"One of the most difficult elements in writing about music is finding a vocabulary that balances the precision of technical terms with the clarity of plain language at a level appropriate for both writer and reader."
~Jane Girdham, Former Chair, Music Department
Musical communication is first of all aural: creating sounds, hearing them, and understanding them. Even so, we need words to explain the vast array of musical concepts that lead to genuine musical understanding. Writing (and talking) coherently about music is essential, as is forming a thoughtful argument about music in its wider cultural context. Writing about music is an integral part of some courses, such as music history and some music education courses; it is less so in music theory courses and practical music classes, where verbal communication is essential but writing plays a minor role.
In general education courses, writing assignments may vary from short personal responses on specific pieces of music to commentary on the structures of music, descriptions of characteristics of musical style, or short historical answers. In courses for music majors, the simplest writing assignments are descriptive, identifying particular musical styles. These require first critical thinking while listening, then translating thought into coherent written form. More complex assignments require the construction of strong written arguments to interpret, for instance, particular musical scenarios or historical trends.
Good writing involves a well constructed argument in clear, straightforward prose at an appropriate level of musical discourse. Writers should be able to present both a convincing overview of the writing assignment and accurate and precise evidence to support their main points.
There are two main types of evidence in writing about music: the music itself and secondary material about that music. The type used will depend on the assignment. The way that music is used as evidence will also depend on whether the writer is relying entirely on listening to the music or can cite specific moments in the printed score. Secondary material should generally come from academically rigorous sources.
Students must always cite their sources, whether for paraphrases, summaries, or quotations from other sources. Not to do so is plagiarism and is unacceptable. For most instructors, any consistently followed convention may be used, though in upper-level courses with an emphasis on writing, the Chicago Manual of Style is recommended as the most helpful for musical citations.
One of the most difficult elements in writing about music is finding a vocabulary that balances the precision of technical terms with the clarity of plain language at a level appropriate for both writer and reader.