Week 7: Writing a theory paper (Su19)

Our focus for the remaining weeks of the semester will be creating your own projects and learning to write a music-academic paper. Essentially, a music theory paper is an argument paper. You are going to argue for your own interpretation of a piece/idea, and you will support your argument through musical facts.

Preparing to write your final paper

Genre: the argument paper

Consider a more straightforward argument paper as an analogy. Say I’ve decided to write an argument paper that argues that we should build a public library. That is my thesis statement, and notice that it is an opinion of mine, not a fact. To make a persuasive argument paper, though, I need to support that argument with facts. So I do research and I find facts (note: the following are not real facts) that say that 1) public libraries provide an important community gathering space for children, youths, and the elderly; 2) libraries provide internet access for people who can’t afford to pay for it, and 3) libraries can provide learning programs for free. These would be the facts that I use to support my argument that we should build a public library.

Now the musical version of that: your thesis statement will be an interpretation of the piece, such as “this song uses the fragile tonic technique to emphasize the lyrical themes of emotional vulnerability.” What musical facts would I use to support that? It’s actually implied in the thesis statement itself. I have to show factually that the tonic chord is fragile. And, I have to give examples of how the lyrics show emotional vulnerability.

What not to do

A common pitfall in writing about music is thesis statements along the lines of “This is a good song [or a popular song, or a genius song] because of this Music Theory Thing.” You may have seen lots of examples of this kind of writing in program notes or in online magazines like Slate. They  make catchy headlines and entertaining program notes, but for a scholarly argument paper, it doesn’t work—music is far too complicated to have its success or value attributed to a music-theoretical concept. This is a music theory class, so I’m asking you to focus on music theory—so to succeed, make your thesis a thesis that you can prove using music theory. You’re never going to prove something is popular because of music theory, because to really prove why something is popular, you’d need to talk about marketing, social aspects, sex appeal, cultural context, etc. (all of which are extremely valid lines of questioning, but which are nonetheless far beyond the purview of this course).

To emphasize this point, let’s go back to the hypothetical public library argument. This thesis statement is not as good as my first attempt: “The reason libraries are so successful is that they provide important gathering spaces.” This argument is far more susceptible to counterarguments: what about libraries that don’t provide gathering spaces at all? what about the other reasons that libraries might be successful, like pretty buildings, good collections, or location? etc. etc. There’s too many things for you to prove—because of this, the argument is basically doomed from the start.

I discussed issues like these in our first lesson on intertextuality. It may help you to review those concepts.

Due Wednesday, Jul 17: Worksheet

Build an argument

To get you started on your final project, I have designed a worksheet that helps you think through your project. Download this worksheet by clicking the download icon in the top-right corner and open in Microsoft Word, which will let you fill out the form easily.


Submit this worksheet to me by uploading it to Blackboard as a .pdf, like an analysis assignment.

Final project first deadline: July 21 (Week 7)

Final project information is on a separate page.

Week 5 (Jul 1): Techniques for Pop Music (Su19)

This week, we’ll discuss pop music through two lenses: tonality and lyrics. Before you begin, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with form in pop music, if you are not already comfortable with terms like “verse,” “chorus,” “bridge,” etc.

You will read about the unique problems that pop music has with tonality and reflect on harmony in pop music vs classical music. You will also learn how to analyze the structure and poetry of lyrics. This goes beyond the kinds of meaning-based lyric analyses you see on sites like Genius.com and instead analyzes the poetic structure of the lyrics. We will learn through Lori Burns’s excellent approach. Your analysis assignment will incorporate both of these issues.

Continue reading Week 5 (Jul 1): Techniques for Pop Music (Su19)