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Syracuse University Libraries

Music Research Process

What Sources Do You Need?

Once you decide on a topic, you must decide what types of sources will answer your question, and consequently, support the conclusion in your thesis statement.

  1. What primary sources are available? What data, musical works, performances, letters, recordings, or interviews can I analyze?
  2. What have other scholars said about my topic? What scholarly journal articles and scholarly books/book chapters can I locate?
  3. Are popular sources appropriate for my topic? Should I analyze popular opinion of a work or reception of an event as presented in newspapers, magazines, or blog posts?
  4. Does the age of the source affect my research? Have there been more recent discoveries in relation to my topic? Am I looking at how researchers' views on my topic have changed over time?

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Great for original research
Good for research
Good for overview, fact checking, and to point you to other sources


Primary sources provide a a first-hand account of an event or person. They are created by the research subject themselves, or by witnesses during the time period or event being researched.

Secondary sources provide an interpretation, critique, evaluation, or conclusion based upon information from primary sources. They can be either popular or scholarly! They are created by scholars, editors, journalists, and anyone who decides to write on the web. Tertiary sources provide a summary or overview of a research topic. Or, they provide an inventory/list of secondary or primary sources about a research topic.
  • Creative output by a research subject (lyrics, recording, or score of a musical work)
  • Other writings by a research subject (autobiographies, memoirs, social media posts, diaries, letters, blog posts, essays)
  • Interviews with or about a research subject (audio, video, or transcripts)
  • Audio or video recording from an event or performance; photographs
  • Original data (numeric data, surveys, experiments, ethnographic observations)
  • Sometimes popular journalism, if the subject of your research is popular opinion
  • Books that offer criticism or an interpretation of a subject (scholarly)
  • Book chapters within an edited collection (scholarly)
  • Commentary within edited works and scores (scholarly)
  • Scholarly journal articles, open-access research articles
  • Popular magazine articles, newspaper opinion pieces, blog posts (popular)
  • Reviews of performances, books, recordings, or other creative works (popular or scholarly)
  • Encyclopedias like Wikipedia or Oxford Music Onine 
  • Other reference sources like almanacs or Guidebooks
  • Textbooks (sometimes secondary)
  • Bibliographies, discographies, indexes
  • Library catalog or other databases


Remember, websites aren't necessarily a distinctive source type. The web can provide access to many different types of sources (e-books, encyclopedias, newspaper articles) and it can also serve as a publishing platform (Beyonce's official website). While reading the chart above, think about how websites fit into all of the categories and descriptions.

Books and Periodicals: Are They Popular or Scholarly?

Books and periodical articles are source types that can be either popular or scholarly. Your professor will often state what types of sources you should use for your papers or essays, as they are used for different types of arguments and analysis.

Scholarly books are usually published by university or scholarly presses, and they are written by scholars and researchers. The text often has citations or references to support the research and arguments, and it uses discipline-specific terminology. Scholarly books fall into two categories:

  • Monographs are books that are often by a single author, and they cover a topic at length. 
  • Edited collections are books that have an editor(s) who then solicits chapter essays from other authors. The chapters can stand alone, have different authors, and cover a narrow portion of the broader topic of the edited collection. Citations for these books look a lot like journal articles, as they contain the chapter author, chapter title, book editor, and book title.

Popular books are otherwise known as trade books. They can be fiction or non-fiction, and are geared towards a general audience. Authors are general writers, journalists, or novelists. Language is less formal, and they often do not include citations or references. 

Scholarly journal articles are written by scholars and researchers, and are found in peer-reviewed, or refereed, journals. Such journals have editorial boards of experts who accept or reject articles for publication. Therefore, the articles are considered high quality, and represent important research in a given field.

Popular magazine and newspaper articles, as well as blog posts and websites, do not include the same level of research and are not reviewed in the same way as scholarly journal articles. They are written by professional or amateur writers, journalists, or members of the general public. The articles often contain stories of interest to a wider audience, but still may be appropriate for certain types of music research, especially when discussing popular opinions or reception of creative works.

In addition to popular and scholarly sources, you will find trade journals (practical information for professionals) and journals of opinion (information expressing a given viewpoint). For a full comparison of periodicals, view this Periodical Comparison Chart