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How to Research Music History

Basic Research, Writing, and Citation Tools

Laurie J. Sampsel
August 2012

This portion of The Oxford History of Western Music College Edition companion website highlights major tools for researching music, writing about music, and citing music sources. The goal is to equip you to write research papers or other assignments required as part of your music history classes. Content is arranged according to the type of sources, for example, “How do I find scores?” Catalogs are discussed first because your college or university online catalog is a gateway to many of the resources you will use regardless of format. Because this is a short guide, including only major sources, suggestions are made throughout for additional resources available to help with your music history assignments. You may want to think of these resources as your basic “toolbox” for music research and writing. Your local librarians are major research “tools” as well, so please ask them for assistance and advice. Searching for music materials is often challenging, so do not hesitate to get to know the librarians who are there to help you.

Throughout this section of the website I refer to my textbook Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition). Although this book is written primarily for graduate students, it may also be useful to you. See especially the titles marked with an asterisk, because these are the most important research tools. Most of these are useful for music research at any level. A world of research tools beyond Google and Wikipedia are available, and your research will benefit from exploring them!

How do I use my library’s catalog?

Your college or university library’s online catalog is often the first stop on your research journey. You use it to look up call numbers, access course reserves, see if the material you need is available, and so on. Many libraries currently have more than one version of their catalog, with different search software. Try out the catalog(s), see what online help is available, and/or attend a class on searching.

Unless you live on campus, you may also need to learn how to connect remotely from off-campus. This step is necessary to authenticate your status as a student at your school, because many of these research tools are expensive subscriptions. Your campus identification is your key to unlock many of the best resources for your use. Throughout this guide, the links provided are to the information sources’ websites. In order to find out if your library subscribes, you will need to access them through your library’s catalog from an authenticated computer.

In addition to your own library’s catalog, your school may also be part of a group of libraries or a consortium. If so, you can borrow materials from these other libraries as well. Depending upon how many and how close these libraries are, this can really help you quickly get materials that your library does not own or that are checked out to someone else.

Finally, you will want to take advantage of WorldCat, a large catalog including the collections of thousands of libraries. You might think of WorldCat as the parent of individual libraries’ catalogs. Materials found in WorldCat may often be borrowed through interlibrary loan. The subscription version of WorldCat is recommended, but there is also a free version called WorldCat.org.

For more information on searching library catalogs, please see Chapter 3 of Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition).

How do I find and use music encyclopedias?

Encyclopedias are a good starting point for your research, because basic information is presented, lists of works are included for composers, and a bibliography will list books and articles on the topic covered. The leading English music encyclopedia is Grove Music Online, which is part of Oxford Music Online. Purchase of your textbook includes an 18-month subscription to this tool. Click here and enter the activation code printed in the front of your textbook. The print version of Grove is titled, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edition), and there are additional “New Grove” titles devoted to opera, jazz, musical instruments, and American music.

Another music encyclopedia especially devoted to world music and ethnomusicology is the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, which is published in print and online. A great place to look for information about musicians is Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music (9th edition), also published in print and online. For musical terms, the best dictionary is the Harvard Dictionary of Music (4th edition), in print or online. These and other encyclopedias are usually given the Library of Congress (LC) call numbers ML100 through ML109. See Chapter 2 of Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition).

How do I find books on music?

Use your library’s online catalog to find books on music. In the Library of Congress call number system, they will have call numbers beginning with ML or MT. Use Library of Congress (LC) subject headings and keyword searches unless you know the specific title or author that you are looking for. An outline of LC call numbers is included in Appendix A of Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition). Learning a few call numbers can help you to browse. For example, your textbook and others like it probably have the call number ML160.

How do I find journal articles on music?

Journal articles often present the most current and highly detailed scholarship on a particular musical topic. Finding articles is not usually possible through the library catalog. Instead, periodical indexes are needed. Many journals are available online, but some (especially older issues) are only available on hard copy. If you need to use hard copy, look up the call number in your library catalog. Journal articles may also be obtained using interlibrary loan, but be aware that this option takes more time.

Three current music-specific periodical indexes are published; you will need to find out which your library provides for your use. They are International Index to Music Periodicals Full Text (IIMP) http://iimp.chadwyck.com, Music Index www.ebscohost.com/academic/music.index, and RILM Abstracts (International Repertory of Music Literature) http://www.ebscohost.com/public/rilm-abstracts-of-music-literature. Click here for a table comparing these three indexes. Of the three, IIMP is probably the most popular with students, because it is your best bet for finding the full text of recent music articles. RILM Abstracts is one of the best indexes for music history articles. Although RILM Abstracts and Music Index are not published with full text, many libraries link to full text available from other sources.

General periodical indexes and article databases are also useful for music research, in addition to or instead of the music indexes just mentioned. Examples include Academic Search Premier (http://www.ebscohost.com), General OneFile (http://www.gale.cengage.com/servlet/ItemDetailServlet?region=9&imprint=000&titleCode=GAL61&cf=n&type=4&id=172100), Periodicals Index Online (http://www.proquest.com/en-US/catalogs/databases/detail/periodicals_index.shtml), and ProQuest Central (http://www.proquest.com/en-US/catalogs/databases/detail/proquestcentral.shtml). Again your library may or may not subscribe to one or more of these indexes. All include music periodicals and a significant number of journals in full text. Two article databases, which have full texts of scholarly journals, are JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org) and Project MUSE (http://muse.jhu.edu).

Many more periodical indexes are published, including those for related disciplines such as performing arts, humanities, and education. A basic list of these is included in Chapter 4 of Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition). Your library may have subscriptions to these and/or others.

How do I find scores?

Your music history textbook is accompanied by three score anthologies. However, you may need additional scores for listening or research. Your library’s catalog is the best way to find scores in print available to check out. Searching for major composers’ scores can be tricky for, so you might try using opus numbers, publishers, and arrangers to limit your search results.

Online scores are available from a variety of sources, some are free and some are not. Two subscription packages of scores are available from Alexander Street Press and are called Classical Scores Library and Classical Scores Library Volume Two. See descriptions for both at http://alexanderstreet.com. One of the most exciting collections of online scores is available free from the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Other projects, many created by libraries and publishers, also exist.

How do I find recordings?

Your textbook has an accompanying set of three CDs with recordings in MP3 format selected for your class use. Again, though, you will likely need additional recordings. Of course, many recordings are only available on physical media: CD, LP, cassette tape, and so on. Use your library’s catalog to find them. Two popular subscription packages of streaming audio are Naxos Music Library and Classical Music Library. Your library may subscribe to one or both services. Popular sources for purchasing digital audio include the iTunes Store and ClassicsOnline. Popular services for listening to music online include Spotify and Pandora.

How do I find videos?

Videos are especially important for research involving staged performances, such as opera and musical theater. In addition to the videos available at your local library, you may have access to streaming video subscription services through your library’s catalog. Two services are available from Alexander Street Press: Classical Music in Video and Opera in Video. Both provide streaming of performances licensed for educational use. In the free videos category, you probably already use YouTube. You may also want to explore Vimeo and TED Talks.

How do I find musical illustrations?

Pictures of musicians, instruments, and so on are often useful in music research. You may want to include images in your papers and presentations to provide examples and visual interest. Here are a few sources of images for these purposes. ARTstor and AP Images are both subscription databases. ARTstor is best for historical images, while AP Images is better for living musicians. You probably already use Google Images and possibly Flickr, but if not you should check them out.

How do I find help with writing about music?

A famous quote says that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Luckily, there are a number of tools to help you improve your own writing. One of the best ways is to have someone edit and proofread your work. You might want to see if your college or university has a writing lab, especially if English is your second language. Two books specifically written for undergraduates address some of the special issues related to words about music. They are Jonathan Bellman’s A Short Guide to Writing about Music (2nd edition) and Richard Wingell’s Writing about Music: An Introductory Guide (4th edition). A number of good, free online dictionaries and thesauruses are available too.

How do I create a bibliography and notes for my papers?

Bibliographies and footnotes or endnotes are used to give credit to sources you use in your research. Citation of sources is critical to avoid charges of plagiarism. Many faculty use software like Turnitin to check student papers for plagiarism. Be aware of your school’s honor code and follow it carefully. Most music professors use the Chicago Manual of Style for documentation. It is available online, and your school may have a subscription as well as having the print book. Many students like using a citation manager, such as RefWorks. Citation managers store your citations and allow you to create notes and a bibliography in a variety of styles. If your school does not subscribe to RefWorks, you may want to consider a free online citation manager such as Mendeley or Zotero. Examples of common music materials in Chicago, APA (American Psychological Association), and MLA (Modern Language Association) are included as Appendixes E, F, and G in Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition) with supplemental examples on the book’s companion website.

Need more help?

Many other types of music research tools are available for additional research. Some of them, such as dissertation indexes, thematic catalogs, bibliographies, discographies, and iconographies, you may not have used before. In addition to your library’s collection, you may need to use the collections of other libraries, special collections, and archives.

Help is available from a variety of sources; here are a few suggestions. Ask your librarians and professors. Use the bibliographies at the end of Grove Music Online entries. Use guides to music research, like Music Research: A Handbook (2nd edition) and its companion website. Finally, use online guides to music research, such as Harvard College’s Online Music Research Tools.

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