Planning a research project

Aims of this document

Overriding points to consider


Good research becomes better if the researcher is well motivated. You do not need ‘a mission from God’ (The Blues Brothers, 1978) but it does help if you think, in all humility of course(!), that the world will be a wiser and better place after the results of your research are made public.

It sometimes helps to think negatively, i.e. to identify what is wrong in our subject, or in our tradition of knowledge, or in our way of understanding the phenomena you choose to study, which needs to be set right. Also, a modicum of righteous indignation and belief in the justice of your cause, can, if taken with a pinch of salt, be very useful emotional driving motors that help you see the larger perspective, especially when you get bogged down in the microscopic details that your research work will inevitably entail.

Fascination with a particular topic— ‘it's SO interesting and there's lots to day!’ — is not enough on its own. You need a more substantial type of personal perspective that goes beyond the passionate hobby mentality of a fan or collector. Ask instead how your research can help in education, in other people's research, in performance, composition, arrangement, listening, etc. Will your research be of use to people in other disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology, education, communication studies, film studies, business studies, acoustics, etc., etc?


To be classed as research, your work must present something that is not already known. Of course, since you are willy-nilly part of a particular cultural tradition, and since your readers will belong to a particular cultural tradition, you will need to build on and refer to, what others have already had to say about your topic, otherwise no-one will be able to relate to your ideas. However, the point of linking to existing traditions of knowledge is not to replicate what already exists but to develop, improve, expand and modify those traditions of knowledge.

Two suggested main categories of research innovation
Please note that these categories are not mutually exclusive

1. historical/archivistic/documentary

Our understanding of history contains lacunae that need to be filled so that we can have a more complete and, hopefully, more truthful idea of developments at a particular period in a particular place. Perhaps there are neglected (musical) artists, composers, authors, arrangers, producers, works, recordings, audiences, ‘scenes’, managers, events, venues, institutions, corportations, etc. Research donkey work here involves unearthing, collecting and systematising documents, manuscripts, recordings, statements from primary sources (in interviews, for example) and so on.

2. methodological/conceptual

Our understanding of music needs improving, not so much because of historical or documentary lacunae but because existing approaches to our subject tend to skew our judgement, because they impede learning or lead to false conclusions, or because they contain elements of ethnocentrism, racism, elitism, sexism, etc., or because they are one-sided, simplistic and so on. These kinds of problem in our tradition of knowledge can be confronted in terms of philosophy, anthropology, semiotics, psychology, sociology, neurology, acoustic physics and a whole host of other disciplines, as well as from more musically immanent starting points, such as rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, instrumental and vocal techniques, etc.

Methodological or conceptual innovation can in other words range from presenting new philosophical insights about music to designating common musical phenomena with adequate labels where no such designation previously exists. The research donkey work here involves a lot of reading up on approach and method, a lot of dialectical reasoning (dynamic synthesis of apparent contradictions) and commutation (replacing x with y in an argument or in a piece of music, for example, and seeing/hearing if it makes any difference).

Still to be written up 050425

Choice of topic



Existing knowledge


Meat of work


Presenting a research project