Thursday, June 13, 2019

Practical and Engaging Alternatives to the Music History Research Paper

By Esther M. Morgan-Ellis and Kristen Strandberg

When Erinn E. Knyt wrote about alternatives to the traditional research paper in her 2013 article for the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, she observed that she was “certainly not the first to address problems surrounding the final research paper assignment in music history classrooms.” Half a decade later, the present authors aim to continue this discussion, the relevance of which has not diminished with the passing of time. Music history instructors continue to value writing and research, and we are relentless in our efforts to cultivate these skills in our students.

The “problems surrounding the final research paper assignment,” as Knyt put it, have been well documented. Instructors report that students don’t possess the necessary research skills, are not prepared to engage critically with the material, do not understand the objectives, are not interested in their topics, don’t perceive value in the assignment, become overwhelmed by the scope of the project, or simply procrastinate. At the same time, few instructors are willing to abandon such assignments. In his 2011-2012 study of college music history classes, Matthew Baumer found that instructors placed a high value on skills associated with “the final research paper assignment.” These included the ability to find and evaluate sources, to construct a compelling thesis, and to write a substantial and well-documented research paper.

Some of the problems surrounding the research paper can be addressed by providing students with the guidance that they require and by clearly communicating the purpose of the assignment. It’s usually worth taking class time to demonstrate how to use online and on-site library resources, or how to cite properly. When class size and teaching loads make it possible, instructors can cultivate good writing and thinking with in-depth personalized feedback. Some students might also benefit from in-class guided writing time, incremental deadlines, or detailed rubrics. Even in larger classes, many of the assignments below aim to build similar skills. Finally, it falls on the instructor to explain why the labor is worthwhile and convince students that their efforts will pay off.

However, many of us have found that alternative research and writing assignments inspire students to do better work. This may be because these projects provide a break from the norm, or it may be because students perceive certain alternative assignments as being more relevant to their career goals, skill sets, or desired learning outcomes. Following our own interest in building real-world skills through accessible and engaging writing assignments, we solicited further ideas from other pedagogues. Below you’ll find a collection of assignment descriptions. Upon testing in the classroom, the authors have observed that these assignments were popular with students and resulted in the submission of high-quality work.

These project ideas each satisfy at least one major goal of the traditional research paper assignment. Many of them emphasize the “research” element, but require that students go beyond the review of secondary literature and actually contribute to the body of scholarly knowledge. Others--such as the Grant Proposal, Program Notes, or Encyclopedia Entry--emphasize the “paper” element, but lead students to develop writing skills that will be immediately relevant to their careers as performers and educators. Finally, some of these projects transcend traditional media and ask students to convey knowledge through channels other than the printed word.

All of these projects give serious consideration to the question of audience. Engagement with an “authentic audience” is central to the practice of social pedagogies, which lead students to write for each other, the public, or other scholars--not for their instructor. Students who engage in this process are more likely to see their coursework as relevant, better equipped to perceive the limitations of knowledge, and quicker to make connections between disparate courses, ideas, and problems. Social pedagogies will be directly addressed in several of the project descriptions that follow. Many of these assignments also culminate in publication or presentation. When students know that their work will be preserved, disseminated, and consumed, the task of writing for a music history class becomes more than an academic exercise. In addition, these approaches often produce better quality writing. Rather than attempting to produce an essay using what they perceive as academic language, students write clearly and directly for a specific audience.

Interview-Based Research Project

Students can conduct original research by interviewing creators of the art that they study. These might be composers, songwriters, performers, producers, or other individuals who can provide unique insight. The interview should not be a stand-alone product, but rather a source in support of an argument or analysis that also draws upon secondary research. Such interviews usually constitute single-subject studies and therefore do not require Institutional Review Board approval—a tedious process that is probably not appropriate in most courses.

My Music History III (1900-present) students interview composers and engage with their music. By doing so, they move beyond the canon and learn about the working and creative lives of professionals in their field. I have described this project here and examined its effectiveness here. My students either present their work at a conference or write for publication in an undergraduate research journal. A number of my students have had excellent experiences presenting at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, for which our institution makes travel funds available on a competitive basis. I have also worked with one of my colleagues to organize the annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference, which brings scholars and composers to campus to present work alongside some of my students. While facilitating a conference is a lot of work, students report that participating in this event has a transformative impact on their perceptions of contemporary music, academic work, and their own potential as scholars. We invite undergraduate submissions from other institutions.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Research Blogs

If blogging is a helpful way for scholars to work through issues in their research, so too should it prove helpful for scholars-in-training. In this assignment, students contribute a hefty number of posts (6-10) to a coursewide website, with each post serving as a kind of “show-and-tell” for a particular primary source. The website can be public, leveraging social pedagogies, or it can be private; either way, students are responsible for reading and synthesizing each other’s posts in brief, in-class presentations (called “round-ups” - h/t Hannah Lewis). The instructor specifies a different primary source collection to serve as the students’ “archive” for the week, with each collection corresponding in some way to one of the course topics covered in that week. Since blogging is low-stakes and iterative, it serves well as practice for a higher-stakes final product such as a traditional research paper or, in the spirit of alternatives to papers, a campus-wide exhibit featuring the primary sources that students uncovered through their work. This assignment works best in smaller, upper-level undergraduate courses or in graduate courses.

With various parts of this assignment “public” (whether with respect to the class or the wider community), students have multiple opportunities to experiment with writing and presenting for an audience beyond their professor, which has been shown to increase student engagement and motivation. And students who later seek fellowships or admission to graduate school or jobs will be able to show evidence of their intellectual and practical skills through either their public post or their part of the library exhibit. (I have started linking to particularly excellent student blog posts in my letters of recommendation.) Best of all, in the case of a public exhibit, students can experience the gratification that comes when we conduct humanistic research for the purposes of informing public discourse and educating a broader audience (#publicmusicologyFTW).

Louis Epstein

Grant Proposal

For this assignment, students propose a concert series, music festival, or other musical activity for the local public, backing up their ideas with what they have learned throughout the semester. The proposal consists of: 1) Overview, 2) Budget, 3) Rationale/value (the “meat” of the proposal, in which they need to justify their project with supporting evidence from external sources and their own studies), and 4) Marketing Plan. The grant proposal can be assigned as a group project or an individual project. In the case of group work, students split up the actual writing of each segment, although all group members should actively participate in planning every component. Depending on the topic and purpose of the grant proposal, this project may be less historically-driven and may engage less with existing scholarship than other assignments, although there is flexibility and potential for shifting the assignment parameters to fit your course’s objectives.

I assigned the grant proposal as a group project in the senior seminar for music majors. The major challenge of this course at my institution is that it also must fulfill our students’ world music requirement. Yet, I have found ways to emphasize connections between global versus local music, and music of the past versus present, so that the course functions as a culmination of their college experience. In this course, students designed a community musical event or series based on one of the themes in Kay Kaufman Shelemey’s book, Soundscapes, such as “Music and Migration,” “Music and Politics,” or “Music and Ritual.” Students expressed their appreciation for this project and felt that it was directly useful to them in their future careers. I brought in a marketing professor, as well as my campus’s grant-writing expert, to discuss portions of the project, which was very useful to all of us. The project resulted in clear, direct, and persuasive writing, and the students were extremely invested in their fictitious plans—one group even made t-shirts advertising their planned event, which they wore during their presentation to the class.

Kristen Strandberg

Program Notes

Have your students put their knowledge and research skills to work by writing program notes. These can be notes to accompany an actual performance by a school ensemble or student soloist, or they can suit a themed program put together by the author. Many musicologists do not seem to be fond of program notes, but they are a reality of professional life and many music majors will be called upon to produce them in the future. Help your students to do the job well! Encourage them to take an opinionated yet scholarly approach to the subject matter, and guide them in putting their research skills to use. Consider requiring citations, even though doing so is not common practice in the field.

This assignment, in combination with a grant-writing project similar to that described above, forms the foundation of a semester-long sequence in which my students plan a concert, complete an application for funding, and create a physical program, complete with a cover, list of works, and statement of artistic intent. I require that most of the works come from the time period under study, and I set a high bar for program cohesiveness and creativity. I adapt questions from a real grant application used by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and require that my students include a well-researched budget. While my students work individually, this project could also be completed by teams. One of my objectives is to encourage the future performers and educators in my class to program interesting concerts and consider how they might go about engaging audiences. The best projects are creative and meaningful, such as a recent program intended to demonstrate the value of music education and boost support for public school music programs. By the conclusion of the semester, students have put into practice a wide variety of professional skills.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Annotated Playlist

In my women musicians course the final project is an annotated playlist that asks students to take seriously the work of their chosen musician by devoting time, thought, and effort to describing that artist’s musical materials, performances, and intentions. The course is a mix of music majors (often freshmen and sophomores who haven’t yet taken the music history survey) and non-majors representing a wide range of fields and undergraduate stages. The playlist is designed to introduce an artist chosen by the student from any time, place, or genre to a music-loving audience who may not be familiar with that artist’s work. Students write liner notes in which they frame basic biographical and historical information about their musician with ideas from secondary literature, materials from the course, personal experience, and/or reception history. The bulk of the assignment is the playlist itself. Students select five tracks on the basis of historical importance; representation of or departure from the musician’s style; personal connection to the piece; striking, beautiful, or otherwise compelling sounds; illustration of course concepts or concepts from the liner notes; or comparison with other versions of the song. Students annotate each track with a musical description that develops an interpretation of the piece. The assignment is also scaffolded throughout the semester; students write multiple drafts of project components and engage in peer reviews, and they also design a final presentation in which they present on one selection from the playlist in its entirety.

Students not only practice vocabulary of musical description but also deploy it as a means of expressing musical meanings, a notoriously challenging skill for music majors and non-majors alike. Non-majors in the course--even those who are accomplished musicians--often express a learning bottleneck of “not knowing the right words” to describe what they hear in a piece of music, and they have historically found the assignment initially daunting. As the semester progresses, they are excited to discover that they have always been capable of putting their musical experiences into words. The assignment helps them practice vocabulary, but more significantly, students give themselves permission to put forth their own interpretations and ideas about musical sounds. For music majors who will write a research paper in more advanced undergraduate courses, this assignment introduces them to basic music research, writing, and bibliography skills, and, just as importantly, it empowers them to listen outside the canon as they develop recitals, projects, and other research writing throughout their musical careers.

Katherine Altizer

Student-Developed Pedagogical Materials

One way to reap the benefits of social pedagogies without opening your students’ work to the general public is to ask students to generate teaching materials for future students. (I exhort my students to “Think of the children!” and it seems to motivate them to do better work.)  Along the same lines as the video assignment described below, I’ve asked my students to create screencasts on particular pieces with the intention that the screencasts replace or supplement my lectures in future iterations of the class. I call the assignment “Best Lecture Ever!” and it requires carefully structured group work, research, iterative writing, and the acquisition of video editing skills. A less intensive version with the same teach-it-forward idea is to have students create digital, media-rich timelines or narrative maps using free online tools. Again, they have to do traditional research, but the format of the final product tends to be more engaging (although instructors should caution against gratuitous use of design possibilities) for those making and consuming them. The best student work could truly be used in future iterations of the class (see, for example, this timeline of performances of H.T. Burleigh’s songs at Carnegie Hall, and two separate StoryMaps of Josephine Baker’s career), saving instructors the effort of preparing such tools and imbuing the student creators with the pride of knowing that they created something that continues to serve a purpose beyond their own time in the class.

Louis Epstein


Have your students create a collaborative resource for the entire class to use. Each student can select a narrow topic on which to write an encyclopedia entry. Keep the entries short and focused. After several rounds of revision, compile all of the entries into a class “encyclopedia” and distribute it to the students. They can then cite the encyclopedia as a source in other writing projects or use it to study for quizzes and exams. Retain the best entries from year to year and have each new class add to the resource.

I use this assignment in Music History I (pre-1750). Students in this class tend to struggle with unfamiliar concepts and terms, and they find the textbook overwhelming. (The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition coverage of early music is perhaps too thorough for the average undergraduate.) By having each student tackle one subject, the material becomes more accessible and they are able to help one another. The fact that their work will be published for their peers and possibly passed on to the next class inspires them to give their best effort. One warning: This assignment invites plagiarism, so be sure to clarify with your students what constitutes plagiarism and how/why to avoid it. I explain to students that their task is to master a topic, discover what seems interesting or important about it, and then share what they learned by creating a historical narrative from a unique perspective. I also suggest that producing original writing will help their exam grades, since this process will make them much more likely to absorb and retain knowledge. Finally, I encourage originality by grading on improvement between the draft and final product. In this way, even weak writers can earn good grades.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Music Magazine

In this assignment, students work in small groups with each group member contributing individual articles to a fictitious magazine about music in a historical time and place. Students might, for example, write a magazine for audiences in Elizabethan England, with articles about composers, contemporary religious debates, instruments, or musical genres. Articles may take the form of concert reviews, pedagogical or instructional writing, opinion pieces, or theoretical treatises, among other formats. Articles such as concert reviews may be fictitious, but must be based on real historical evidence from actual works, ensembles, etc. Images and cartoons are encouraged, but do not contribute to a student’s page count (specifying a word count, rather than page count, would also clarify the requirement).

Students appreciate the balance of specific instruction versus flexibility in this project. Group meetings with the instructor to discuss a plan, including the magazine’s setting (time/place) and each person’s contributions, also ensure a clear trajectory. Even though students are required to use scholarly sources, I have found that I must explicitly discourage students from writing simple composer biographies. Overall, the assignment provides a fun, creative opportunity for students to write in a journalistic style from the perspective of a historical person for a historical audience.

Kristen Strandberg

The Impersonation Paper

Students can become especially engaged with short research assignments when asked to assume the perspective of a particular historical figure and create a fictional primary source document summarizing their research on that perspective in the first person. There are many perspectives from which to research and write: an audience member at an important historical premiere; a composer or musician commenting on a contemporaneous controversy or debate; an administrator or government official navigating the politics of visiting performers or concert programming. And the resulting fictional primary sources can take the form of a private letter, a letter to the editor, a bureaucratic memorandum, or a public manifesto.  This assignment can also be an effective launching point for classroom discussions and debates about matters of more global concern.

One particularly rewarding assignment began as an experiment in my graduate seminar on Nineteenth-Century Music. The class was comprised of people from very diverse backgrounds (theorists, composers, performers, musicologists, music educators, etc.). Although I had held classroom debates about the New German School versus the traditionalists in the past, having students prepare in advance with an impersonation paper proved to be most effective. A week prior to the scheduled debate, I asked each student in the class to select their favorite historical figure from a list I provided of people involved in the issues. Each student was then asked to research their chosen/assigned figure (including their life, music, and personal writings) and write a brief (2-3 page) research report in the first person. They were required to succinctly summarize their opinion about program versus absolute music. Part of the requirement was that they discuss/mention/briefly analyze at least one piece of music and provide at least one quote from a primary source.  Students pretended to be figures such as Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Brendel, Fanny Hensel, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner. Students turned in their written assignments the day of the scheduled debate, but also had to briefly and succinctly summarize their views in the first person orally in class prior to what turned out to be a lively debate that challenged conceptions of the spectrum of music created and the views/values held in the period.

This type of writing assignment can be applied to any period in history and to any style of music. (Here are sample assignments from a class on 1920s French music.) It can be used in undergraduate or graduate seminars, and it works best when there is a particular controversy to explore, such as French versus Italian language opera or the Artusi-Monteverdi debates, and when there are plenty of English translations of primary source material available. In larger classes, the assignment could be given with the expectation that there would be no chance for follow-up classroom discussions/debates.

Erinn E. Knyt and Louis Epstein

Travel Portfolio

In #Latergrams, a course on Early Modern Europe designed by Giovanni Zanovello and myself and taught by Zanovello, we offer students a metaphor: studying history is like taking a trip, and on a trip one often documents experiences as a means of both sharing and processing memories. Our daily, modular, and final assessments thus resemble a digital travel album through which students engage with a wide variety of sounding events throughout Early Modern Europe, including listening to Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus and Obrecht’s St. Donatian Mass, experiencing street music in Bruges, and visiting Petrucci’s workshop. In our flipped classroom students engage with a secondary source on the day’s topic prior to class, and during class they rotate through a series of in-class Travel Assignments.

Each daily Travel Assignment requires students to engage in a unique way with the secondary sources and an electronic archive we developed of images, music, and primary sources. For the Selfie+Instagram, students swap their faces into historical paintings or photographs of historical buildings and settings, also writing short accompanying captions and hashtags to reflect their perspective on being emplaced. In addition to being one of the most fun assignments, the Selfie requires students both to engage historical imagination and to capture something essential about the event in imagery and succinct language. The Blog Post asks students to write about the day’s sounding event from a first-person perspective as an historical traveler or as a participant in the event, which meant they not only have to develop a narrative for the event but also can engage multiple senses to communicate an embodied experience. For the Coffee Date, students record themselves conversing with each other about the meaning of the day’s event. They are free to use informal language, speak about ideas as they emerge naturally in conversation, and express metacognitive thoughts about the event. Finally, students writing Tomorrow’s Headlines review the other Travel Assignments, all of which were posted on a collaborative digital platform, to summarize and reflect on the class’s perspectives on the event. In addition to these smaller daily assignments, students write short three-to-five-page essays throughout the semester and also compile a reflexive final portfolio.

These assignments engage skills foundational to the music history classroom:  practicing synthesis of facts and ideas; developing frameworks for encountering primary and secondary sources; stretching historical imagination and empathy; cultivating an intimate sense of place and context; generating, examining, and returning to their own ideas about music and history throughout the semester; and engaging in vivid discussion of the experience and materials of sounding events. By design, the assignments encourage authentic learning by helping students  develop these skills working with the very media they might use to document their actual travels (and much else): Instagram, blogs, video blogs, etc.  A flipped classroom enables Zanovello to provide quality control; students did the most difficult work during class time when he was able to advise on historical facts and perspectives.  While our subject is Early Modern Europe and while we focused on sounding events rather than repertories and styles, these assignments and the metaphor of a trip are transferable to multiple places, times, and musics.

Katherine Altizer


The podcast assignment is essentially a short paper disguised as a fun, interactive assignment. The project will culminate in a written transcript of the podcast and a recording in which the student reads their transcript with the addition of any musical/sound examples that will help  illustrate the topic. I have typically instituted a draft and revision process for these short papers. I set the word count at around 1,000 words, which allows for a podcast of around 6-8 minutes. I have at times discussed recording options with media experts at my institution, though in recent years all students owned phones or computers with recording and sound editing capabilities.

I have assigned variants of the Podcast in several classes, from 100-level courses for non-majors to upper-level music history courses. It can also be used as a larger culminating course project, as described here. This is an engaging project that has been successful on several levels. First, students have a lot of fun with it. I’ve seen some very creative student work and we listen to some of the podcasts together in class (with permission from the student authors). Second, when students read their writing out loud they hear their grammatical quirks and run-on sentences. I often tell students to read their own writing for this reason, but the recorded medium pushes them to write carefully. Finally, students build skills beyond research and learn how to write for broader audiences.

Kristen Strandberg

A variation on the podcast-for-the-professor assignment is to leverage the power of social pedagogies and tell students that all (or at least the best) podcasts will be released to a wider audience, whether the campus community, or through iTunes, to anyone willing to listen. Students might model their work on Critical Karaoke’s “A Day in the Life” series or Switched on Pop. Beyond creating an authentic audience, students might also produce their podcasts as we’d like them to produce papers: as the result of an iterative, reflective process, with ample opportunity to revise. My podcast assignment requires first and final drafts of a short research paper, a podcast script (in which students start to imagine incorporating sound effects and sound clips), and a high-quality recording captured in a campus soundbooth and edited in Audacity or other audio editing software. Students have to work hard, but as there is no additional final paper, the work is equivalent to what they would normally do - and it’s easy to distribute deadlines over many weeks. Most importantly, the results make it all worthwhile.

Louis Epstein


A large group of students (perhaps an entire class) can work together to create a video. This project creates the opportunity for participants to take on roles that are relevant to their strengths and interests. Students might complete research, write narrative scripts, read those scripts, collect images, stage dramatic reenactments, study and perform music, engineer recordings, compile the final video, or direct the project. In this kind of project, students are responsible to one another. Each has a unique role, and the project can only succeed if every student fulfills their responsibilities. While a certain percentage of students are sure to grumble about this “group project,” it teaches skills in research, writing, and collaboration.

I had my entire class work together to create a video about Hildegard of Bingen for the website Women in Art Music, a project developed by Rebecca Cypess of Rutgers University. I have written about the experience here and posted my assignment here. This website publishes videos that are 1) created by undergraduate researchers and 2) feature new research, usually presented in the form of an interview with a scholar. Students in my class wrote questions for Margot Fassler and integrated her filmed responses into the video, which otherwise consisted of a narrative, images, and musical performances. I engaged an outside specialist to fact-check the script, but otherwise I played only a small editorial role and delegated all responsibility to the students. Most students who participated in this project found it valuable and recommended that it become a regular component of the course.

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

Esther M. Morgan-Ellis is Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Georgia where she teaches music history, world music, music in Appalachia, and cello, and she directs the orchestra in Dahlonega.

Kristen Strandberg is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Evansville, where she teaches music history, world music, Music in America, Music in Film, and courses on topics in music including local history.