What kinds of writing assignments can I expect in upper-division music courses?

Currently music students may fulfill their DSW requirements by successfully completing the writing-intensive History of Music in the Western World and World Music sequence. As part of these courses students engage in formal and informal writing assignments, in and out of class, such as the following:

  • essay exams (short and long)
  • reflective essays
  • reviews of musical performances and recordings
  • program notes
  • music analytical essays
  • music critical essays
  • historical contextualization essays
  • performance practice essays
  • research proposals
  • sentence outlines
  • original, thesis-driven research papers

In addition to the sample writing assignments above, assignments in other music courses may include, among a wide variety of other assignments, the following:

  • teaching philosophies
  • professional development proposals
  • curriculum development
  • lesson plans
  • music pedagogical essays

How is my writing evaluated?

Your professors may weigh criteria differently depending on the nature of the assignment. In general, assessment of your writing assignments may take the following into account:

  • clear presentation of the topic or question at stake
  • clear organization, with beginning, middle, and end
  • significance of ideas and examples that clarify and support the main point(s) of your paper
  • critical response to primary and secondary sources
  • use of correct grammar
  • maturity of writing style, starting with control of standard written English
  • appropriate and correct citations of references

Why write about music?

We write about music to help ourselves and others better understand music: its histories and contexts, its styles and forms, its composers and performers, its practices and meanings. In writing about music we explore musical coherences and express, refine, and support the musical judgments that we make.

As many have noted, writing about music can be challenging. Music is sometimes thought to bypass human linguistic processes and interact directly with the emotions; many have espoused music's ability to "say" what words cannot not say. Even when music accompanies a text, it can be difficult to convey exactly what the music adds. And, most of us have little experience writing about music. As Robert Wingell points out, "our culture thinks of music as comforting background noise, an atmosphere one creates for oneself, a sort of sonic wallpaper….In this atmosphere, it is difficult to argue logically and convincingly about issues of musical style or quality" (Writing about Music, 3). Through writing about music, we might help others heard music as more than sonic wallpaper, indeed, as a subject of critical inquiry, as are the other arts, humanities, and sciences.

General tips for writing about music

  • Carefully consider the nature of the assignment: respond to the question posed; engage in the purpose set forth; choose research questions that can be addressed given the scope of the project
  • In general, mere description is not enough; attempt to connect your musical observations to interpretations. Avoid "play-by-play" commentary.
  • Make significant value judgments worth justifying. Avoid clichés such as "the piece was beautiful": instead, convey to your reader what made the piece beautiful and what sort of beauty it was.
  • Be savvy in drawing connections between a composer's presumed intentions and his or her musical compositions: how might you ascertain a composer's feelings? how might music be expressive of certain ideas?
  • Avoid frequent shifts in verb tense. In general, we write about the history of music in past tense and music itself in present (but occasionally past) tense. Aim for a flowing style.
  • Use active voice constructions: straightforward prose is stronger prose.
  • Revise, revise, revise: prepare a paper as you would prepare a recital performance.
  • Do your own work. Do not plagiarize. Cite material you use even if you paraphrased (APA for music education; Chicago/Turabin for music analysis, history, and performance).