Out of the Sheet Music and Into the Essay: Specific Suggestions for Writing about Music

By Cameo Flores

Music is highly subjective to the ear, but it is even more subjective when you write about its nitty-gritty details. This blog contains a few things to keep in mind when you write a paper about music.

There are three types of musical analysis: textual, aural, and experiential.  Textual analysis is when someone is analyzing a readable record of music like a score, composer biography, or a performance criticism. Aural analysis requires a broad knowledge of music theory and aural training to comment on audio without a hard copy of the music. Experiential analysis occurs when you witness music occurring through any of the five senses.

When writing a textual analysis of music, consider the following:

  1. Assume your audience knows your language. This means that you do not need to explain what a secondary function chord is, only why it’s important in the grand scheme of your analysis.
  2. Score analysis is extremely specific, and there are no specific alt codes for music notation. Make a copy of your marked score and attach it in your appendix.
  3. Be sure to cite measures as “m. #” for a single measure, “mm. # – #” for more than one measure.
  4. Do the score analyses before you begin to write your paper. Most of the time, the score analysis will help you form an argument for your thesis.
  5. Typically, you will be writing something that is either musicological or ethnomusicological. These papers use Chicago Style for citations—make sure your citing style is consistent!
  6. Most of these papers will involve a personal opinion, so don’t be afraid to show it as long as you back it up with evidence.
  7. Because music is such a broad, subjective topic, it’s important to establish a concentrated and specific analysis. A narrow focus should help prevent you from going on unneeded tangents.

While writing an aural or experiential analysis of music, remember that these topics are more subjective than a textual analysis. This requires a fearless perspective that is both well-informed and steadfast. Here are some points to consider while writing about these modes of music.

  1. Make sure you use diverse evidence in a narrow argument. If you can back an argument stating that you heard a plagal cadence, assert it—but also talk about other places you have heard a plagal cadence. Diverse evidence strengthens your argument in the limited parameters of aural analysis.
  2. Cultural analyses are oftentimes tied into these types of writing, so keep in mind that you are an observer of a specific musical time period of musical culture. Avoid making general assumptions and recognize your limitations as a writer. Acknowledge your cultural perspective limitations in your written examinations. Limitations are usually addressed in a preface or a concluding paragraph.
  3. Hum or whistle intervals, chords, cadences, and harmonies to yourself. If you do not aurally know the music well enough where you cannot recite the music from memory, you need to spend more time on the aural analysis. This is a good way to correct any mistakes you made in the analysis as well.
  4. Treat all of these writings as if you are an “extraterrestrial” in the subject you are writing about. Write as if you know about music, but have no other cultural influences swaying your opinions.
  5. Be open minded and prepared to be critiqued because you have a mindset limited to yourself. Open mindedness is key to successful aural and experiential writing.

Since subjectivity is so prevalent in music papers, remember that you will need a lot of diverse information to back any argument.  There typically is no right or wrong answer in music (except for, perhaps, music history and theory) so remember to assert your opinion confidently in your writing. Avoid using uncertain language, but acknowledge any informational shortcomings. Keep in mind that writing about music is purely analytical because of its subjectivity. There are no absolute right or wrong answers, only argumentative strengths!



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