Skip to Main Content

Music Research Tutorial

Research Tutorial for Music Papers

Exploring Your Subject through Searching

For your first tutorial module, please work through the five sections below, watching videos and taking a few minutes to try the activity in the gray boxes. A final, optional, box is included to show some of the implications of these ideas beyond your project.

By the end of this module, you'll be able to:

  • Identify the major stakeholders in your topic.
  • Access relevant databases for your topic.
  • Identify important subject terms and keywords for your topic.

Imagine you're starting a new world music paper: you're leaning towards working on Indian music, maybe religious traditions, but you don't know much about it. Where do you begin?

The first step is to learn more about the general topic--you can't begin to narrow down your topic or form a research question until you know something about the topic and what information is available. Searching for and reading sources is part of the process of focusing your research, which will then lead you to new searches and sources.

1. What is it?

As a first step, listening to a variety of music and reading reference sources will help you situate what you find in books and articles. Search for interesting areas or genres in encyclopedias like the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, to figure out what some of the major subtopics are. If you're interested in India, for example, what are the major regions, genres, and religious traditions found in India? This will give you an idea of the landscape so that you have context for what you read.

You should also begin with listening. The goal of studying music is, in part, to answer questions we have about how music is made, how it works, and what it means to the communities around it. So figuring out what music is intriguing to you is an important step. Through the library, you have access to thousands of recordings, including LPs, CDs, and streaming music. As you're deciding on a topic, listen to music you're thinking about studying, and see what strikes your interest. What questions arise about the music and the people who make and listen to it? A good starting point in the Smithsonian Global Sounds database.

Before you go on, do a quick search in Garland or Grove, and see what sub-topics or sections fall under your area of interest. If you haven't already spent some time listening to the music you're thinking of working on, use Smithsonian Global Sound to find some tracks, and try making a playlist.

2. Who Cares?

In order to know which databases and resources to search out, you'll want to think early on about who the "stakeholders" are in your topic. What kinds of people, institutions, or fields of study are invested in your topic.

If I'm writing a "world music" paper, the most obvious stakeholders might be ethnomusicologists. But who else might be interested in a topic like religious music in India? Other scholars, like those in Religious Studes, Anthropology, and East Asian studies might have important things to say about this topic. Plus, Indian musicians, religious leaders, and audiences might offer other perspectives that could inform my thinking. Exploring databases used in Religous Studies and Anthropology might help me find material a search only in music sources might miss.

Take a moment to brainstorm possible stakeholders for the topic you're thinking of working on. Explore the list of subject on our Databases and Guides by Subject page, and identify at least 2 or 3 academic fields that might represent some of these stakeholder groups.

3. Where should I look?

You can always start with Search@UW, but for bigger projects, you'll probably want to go directly to some of the databases for music and other related fields you've identified. For each relevant subject area, you can start at the Databases and Guides by Subject page to find possible starting points. Not all databases work the same way, but many of them will have similar functions:

As you start exploring and running searches, you might notice that some of the books and articles you see use different terms to talk about your subject, or that you got a lot of irrelevant results. For example, when I searched for Indian religious music in the RILM Abstracts of Music Literature database, I got some results on Native American music, because the database tried to helpfully suggest related sources. You can see that "Native American" is in bold because the database is considering it one of my search terms.

Two result for a search for "indian religious music." One is an article about musical performance in a South Indian temple, and one is a dissertation about Native American Church music. The terms Indian, religious music, and Native American are in bold.

But I'm interested in music from India, so it's not so helpful. Sometimes, instead of using "keywords," it's helpful to find out what the database uses as "subject terms"--they're kind of like hashtags in that they're standardized ways of tagging results so that related entries are brought together.

In my results, I can see that India -- South India -- religious music is a set of search terms that comes up frequently, and it might be better to use that than "Indian," which the database interprets incorrectly. The way search terms are structured may also help you to start narrowing down your topic-- I can see here that work on religious music in India tends to be subdivided by region (South or North), and by religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.), so maybe I should focus that way. I also see some terms of genres and practices I can start looking out for.

4. Concept Mapping (LARC Tutorial)

One way to brainstorm about your topic is to use a "mind map." Starting from your original idea and thinking about it from a variety of different perspectives can help you focus in on which part you're most interested in studying, and think about possible research questions. Looking back at what your preliminary searching, what keywords and subject terms were used? Think about the narrower and broader terms, synonyms, etc. What subject terms were used in the databases you explored? What stakeholders did you identify? What fields of study or disciplines work on this area, and how do they approach it? (ie, musical analysis, ethnography, surveys, historical research)

Concept Mapping diagram

After you've done a preliminary search in a couple of places, take some time to write down what you've find. Using a "mind-mapping" structure often works well for thinking through the different aspects of your project, and the terms you've come across.

21st Century Skills: Expert Stakeholders Outside of Academia (activity)

Scholars aren't the only credible stakeholders contributing to the conversation around a given issue. Although scholarly research is rigorous and focused, the systems behind it are designed to privilege certain ways of knowing over others. Understanding the world around us requires considering a variety of sources. Some information can only be sourced from stakeholders whose expertise is based on cultural knowledge or personal experience.

1. Compare the Maps

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Belcher Islands--an archipelago in Hudson Bay, Canada--were unknown to Western Geographers despite 200 years of sailing expeditions in the region. Inuit people, however, were intimately familiar with this large cluster of islands.

2. Reflect

These two images are different geographic representations of the same land mass. Neither is a scholarly article, but both offer unique information that could be analyzed or interpreted in scholarly research about Sanikiluaq/The Belcher Islands.Take a few minutes to think about the different types of information each image represents, and discuss:

  • Describe the different types of expertise Wetalltok and NASA, as creators of these two sources, might bring to research about the Belcher Islands
  • Which scholarly stakeholders might use Wetalltok's hand-drawn map? How about the NASA image? How might they use it in their research?

Activity inspired by the blog post:
Murphyao, A. (2020, January 1). “The white man doesn’t know everything:” Wetalltok’s Map of Belcher Islands. Carto-Caricatures.