Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

The Analysis Paper as Academic Argument

Damian Blättler

An issue with analysis papers is that they can be prescriptive: the instructor assigns a prompt which then sends the students on a treasure-hunt of sorts (e.g., looking for Sonata Theory waypoints, a central pitch-class set class, or a family of metric dissonances). Potential consequences of this top-down approach are students being uninspired by the box-checking nature of the exercise or feeling like they have nothing original or interesting to say, and papers containing long passages of inert description (“Measure 1 has the note D in the melody over a G-major chord. Measure 2 changes to a D-major harmony, with the melody note staying the same. . .”).

While one approach to this issue might be to hyperengineer the paper prompt, I have had success, in the upper-level undergraduate and master’s courses which I teach, by instead making prompts more general and focusing instead on reinforcing analysis’ status as a form of academic argumentation. The goal is to help students generate their own paper prompts and, therefore, take ownership of the assignment. The analysis paper instead becomes a student-driven, exploratory and interpretive project, with the added (and mutually reinforcing) benefit of introducing students to methodological issues in writing about music such as analytic ideologies or the use of narrative and agential metaphors.

In order to turn the analysis paper into a type of problem-based learning, I introduce students to a model of academic argumentation used by the Yale English Department in its freshman writing program, which breaks an academic argument down into the elements of (1) problem, (2) claim, (3) evidence, and (4) motive; I provide a sample handout from a course I created and implemented for the program, and a similar method is outlined at the Purdue Owl Writing Lab Website. The (1) problem is the gap in our understanding of a subject—in the context of a music-analysis paper, a tension or ambiguity in the piece, a surprising subversion of stylistic convention, or a disagreement about the piece in secondary literature; it is something the writer can imagine the intended audience not grasping after a pass or two through the work. (This is by no means saying that a piece is deficient in some way—a common initial misunderstanding.) The (2) claim is a contestable statement about the analytic problem (e.g., that the groundwork for the surprising end to a work had been laid by inconspicuous details earlier in the piece); it must not be too broad or too specific, and must be a matter of persuasion rather than belief or taste. (3) Evidence is the use of examples and analytic figures in service of the main argument. This requires interpretation; it is not just quotation or description of a musical passage, but an observation or explanation that supports a claim. Evidence can be annotation of the score, sophisticated analytic techniques such as reductions or voice-leading graphs, or the verbal situating of a musical moment in a larger context; one should not assume that a musical quotation speaks for itself. The (4) motive is the stakes of the claim for the audience—how the claim might be extrapolated beyond the piece at hand to discussion of broader issues. Might the claim, once proved, serve as evidence for a larger argument? Does the claim confirm, nuance, or undermine larger statements about a musical style, composer’s body of work, or analytic method?

The concept of the problem in an academic argument is particularly crucial in recasting the analysis paper and is often the element with which students are least familiar. Focusing on identifying an analytic problem shifts the emphasis of analysis away from labeling towards argumentation: while it is worthwhile knowing where, for instance, the second theme begins, if most listeners would be able to ascertain that after paying the piece a certain amount of attention then the fact is more descriptive than analytic. Indeed, identifying an analytic problem in a piece can involve, as a preparatory step, the entirety of what we sometimes call “analysis”—often it is only once the general formal outline of the piece is in place that one can home in on, against the backdrop of stylistic convention, those events which are surprising, challenging, or ripe for interpretation. Having students identify an analytic problem in the work that they want to write about and, therefore, essentially generate their own paper prompts, can increase enthusiasm for the project; rather than producing an answer to an assigned question, students explore the piece with their own interests as a guide.

Identifying analytic problems in this way sets students up to make claims about causal networks in pieces or about narrative trajectories (e.g., that a seemingly triumphant coda fails to adequately realize certain potentials introduced earlier in a work). Thus, students get to practice what we preach for ourselves as professional music analysts, namely that analysis is an interpretive act, akin to performance in that it involves formulating a specific take on a work and conveying that to an audience (Agawu 2004). The task becomes generating an interpretation of a work, and the student does so by deploying any range of tools at his/her disposal; the submissions for a recent open-ended paper of this variety, on the first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, featured a range of approaches including Schenkerian, Sonata Theory, Neo-Riemannian, motivic-analytic, and metric-analytic techniques.

Framing music analysis as academic argumentation also creates the opportunity to introduce students to methodological issues that can reinforce the problem-based, student-centered-learning benefits of the open-ended paper prompt. For one, encouraging students to make causal/narrative claims about musical works can lead to engagement with methods of interpretation and analysis, such as discussions about the cross-domain metaphors used to describe relatively simple musical concepts such as the “weight” of an articulation (Zbikowski 2002) or about the range of agents that can act in/on a piece of music (Monahan 2013). One might also discuss the theorized distinction between congeneric and extrageneric forms of musical meaning, and potential limits on the extramusical interpretations a musical structure can support (Cone 1982; Cook 2001); alternatively, one could challenge the idea that there is much of a distinction at all, given the necessarily metaphorical nature of descriptions of music (see Burnham 1996; a successful recent activity had students compare Arnold Schering (2000) and Heinrich Schenker’s (2014) analyses of the first movement of the Eroica Symphony). Having students recognize the potential for musical analysis to be vibrant and to involve metaphorical descriptions of narrative gives them a warrant to use their imaginations and broader cultural knowledge when writing an analysis paper, in a way that can further increase enthusiasm for problem-based analytic writing. (As a caution, there is potential for students to get lost in over-elaborate flights of fancy; in such cases, drawing the student's attention to the mechanism of metaphor can help them more carefully consider how their prose might animate rather than obfuscate the music's structural features.)

Causal/narrative claims, since they involve drawing connections between separate sections of a piece, can also provide an opportunity to introduce students to disciplinary discussions about the ideology of organic unity that undergirds much music analysis and to critiques and defenses of that ideology (Chua 2004; Korsyn 1993 and 2004; Morgan 2003). One benefit of this is that problematizing the notion of unity in a musical work can unburden students of the idea that they need to explain every single event in a piece. While a paper should still evince some grasp of the work as a whole, the causal network or narrative posited by any single analysis may be but one of many possible networks in any work, not all of which need necessarily be congruent (Cohn and Dempster 1992). (This realization can be particularly liberating in the analysis of atonal music. In such projects, students can be paralyzed by feeling like they need to explain the set-class provenance of every pitch, in a manner akin to how one can explain the harmonic/non-chord-tone identity of every pitch in a tonal work. Emphasizing that analysis is problem-directed interpretation can free students up to engage with atonal work in a range of domains—pitch, register, line, motive, pitch-class set, etc.—and to posit a listener experience in those terms.)

Methodological conversations of this sort not only prime students to write better papers but also invite students to be disciplinary practitioners by exposing them to the techniques, questions, and habits of mind of our field; this is perhaps the most important pedagogical goal for music theoretical courses at any level and can boost student engagement and motivation (Hausmann 2014). Ultimately, framing music analysis as academic argumentation can turn the analysis paper into a “real-life,” exploratory, interpretive project; this student-centered approach both helps students produce strong analytic prose and, as its lessons are transferable to activities of performance, composition, and listening, can benefit their musical lives beyond the classroom.


Agawu, Kofi. 2004. “How We Got Out of Analysis, and How to Get Back In Again.” Music Analysis 23 (2/3): 267-286.

Burnham, Scott. 1996. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chua, Daniel. 2004. “Rethinking Unity.” Music Analysis 23 (ii-iii): 353-359.

Cohn, Richard and Douglas Dempster. 1992. “Hierarchical Unity, Plural Unities: Toward a Reconciliation.” In Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 156-181.

Cone, Edward T. 1982. “Schubert’s Promissory Note: An Exercise in Musical Hermeneutics.” 19th-Century Music 5 (3): 233-241.

Cook, Nicholas. 2001. “Theorizing Musical Meaning.” Music Theory Spectrum 23 (2): 170-195.

Hausmann, John. 2014. “Content in the Learner-centered Non-major Classroom: Thinking and Listening Like a Musicologist.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 2. Accessed May 25, 2018. http://flipcamp.org/engagingstudents2/essays/hausmann.html

Korsyn, Kevin. 1993. “Brahms Research and Aesthetic Ideology.” Music Analysis 12 (1): 89-103.

———. 2004. “The Death of Musical Analysis? The Concept of Unity Revisited.” Music Analysis 23 (2/3): 337-351.

Monahan, Seth. 2013. “Action and Agency Revisited.” Journal of Music Theory 57 (2): 321-371.

Morgan, Robert P. 2003. “The Concept of Unity and Musical Analysis.” Music Analysis 22 (1/2): 7-50.

Schering, Arnold. 2000. “‘Die Eroica, eine Homer-Symphonie Beethovens?’: Translated with an Introduction and Commentary.” Translated by Glenn Stanley. Current Musicology 69: 68-96.

Schenker, Heinrich. 2014. The Masterwork in Music: Volume III, 1930. Edited by William Drabkin. Translated by Ian Bent, Alfred Clayton, and Derrick Puffett. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Zbikowski, Lawrence M. 2002. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

This work is copyright ⓒ2018 Damian Blättler and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.