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The Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna decided to give Avior Byron the Avenir Foundation Research Grant for a one month research trip in Vienna in order to work on two books that he is writing.  

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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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How to write good texts about music

I wrote yesterday about a sad telephone call that I received from Prof. Dalia Cohen. She attacked me for “thinking that there is only one way of how to write on music”. I told her that this is not true, and I pointed out several authors, such as Ethan Haimo, who cannot be considered part of “new” musicology, and who are, I believe, distinguished scholars.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz once wrote that whatever one will write, and no matter how much one will be careful, you cannot avoid sometimes being misunderstood.

In this post I will state my thoughts concerning what makes an author a good writer about music. I will immediately note that it is not whether he or she belong to this or that camp. Anyone who will bother reading the conclusion of my PhD or the last part of my article draft on Schoenberg’s Op. 33a will see that I criticize, not only “old” musicology, but also some of the basic assumptions of “new” musicology (it is funny to read in this wikipedia link that “Many of the scholarly concerns that used to be associated with New Musicology have now become mainstream.” What does this make of much of the Isareli musicology?). So lets move on to the points that might help you write good texts about music:

Read all about it
Good scholars need to give much time to reading all that was written about the issues and problems that they are dealing with. Look at the end of books to see what bibliographical items the author is refereeing to. Perhaps something is also relevant to you? You could consider using my general research links to accesses the biggest libraries and search sites such as “Google scholar” and “Google books”.

Distinguish levels of scholarship
Not everything that was written about these issues will be interesting or noteworthy in your article. It is important to demonstrate that you did the reading (especially if you are a PhD student). However, quote only what is helpful for building your own argument.

When you get to know the literature in one field you will start knowing the names of some of the most important scholars. They usually receive most of the quotations in the field. This will be helpful in the future in order to decide what literature you would prefer to scan though (due to limitations of time) and what literature you will read very carefully, perhaps even several times.

Many scholars have tendency to complicate things. I believe that one should try to write in a clear and accessible manner. There are trends in scholarly writing that aim to write a complicated an inaccessible text. I think that one should find a balance between writing in a way that the general public will be able to read, and writing in an artistic way. When I write, I always ask myself, can I write this in a clearer way without compromising my argument? Compare the two books John Rink edited on performance (The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation and Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding) and you will see how the second one is much more accessible, yet not less authoritative from the scholarly point of view.

It is important to write a clear introduction and conclusion to your text. When you start a new section, consider adding “sign posts” before it: something like “Now we will move on to discuss the ….”. This is helpful in orientating your readers. When you write, always think about your readers – have mercy (the Aramaic word ‘mercy’ is equivalent to the world ‘love’ in Hebrew’). Love your readers.

Doubt accepted truths
When you examine the arguments of others, read them slowly. Doubt accepted truths. See if there is another way to look at things. Try to find “wholes” in the works of others; see if there are perspectives where these arguments do not stand scrutiny. This is one of the most important things in order to be critical.

It is also important not to be too critical. Even if you find some problems in the writings of others, there probably is some truth in them and this should be respected.

Be critical to your own assumptions

It is always easier to be critical to others than to yourself. Every person has defense mechanisms that can be an obstacle in the way of self criticism. One of the ways to do so is to imagine what another scholar or friend would say about what you have written. Another way is to leave your writings for sometime (a weeks, or even several months) and return to them thereafter. This way you become slightly detached from what you have written, your defense mechanisms are less defensive and you are able to refine your arguments.

Imagine possible attacks
When my supervisor, Prof. John Rink, prepared me to my viva (a preparation that started several years before the event), he encouraged me to imagine possible attacks and arguments against what I claim. The philosopher Gadamer wrote about his teacher Heidegger that he would listen to his student and say “yes, you are right”, but after a moment he would add something like “but perhaps it could be seen from different perspective, how about…”, and he would raise objections to the student’s argument. Show your work to others. If you are writing a PhD, try to publish some of the chapters as articles in peer-reviewed journals. This way you will receive, free of charge, the criticism of experienced scholars.

Publish makes perfect
Do not publish rubbish. Yet, write with the intention to publish your work (I owe Zohar Eitan much for this tip, which he gave me before I moved to England to start my postgraduate studies). I published four articles during my PhD studies and I found it very useful when I had to defend my work in the viva. The process of publishing your work is not easy; however, it makes you rethink again and again your arguments and style of writing.

Examine new research methods
Scholars who are serious will examine various research methods and use several ones in different circumstances. Why be faithful to a single school or method when others can be more useful for your aims?

Support your arguments with solid evidence
Try to find as much quality evidence as you can to support your arguments. Read though many documents and books. Spend much time in archives and libraries. Go for long walks in the woods (preferable where Beethoven and Schoenberg walked – there are great woods in Mödling), and think hard what could sustain your claims.

Gideon Levinson once told me that he doesn’t like that I use the metaphor of a “court of justice” in order to describe what a student should imagine when he writes. It would be romantic to imagine that a writer should only express his or her inner impulses without considering what others will say. This is perhaps something that composers can do (and I doubt that this can happen in serious places). I believe that one must imagine that what one writes will have to stand a close examination of others. Just as people must defend their claims in court by bringing evidence, so scholars must try to be convincing as possible by gathering evidence, presenting it in a clear manner and quoting writers and sources who have great authority.

Think big
A good text on music should relate to issues that transcend the particular music in discussion. One should have a feeling the greater issues are at stake. Why speak about a particular music? How does it relate to other music? How does it relate to philosophical problems that trouble man since history began.

It is all about significance
Why are you writing your text? Who cares? Is it at all important? Your readers will scan through your abstract and perhaps also the first paragraph. Make sure that you state the significance of your research at an early stage. You readers will ask: what is in it for me? Give them an answer!

Did I forget anything? Do you have other points that you think can be helpful for “How to write good texts about music”? Don’t agree with what I wrote here? Feel free to comment.

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