Some General Thoughts on What Makes a Good Paper

The worst thing the paper can be is a play-by-play of what happened at the concert(s) you went to. These types of papers are written by people with either 1. No brain, or 2. No individual thoughts. The ideal paper mixes a large amount of personal opinion with an even larger amount of scholarly research, with both elements culminating in the defense of a thesis or argument of some sort. The concert experience (and possibly some extra listening to the pieces you heard, plus a bit of preliminary research) should touch off in you some sort of issue to take a stance on. Any stance is fair game, as long as it deals in some way with one or more pieces you heard at your concert(s).
Once you have a thesis, work out exactly what you plan on proving/disproving/exploring and do as much book, periodical, internet, listening, etc. research as you can and solidify your stance. Then let ‘er rip, and be sure to state your case in an opening paragraph, section, chapter, etc. Your case should be explored in FULL detail, leaving nothing to the imagination of the reader. These papers should be thorough!

Here’s a few of the most Frequently Asked Questions I get on the papers:

1. How long does it have to be?

Any paper with a minimum or maximum number of pages required ends up with serious problems. Why? Let me give you the 2 possible case scenarios that can occur. I have been faced with both in my long history of writing papers: Case 1: The paper must be X pages long. After hard research and thought, my final product is (.5)x(X) pages long. That’s half the required pages. What did I do? I went back and fluffed up my language. I added more unnecessary, unrequired, redundant, superfluous, unintelligible words and adjectives to make the paper longer. Worse (and I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this one), I made the margins very thin and tried to find the largest font possible to add mass that wasn’t really there. This is a waste of paper. Case 2: The paper must be X pages long. After hard research and thought, my projected final project would have been (5)x(X) pages long. That’s five times what was required of me, and who wants to put in five times the work when it’s not necessary?? Not me! So what did I do then? I wrote the required number of pages and called it quits, without making my full argument. This is equally unacceptable. In short, the paper should be as many pages as you require to say what you have to say thoroughly, yet it should be concise, directed and to the point. My favorite authors are those that can make difficult material easy to understand and leave no stone uncovered. No one told Beethoven how many pages his 5th Symphony had to be.

2. Do I have to write about all the pieces I heard at the concerts?

No. In fact, you may not incorporate any of the pieces you heard at all. Remember, the concert is just a starting point. It’s very possible that one or two of the pieces you heard at the concert will set up a conflict in your mind. Then you will have a comparative paper in the making. In general, when students tell me that their papers will encompass all of the pieces they heard, their thesis is usually too broad and needs to be narrowed.

3. I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to do. . .

I will give you a sample of how to go about creating a good thesis and research it. Let’s say I went to my concert, and one of the pieces being performed was the Violin Sonata by Maurice Ravel. Listening to the second movement of the sonata, I noticed that it sounded really jazzy. Looking at the program, I saw that the name of this movement is “Blues”. Hmmmm. . .I wonder, because I know from the program notes that the composer was French. This strikes me as strange, so I go to the library and do some research. I then find that the piece was written in 1927, and blues music was strictly a popular American musical language at that time. That is, it was rarely used in the setting Ravel places it in. Now it’s time to create a thesis. What is it about this piece that I want to prove, disprove, or examine? Here are a few ideas, all stemmed from the same preliminary research.
1. Is authenticity possible when a foreigner attempts to invoke a musical idiom from a country that is not his homeland? I would look for other examples of this happening. I would find pieces such as Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’, which uses Negro spirituals as a basis for its melodies. I would find Claude Debussy’s ‘Pagodas’, which is influenced by Japanese and Asian music. I would look at Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, which is based on a Spanish dance form. Perhaps I’d compare this to music by native Hispanic composers such as Albinez or Villa-Lobos. How do they compare?
2. What was Ravel’s relationship to non-French idioms? I found through my research that again and again Ravel is using the musical languages of other nations in his pieces. His ‘Bolero’, as stated above, is based on a Spanish dance. In his one act opera ‘L’Enfant et les Sortileges’, he even has a character do a Foxtrot while singing in Chinese! This passage can easily be taken as a parody and not a serious homage to the style he’s borrowing. I’d look for letters and essays written by Ravel himself or his friends to find out whether or not he’s being parodistic or sincere.
3. When and how did American music begin influencing foreign composers? America is one of the youngest major countries in the world, and therefore its culture is young as well. Yet, American jazz music has had a widespread effect on European composers. The story goes that Stravinsky, a Russian composer, began incorporating elements of jazz before ever hearing it performed! He went by what he knew of it from sheet music only.
In theses 2 and 3, I will end up answering my original question. In thesis 1, I will either prove or disprove my original question. See, isn’t that much more interesting that a detailed account of what happened at the concert?

4. I don’t need sources, since my paper is totally opinion.

I can guarantee you: If you’re thinking about it, someone has written about it. Papers are far better when the author is well educated on the subject. That’s pretty obvious. I can’t tell you how many papers I’ve read where the author’s final conclusion is proven totally untrue by a well known writer in the field, or the paper could have been strengthened by information in another source. Either pro or con, find out what others have to say on your topic. You wouldn’t write a book on the history of Communism without reading Marx, would you? You wouldn’t defend Sigmund Freud without finding out what his detractors have to say, right? Do the same here. Become an authority, master the material. ‘But I’m not a musician’ you say? Don’t worry. There are legions of musicologists turning out article after article on music and they couldn’t tell you where middle C on a piano is. Likewise, there are many outstanding musicians who write about music in such a way that the reader needs absolutely no knowledge of music to understand them. Work with what you have. If you’re having trouble finding sources through a keyword search, come and ask me. Also, when you find a good source, look in its bibliography for more leads (I had a student come to me and say “I can only find one source”. We looked in its bibliography and her problem was solved).

5. Can I write in First Person?

Yes. However, there is tasteful use of first person and distasteful first person as well. I have read too many papers that read like diary entries, all me-me-me and I-this-I-that. Remember, be scholarly. If you need an example of scholarly first person, good ones can be found in the writings of Glenn Gould. I draw your attention to “The Glenn Gould Reader” (library call # ML60 .G68 1984). Look at articles such as ‘Let’s Ban Applause’ (p. 245), or ‘An Argument for Richard Strauss’ (p. 84). In fact, if you’re looking for an ideal model of what your papers should be like, I recommend this entire book. His essays encompass every aspect mentioned thus far, and he’s a witty and original writer and thinker.

6. How do I cite sources?

Be sure to footnote quotes and paraphrases, and include a list of Works Cited on the last page. How does one create a Works Cited page? Simple!
• If you are citing a Book:
Last Name, First Name; Title; Publisher, Date of Publication; Pages
for example:
Sullivan, J.W.N.; Beethoven, his Spiritual Development; Vintage Books, ©1927, pp.136-140
• If you are citing the Liner Notes From a CD:
Author of Notes (if available); Works and Artists performing on CD; Record Label and Catalog # (always found on CD spine), date of copyright (on back of case)
for example:
Drabkin, William; Beethoven Symphony #3, L. Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic; Deutsche Gramaphon 431024-2, © 1980
• If you are citing a magazine or newspaper article Last Name, First Name; Title, Name of Newspaper or Magazine, Date, Pages
for example:
Kozinn, Allan; Composers, the Girls of Summergarden, New York Times, August 31,1999, C-1 (Arts Section)
• If you are citing an Internet Site:
just give the full name of the page, for example:

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