How to do Research on Music

Music Research Guide 2How to do research on music? For serious study or a research paper, thousands of reliable resources chronicle everything there is to know about music: the distinctive styles and movements, the world-famous composers, performers, and musical groups, the top-charting songs and recordings, the historical periods and major events, and more. Most of it is available at a library in print or electronic form or on the Internet. This article offers some recommended sources for music research papers.

Selected Subject Headings

Listed below is a sample of a few broad Library of Congress subject headings—made up of one word or more representing concepts under which all library holdings are divided and subdivided by subject—which you can search under and use as subject terms when searching online library catalogs for preliminary and/or additional research, such as books, audio and video recordings, and other references, related to your research paper topic. When researching materials on your topic, subject heading searching may be more productive than searching using simple keywords. However, keyword searching when using the right search method (Boolean, etc.) and combination of words can be equally effective in finding materials more closely relevant to the topic of your research paper.

Suggested Music Research Topics

  • Clarinet and Piano Music
  • Dance Music
  • Folk Music
  • Guitar Music
  • Motion Picture Music
  • Music
  • Musical Form
  • Music—Philosophy and aesthetics
  • Music Theory
  • Percussion Ensembles
  • Popular Music
  • Rap Music
  • Rock Music
  • Sonatas Piano
  • Songs (High voice)
  • Vocal Music

Selected Keyword Search Strategies and Guides

Music Research Guide 1Most online library indexes and abstracts and full-text article databases offer basic and advanced “keyword” searching of virtually every subject. In this case, combine keyword terms that best define your thesis question or topic using the Boolean search method (employing “and” or “or”) to find research most suitable to your research paper topic.

If your topic is “the negative influences of rap music,” for example, enter “negative influences” and “rap music” with “and” on the same line to locate sources directly compatible with the primary focus of your research paper. To find research on more specific aspects of your topic, from your list of keywords that you developed alternate with one new keyword at a time in between (for example, “bad language and rap music,” “culture and rap music,” “criticism and rap music,” “evolution and rap music,” “styles and rap music,” etc.).

For additional help with keyword searching, navigation or user guides for online indexes and databases by many leading providers—including Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, EBSCO, H.W. Wilson, OCLC, Ovid Technologies, ProQuest, and Thomson Gale—are posted with direct links on library Web sites to guides providing specific instruction to using whichever database you want to search. They provide additional guidance on how to customize and maximize your searching, including advanced searching techniques and grouping of words and phrases using the Boolean search method—of your topic, of bibliographic records, and of full-text articles, and other documents related to the subject of your research paper.

Selected Source and Subject Guides

As part of your preliminary research to find appropriate resources for your topic, information source and research guides are available at most public and academic libraries and are keyword searchable through your library’s online catalog (to search and locate guides, enter your “subject” followed by these keywords one search at a time: “information sources,” “reference sources,” and “research guide”). Printed guides available for this subject area include

Information Sources in Music, edited by Lewis Foreman, 444 pages (Munich, Germany: K. G. Saur, 2003)

Music: A Guide to Reference Literature, by William S. Brockman, 254 pages (Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1987)

Music Reference and Research Materials: An Annotated Bibliography, 4th ed., by Vincent H. Duckles and Michael A. Keller (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993)

In addition to these sources of research, most college and university libraries offer online subject guides arranged by subject on the library’s Web page; others also list searchable course-related “LibGuides” by subject. Each guide lists more recommended published and Web sources—including books and references, journal, newspaper and magazines indexes, full-text article databases, Web sites, and even research tutorials—that you can access to expand your research on more specific issues and relevant to your research paper topic.

Selected Books and References

Biographical Dictionaries

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 9th ed., edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, 6 vols., 4,220 pages (New York: Schirmer Books, 2001)

Music’s most comprehensive biographical dictionary ever written, this extensively updated and expanded, six-volume edition contains more than 15,000 brief biographies of composers, musicians, and performers from every genre, including more than 3,000 new additions contributed by editors and leading specialists. Famed music writer Theodore Baker originally wrote this popular reference in 1900, followed by esteemed musicologist and editor Nicolas Slonimsky—from the fifth through eighth editions—who died in 1995.

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians since 1990, 2 vols. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2003)

Chronicles more than 550 personalities in rock, pop, hip-hop, blues, electronica, musical theater, soundtrack, classical, country, R&B, jazz, folk, Latin, and world music. Includes selective discography, bibliography, and Web sites.

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians, edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, Laura Kuhn, and Dennis McIntire, 1,595 pages (New York: Schirmer, 1997)

An important single-volume reference work, this solidly written and researched tome, edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, follows the same format as Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians but profiles the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music, 68 vols. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2010)

With 68 volumes and counting, this cumulative reference series thoroughly profi les more than 4,500 important musicians from all genres of music—blues, classical, country, folk, gospel, jazz, New Age, rap, rock, and more. A cumulative index accompanies the set. Series is available in an e-book version.

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd ed., edited by Colin Larkin, 8 vols. (New York: Grove, 1998).

Praised by The London Times as “absolutely invaluable . . . a work of almost frightening completeness,” this eight-volume reference, compiled by music expert Colin Larkin, is regarded as the most authoritative volume ever produced covering rock, pop, and jazz artists. Featured from cover to cover are expertly written biographies of more than 14,000 artists. Each entry includes vital information of interest to music scholars, music lovers, and researchers—critical discographies, record titles and release dates, key dates, and assessments of each artist’s contributions. Also provided is an extensive index of song titles for easy reference. The series has since been updated in a fi fth concise edition by London’s Omnibus Press.

Popular Musicians, edited by Steve Hochman, 4 vols., 1,253 pages (Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1999)

Nicely organized and well-written four-volume set featuring more than 500 alphabetically arranged biographies on a wide range of contemporary artists from the fi elds of country, blues, disco, rock, folk, hip-hop, and more. Profi les discuss each artist’s musical style, debut album, band members, and awards, complete with discography. Also includes a bibliography, index of album and song titles, and a glossary of terms.

Dictionaries and Thesauri

Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 5th ed., edited by Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne, 864 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Derived from the Oxford Dictionary of Music, this outstanding, fully updated reference—perhaps the most authoritative dictionary of its kind—features more than 14,000 comprehensive entries covering musical terms, works, composers, librettists, musicians, singers, and orchestras. Areas of interest include a list of works for major composers, histories of musical instruments, and coverage of living composers and performers.

The Great Song Thesaurus, 2nd ed., by Roger Lax and Frederick Smith, 774 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

First published in 1984, this revised second edition offers immediate access to information on more than 11,000 American and English songs, alphabetically arranged. Divided into 10 sections, entries list the composer, lyricist, year of popularity, and recording artists for each song. Includes a song lyric line index to each featured song.

International Dictionary of Black Composers, edited by Samuel A. Floyd, 2 vols., 2,000 pages (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999)

This indispensable single-subject dictionary features 185 authored essays, including analysis and full-page portraits, of famous black composers from the last 300 years. Entries offer a diverse range of information, including complete discographies and lists of compositions (by genre) and print works.

The New Grove American Dictionary of Music, 4th ed., edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, 4 vols., 2,736 pages (New York: Grove, 1986–1992; 2002)

Focusing on American music, this dictionary contains a wide range of articles on such items as American composers, groups, ensembles, prominent U.S. cities, popular styles, genres, and uniquely American instruments.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., edited by Stanley Sadie, 29 vols., 25,000 pages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

With more than 29,000 entries, this thoroughly updated 29-volume set with index offers comprehensive coverage of world and popular music, packed with information on 20th-century artists, composers, musical history, and much more.

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th ed., edited by Don Michael Randel, 1,008 pages (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003)

This scholarly, single-volume reference features more than 6,000 accurate and concise articles on music of the 20th century. Included are discussions of all styles and forms of music—from jazz to rock—and musical instruments written by more than 70 experts in each field. More than 220 drawings and 250 musical examples complement the text.


The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, edited by Bruno Nettl and Ruth M. Stone, 9 vols. (New York: Garland, 1997–1978.)

This ambitious reference series fully examines the cultural appeal of music around the world by topic, by region, and by ethnic group. Each entry gives the same detailed treatment of its subjects, with discussion of the social aspects of music and the different musical traditions of ethnic groups or countries. Included with each volume are CDs of previously unrecorded music, reference lists of bibliographic sources, and resource guides. In 2008, Routledge Press published a revised two-volume set, The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of Music.

Selected Full-Text Article Databases

Academic Search Premier (Ipswich, Mass.: EBSCO Publishing, EBSCOHost, indexing/abstracting: 1984– , full text, 1992– )

Provides full-text access to more than 2,340 scholarly publications covering all areas of academic study. Enables keyword searching of words within the titles of articles, subject headings, author names, and abstracts. Popular journals covered include American Music (1993– ), Black Music Research Journal (2002– ), and Perspectives of New Music (1993).

Billboard (New York: Billboard Music Group, 1896– )

This online database contains the entire text since 1963 of this leading weekly music publication covering all aspects of the music and home entertainment industries, including the latest news, record sales, music videos, products, and personnel changes; available through Billboard Music Group, ESBCO Publishing’s Academic Search Premier (January 8, 1994– ), International Index to Music Periodicals Full Text (January 27, 1996– ), Lexis Nexis Academic (January 5, 1991– ), ProQuest DataTimes (March 1991– ), Thomson Gale’s Business & Company Resource Center (January 1, 1991– ), and Contemporary Women’s Issues (1996–2000), among others, and updated weekly. Full-image reproductions of back issues from the first issue in 1896 (renamed Billboard Advertising after it went monthly) are accessible on microform; articles can be cross-searched using the print edition of the Billboard Index.

Expanded Academic Index ASAP (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale InfoTrac, 1980– )

Offers indexing, abstracts, and full text of many scholarly journals embracing all disciplines, including such music journals as Dance Magazine, Down Beat, Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, and Opera News.

General Reference Center (Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale InfoTrac, 1980– )

Indexes popular and general magazines, reference books, and newspapers with information on current events, popular culture, the arts and sciences, sports and more, with full text access. Magazines referenced include Down Beat (1980– ) and Rolling Stone (1980– ).

JSTOR (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Journal Storage Project, 1996– )

Consists of more than 730,000 full-text scholarly journal articles. ProjectMUSE (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990– ) Offers worldwide subscription access to the full text of more than 100 scholarly journals in the arts, humanities, and more, including literature and criticism, histories, and studies of the visual and performing arts.

Selected Periodicals

American Music: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to All Aspects of American Music (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Society for American Music/Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1983– , quarterly)

Published quarterly by the Society for American Music and the University of Illinois Press, this journal covers all aspects of American music and music in the United States. Each issue contains scholarly reviews of books, music, recordings, and other media. Tables of contents of current and past issues, from 1983 to the present, can be found under the heading “Publications” at the society’s Web site (

American Record Guide (Washington, D.C.: Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation; Cincinnati, Ohio: Record Guide Productions, May 1935– , bimonthly)

Established in 1935, American Record Guide is the oldest record review magazine of classical music and music in concert. Each issue features more 500 reviews, written by more than 80 freelance writers and independent critics, and overviews surveying the recordings of various composers.

Down Beat (Elmhurst, Ill.: Maher Publications, July 1934– , monthly)

This popular magazine contains everything of interest to contemporary musicians and educators, including news, articles, how-to features, interviews, and reviews. Content of current issues and an archive of previously published issues are searchable and retrievable online at the publication’s Web site:

Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors (Tenafl y, N.J.: J. Flegler, September 1977– , bimonthly)

Launched in September 1977 by publisher Joel Flegler, this bimonthly magazine is for serious aficionados of classical music. Each issue features reviews of classical recordings, industry articles, and profiles and interviews with artists and composers. Current reviews and the table of contents of the most recent issue are accessible online at

Goldmine (St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Arena Magazine Co., 1974–85; Iola, Wisc.: Krause Publications, 1985– , biweekly)

First published in 1974, Goldmine focuses on collecting and the history of modern music in all genres—alternative, big band, blues, classical, country, folk, rock, and more. Published biweekly, each issue is packed with the latest collecting news, discographies, histories, interviews, reviews, and calendar of upcoming events. Subscribers have complete online access to the content of current issues and archived material.

Metal Hammer (TeamRock, Axel Springer AG, United Kingdom, 1986 -, monthly)

Metal Hammer (sometimes MetalHammer) is a monthly heavy metal music magazine published in the United Kingdom by TeamRock, and in several other countries by different publishers.  Metal Hammer articles feature both mainstream bands and more unusual acts from the whole spectrum of heavy metal music. Web site:

Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934– , quarterly)

Intended for music librarians, this quarterly journal, published since 1934, offers well-written, scholarly articles covering all areas of music librarianship but also various subject areas useful to student researchers, including book reviews, bibliographies, discographies, music histories, and reviews of sound recordings and digital media. Content of past journals is covered in JSTOR from 1934 through 1998, and other educational library databases, including Expanded Academic ASAP.

Rolling Stone (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Publishers, 1967– , monthly)

Rising to fame in the late 1960s and 1970s, this popular monthly magazine, founded in San Francisco in 1967 by Jann Wenner and music critic Ralph J. Gleason, features timely and topical articles on current events, music, and the music industry, including interviews and music reviews.

Selected Web Sites

All-Music Guide (

This definitive source offers keyword searching of information about artists, albums, songs, styles, and record labels, and subsections on every music genre with overviews by decade.

American Memory Project: Performing Arts (

Online collection of the Library of Congress featuring various memorabilia and music collections, such as sheet music, folk music recordings, jazz photography, and the Leonard Bernstein collection.

Billboard (

Published weekly in print and online, this premier music periodical is an excellent source of information on trends and changes in music, including new releases, musical artists, popular music charts, such as Billboard’s “Hot 100” and “Billboard 200,” and more.

Grovemusic (

By subscription, full-text access to Grove’s and Oxford’s library of highly acclaimed music dictionaries and encyclopedias, with advanced searching of subjects. Integrates the entire contents of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Source material includes authoritative articles, biographies, and background information covering all aspects of music.

Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators (

Principally designed to enhance curriculum and professional growth of educators, this directory of online guides, a part of the online Discovery Channel School, offers a categorized list of many useful Web sites on a variety of subjects, including performing arts and music.

Librarians’ Index to the Internet: Music Topics (

General resource list covering music topics from A to Z.

Open Directory Project: Arts: Music (

This extensive collection of music Web sites compiled and organized by category includes sites on bands and artists, instruments, people, regions, and styles of music.

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