Monday, November 30, 2015

A Quick Guide to Analyze Written Sources

The most essential skill honed in academia is the analysis of written works. In the history of the written word, human beings have demonstrated a tendency to see truth in those works whose authors they agree while dismissing the arguments of challengers. Often it is the works of ancient writers to whose authority we appeal. Many of us fall prey to the mistaken belief that given two sources, the older one must necessarily be more accurate. In certain research contexts this is helpful, for example:
If we want to know what a first century Roman citizen likely thought about the German people, we would probably start with Tacitus first century account, depicting them as primitive, drunken, lazy and barbaric though with a few noble qualities to be admired.
Up through the end of the 19th century and beginning of the early 20th century this once accepted view is where historical research stalled.  But,
If we want to know what those same German people were actually like,  inquiry demands that we challenge and examine the authority of Tacitus (as we would any other writer) and take him to task on his own use of sources material; his biases as a Roman writing about another culture for which he has no first hand knowledge and a culture(s) whose territory borders an ever expanding Roman Empire.(perhaps his view was informed by the limited experience of soldiers involved in skirmishes and thus his depiction emphasizes traits of the warrior rather than a fully nuanced society?) Thus we would need to widen our field to include a critical evaluation of recent discoveries of archaeological research, other written accounts, and various other methods available. 
It is this second example which reminds us as readers to remain vigilant as we embark on our quest for knowledge.  With the world full of bargain books on history, education, philosophy, talk radio, media depictions, and bloggers (ironic, eh?) we cannot afford to take any source at face value.  All must be met with critical examination.  

As your bibliography accounts for 50% of the grade of your Final research paper, and must be submitted prior to your rough draft, I am presenting below a handout developed by Professor James Hepokoski, Chair of the Music Department at Yale University to aid you in your research.


  1. Research the author and determine his/her expertise in the field.
  2. What basic question(s) is (are) the author attempting to answer?  Is this (according to the author) a sufficiently worthy problem? Has the author articulated this question within the article or is it merely implicit?
  3. Is the author’s answer to this question (i.e., the central argument) implicit or explicit?
  4. With what types of evidence does the author buttress his or her claims?
  5. Is the author relying principally on primary sources? If not, how much of the work relies on secondary sources? Has the author represented accurately his/her reliance on these secondary sources?
  6. Has the author omitted relevant evidence that might contradict his or her argument?
  7. Does the evidence (presented) lead inevitably to the author’s conclusions?
  8. For what audience has the author written the article? What terms, analytical concepts, historiographical orientation, or musical repertories must the reader know in order to fully understand the article?
  9. Is the author’s treatment overly complex or overly simplistic?

Writing Style and Organization:
  1. Are the opening paragraphs sufficiently intriguing to make you want to read further? How well do they articulate the central argument and establish the author’s authority?
  2. Does the article follow a logical path, leading inevitably to the author’s conclusions? Try to separate those sections of the article which bear directly on the author’s thesis form those which, while engaging and informative, form a momentary digression. Does this rhetorical strategy work in this instance? Similarly, evaluate the organization of the article’s sentences, paragraphs, and sub-sections.
  3. Can you locate any particularly well-written or poorly-written sentences? What makes them stand out?
  4. How has the author concluded the article? Do the closing paragraphs summarize the article’s central point? Do they broaden the question to hint at a larger context? Does the author end with a rhetorical flourish?


  1. Has the author explicitly or implicitly aligned him/herself with any of the methodological prescriptions that have emerged in musicology over the past fifteen years? If so, how closely is this methodology followed? Is it acknowledged?
  2. Does the author rely on methodologies from other disciplines? Again, are these approaches explicit or implicit? Does the author question aspects of these methods? If any terms concerning these methods are new to you, look them up and make sure that you understand both the methodology and its implications.
  3. In articles which are theoretical in nature, does the theory grow out of the problem at hand, or is the problem itself subjected to a pre-existent theory?
  4. How reliant is the author on authority?
  5. Does the author look at music in its context(s), contexts in music, or some combination?
  6. Do the article’s conclusions result form musical analysis? What analytical methods has the author employed? Are these successful?
One final thought, for a refresher on the the distinction between Primary and Secondary sources, I encourage you to review the following video:


  1. My first example presents a cultural bias which has long served to justify a belief in a dominant European (namely Roman) culture as a superior civilized society over an apparently primitive one. This common attitude persisted (or persists) even in recent times. We see it reflected in movies, television, novels and textbooks,where representations of non-European cultures are deemed "less civilized."
    With the spirit of inquiry however, the analytical mind does not allow the first example to go unchallenged.

  2. The tendency to see truth in those works whose authors they agree while dismissing the arguments of challengers is also a failing of Google searches as well as marketing based upon search habits. How does one hope to learn anything new / discover a contrary position if the first searches are stacked?