about, but put those things into a proper perspective for what this paper is supposed to be about.  In my own grading, I don’t care whether or not the student enjoys the performance, as long as he or she can articulate why in the context of discussing the music.

The music the University Gamelan Ensemble performed was very repetitive and the intonation system the instruments employed was foreign to my ears.  It was not an enjoyable experience to sit through 60 minutes of this music.

I’m OK with the above, because it shows an understanding of the music and how it differs from more familiar music.  Again, just put your personal impressions into the proper context of your assignment.  Along that same line…

Use a personal narrative with caution

In most cases your personal narrative is not needed.

I chose to write this paper on Louis Armstrong because my grandmother’s favorite song is Hello Dolly and I remember hearing her play this record when I was a kid.  I just love this song!

With formal research papers you should probably avoid discussing anything in the first person.  Writing about music, which often elicits strong emotional feelings and memories, has a way of encouraging the above sort of paragraph.  Again, go to the point of the paper.  Depending on the teacher’s assignment, some live performance review papers may ask for you to give your impressions of the performance, but be cautious of turning it into a blog post.  Check with your teacher if you’re unsure of whether it’s called for in your particular assignment.

Proofread, especially after you spellcheck

I’m always happy to see that students take advantage of the spellcheck feature.  I can often tell because spellcheck often results in misuse of certain words.  I commonly see “preform” used instead of “perform.”  Also typical is “improve” used in place of “improv,” which should probably be fully written as “improvise” in a paper anyway.

Get help in advance!

This final one isn’t specifically related to papers on music, but is important enough that I wanted to include it.  So many students turn in papers to me that are well researched and contain great information, but need just a little cleaning up to go from a C to an A.  Other papers showed good writing, but didn’t quite follow the parameters of the assignment.  Out of the hundreds of papers I graded this last semester I can recall only four students who brought drafts to me ahead of time for help (although some may have gone to the University Writing Center instead).

So many of the papers I graded could have been A papers with just a little bit of work.  Set up an appointment with your teacher or Writing Center (most universities have them) and get some advice.  At the very least, ask a fellow classmate or friend to read your paper.

I know I’ve left some common things out.  What would you add to the above?  Got any quibbles with anything I’ve recommended?  Know of any similar resources to this one?  Let me know in the comments below and I’ll do an update.

Jonathan West

One thing I would add. University essays are longer than those you have to write in the last years of high school – quite substantially longer. So they need more planning.

For a typical 1200-word essay that you might write in high school, it is short enough to be able just to start at the beginning, write what you want, and then cut out stuff until you get under the word limit.

If you try to write a 5000-word college essay using this kind of stream-of-consciousness method, you’ll often get stuck after a couple of thousand words or so, and then get into a panic about how you are going to fill the remaining space. So you need to break it up into smaller chunks. Write a number of short subheadings, each corresponding to some aspect of the topic you have been asked to write about. Then decide how many words you are going to allocate to each section.

This has three major benefits. First, it directs your research and reading more specifically – you start looking for things that are relevant not merely to the topic as a whole, but are relevant to a specific subheading.

Second, it makes the writing much easier. It is much easier to tackle eight six-hundred-word sections and a 200-word conclusion one section at a time than cope with the whole of a 5000 word essay in one indigestible lump.

And third, it will give your essay more structure, making it easier (and therefore more of a pleasure) for the lecturer to read. That is worth a grade almost by itself!

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