Skip to Main Content
Syracuse University Libraries

Music Research Process

Overview: Format, Content, & Audience

Information sources can be categorized in several different ways, and it is important to understand these categories in order to locate the right search tools and the right mixture of sources for your research project or essay. 

  • Source Format
    • This is how the information has been published, and any format can be print or electronic.
    • When you cite sources, the format of your citation is dependent upon the source format.
    • examples: books, articles, book chapters, blog posts, websites, recordings
  • Source Content
    • Generally three types: primary, secondary, and tertiary
    • Categories refer to whether the content is a first-hand account of a person/place/event/topic, or whether it is commentary or criticism of a person/place/event/topic. Any content type can be print or electronic.
    • Examples: letters & correspondence, musical works, encyclopedias, peer-reviewed research articles, data sets, autobiographies, handbooks
  • Source Audience
    • Secondary and tertiary sources typically have two audience types: popular and scholarly.
    • Categories are not always strict, but looking for indicators such as author and publisher credentials, presence of citations, and formality of language used can be good indicators. 
    • Peer reviewed journals are a specific type of scholarly source, and one that is used often in music research and essays.

Content: Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Great for original research
Great for researching what others have already said about your topic
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 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 works by a research subject (lyrics, recording, or score of a musical work)
  • Other textual 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 or book chapters in an edited collection that offer criticism or an interpretation of a subject (scholarly or popular)
  • Commentary within edited works and scores (scholarly)
  • Scholarly journal articles, open-access research articles
  • Popular magazine articles, newspaper opinion pieces, blog posts, social media posts (popular)
  • Reviews of performances, books, recordings, or other creative works (popular or scholarly)
  • Encyclopedias like Wikipedia or Oxford Music Online 
  • Other reference sources like almanacs or Guidebooks
  • Textbooks (sometimes secondary)
  • Bibliographies, discographies, indexes
  • Library catalog or other databases


Remember, websites are a source format, but can be for any audience or have any type of content. 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.

Audience: Popular vs Scholarly

Secondary and tertiary sources, such as books, ebooks, articles, and web sites, can be either popular or scholarly. Your professor will usually state what types of sources you should use for your papers or essays, as they are used for different types of arguments and analysis.

Categories are not always strict, but looking for indicators such as author and publisher credentials, presence of citations, and formality of language are helpful in making that judgement. Here are some common examples of popular vs. scholarly works, and some indicators you can look for:

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

  • Monographs are books that are often by a single author, or a group of authors, and they cover a topic at length.
  • Edited collections (also called edited volumes) 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 articles are written by scholars and researchers, and are usually published in peer-reviewed academic journals, either in print or online. 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 articles can be found on websites, magazines, blogs, or news sources, and do not include the same level of research and are not reviewed in the same way as scholarly 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. 

Scholarly websites are often created by research agencies, non-profits, professional organizations, or other specialized and credentialed institutions. URLs typically end in ".org" and sometimes ".edu." They can contain a wide variety of primary sources such as music manuscripts and performance videos; they can contain scholarly reference and encyclopedia information, like Oxford Music Online.

Popular websites and other online content are often created by commercial or retail companies, individual people (like social media or personal websites), news outlets, online magazines or media, and a variety of other content creators. They can contain articles, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, reference information, videos, or many other types of content and formats. The key on determining if website content is popular or scholarly is looking at the intended audience and the credentials of the author. 

Videos & Tutorials