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Music Research: Dissertation and Thesis Guidance for Topic Selection and Copyright Permissions

resources for research in music: musicology, jazz, music education, and more

Selecting a topic is the first consideration for a writer of a dissertation or thesis. This will of course be done in consultation with their major professor. The PhD, DMA, or master's student is required do original research. This might involve making new discoveries about an already well-researched topic or making discoveries about an unfamiliar topic. 

Someone might think there is nothing new to be discovered about a composer such as Bach or Beethoven, for example, but that may not be the case. An unfamiliar topic might seem safer, but that may not be the case. In considering a topic, the student should begin by doing the most thorough search they can to see what has already been done. If they find little or nothing, the topic might be promising. However, for an unfamiliar topic, sometimes so little has been done that researching it is not even feasible. However, If research has been done, even if resources are only available in distant archives in other countries, the student could pursue the topic. It is unacceptable to ignore resources in distant or difficult to access places. 

Once a topic is approved and the student starts writing, there are important matters to deal with early on. One of them is the quoting of copyrighted material. U.S. copyright law includes provisions for fair use of copyrighted material for such purposes as scholarship and research. Quotation of very brief excerpts might qualify as fair use. However, for extended examples, the student must obtain written permission from the copyright holder. Their are many websites dealing with fair use. This one from the U.S. Copyright Office is helpful:

Determining the identity of a copyright holder is not always easy. For printed music which has been published, the copyright holder is the publisher. Many large publishing houses have links on their websites for requesting permissions. For a music manuscript, the copyright holder would be the composer, but only if that composer is still alive. If not, their estate or an institution such as a research library which has custody of the manuscript might be the copyright holder. Something similar might be the case for musical examples found on websites. The copyright holder for an image found on a website would be the provider of the website. It may be helpful for a student to know that sites such as Wikimedia Commons, many high-quality images which are in the public domain. 

Whatever the case, the student should investigate and request appropriate permissions well in advance of the completion of their dissertation or thesis. Many students have waited till the last minute, only to discover that the permissions are very difficult or impossible to obtain. Without the permissions, the examples cannot be used. 

Music library personnel are available to assist PhD, DMA, and master's students who need help with any of these aspects of working on their dissertations or theses. Please send your questions to or come by the library to meet with us in person.

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