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Music History Research Guide

basics of research for music history

finding scholarly articles

Music researchers used to find scholarly articles by searching for citations in print indexes such as Music Index  and RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. Using relevant citations, they then searched the shelves for the sources they needed, such as print journals or books of essays. 

Music researches can now use the electronic versions of Music Index and RILM, to which we buy subscriptions, for the same purpose. The crucial difference is that now these databases link to full text of many of the articles. It is very important to note, however, that not every resource which has been cited is available electronically. In such cases, researchers still need to look for print volumes on the shelves.

We still have the print runs of Music Index and RILM in our music reference area. This is especially important for Music Index, for although it began publication in 1949, its electronic database only goes back to 1970. RILM, which began in 1967has its entire database online. 

how to identify scholarly articles

When professors assign term papers or similar research projects, they typically require their students to document their work by citing scholarly articles from reputable publications. Although researchers can set article databases to limit results to peer-reviewed, scholarly material, they still need to know how to identify scholarly articles for themselves without depending on these limits. One reason is that the limits do not always function effectively. Another is that a reader may not be accessing an article via an article database.

What constitutes a scholarly article? One easy-to-spot feature is that it will provide footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations to indicate precisely where statements or ideas not original to the author originated. This is perhaps the most important criterion of all. Usually but not always, a scholarly article will also have a bibliography that lists all of the relevant sources the author noted and consulted. 

Another important feature which professors often insist upon is that it come from a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review indicates that the articles in the journal have been evaluated by the authors' peers in the journal's field of study. 

There are several methods of peer review. One involves an editorial board. A scholarly journal's editorial board is typically comprised of experts in the journal's field of study. When an author submits an article for possible publication, members of that board will evaluate it. They will not know who the author is. Although the author may know who is on the board if the journal has publicized that information, they will not know which members evaluated their submission. The reviewers will then make recommendations to accept the article as is, reject it, or accept it subject to revision.

Another method is called single-blind peer review. A journal using it sends an article for review to an outside expert in the field in question. The expert knows who the author is, but the author does not know who the reviewer is. The reviewer will then make recommendations.

Another method is called double-blind peer review. A journal using it sends an article to an outside expert for review. The expert does not know who the author is, and the author does not know who the reviewer is. 

Whichever method is used, once a peer-reviewed article is published, the reader can be reasonably sure that it has met professional standards of quality control. Of course this does not mean that excellent scholarly articles are only found in peer-reviewed journals. However, the peer-review process weeds out much poor-quality material.

how to identify scholarly editions of music

Professors teaching applied music lessons frequently send students to the library to find "Urtext" editions of the pieces of music they assign. "Scholarly edition" might be a more appropriate term. "Urtext" is a loan word from German that is often misunderstood. Essentially it indicates an edition that comes as close as possible to the original text of a work. For the field of music, this means that it comes as close as possible to the composer's original score. The best source for preparing such an edition would of course be the composer's manuscript, which would be the primary source. If the manuscript no longer exists, an early printed edition might serve as a primary source.

Spotting such a scholarly edition is similar to spotting a scholarly article. A scholarly edition will include a critical report. In this report, its editors provide footnotes or endnotes explaining why they made certain editorial decisions in passages that may be controversial or subject to varying interpretations. These notes show the editors' good faith in trying to replicate the composer's intentions as best they can. 

Certain music publishers have earned high reputations for providing carefully-researched scholarly editions prepared by world-class scholars. Some of these publishers are responsible for the sets of collected works that offer particularly excellent editions of virtually everything certain composers ever wrote. Just seeing such a publisher's name on the title page of a score makes it likely that a high-quality scholarly edition is within.

On the other hand, certain publishers have earned poor reputations for failing to apply high standards to their editions. Seeing their names on title pages should make students wary of using them for their university lessons.

Music history students often need to find scholarly editions for their research projects. They too need to be adept at identifying them. This will sometimes involve comparing different editors' interpretations of the same work. Such studies can be helpful in teaching these students how to make scholarly editions of their own. 

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