Constructing a Thesis Statement

What's a "Thesis statement"?

A thesis statement is an idea, informed opinion, or statement of interpretation, the proof of which requires a convincing, well-organized argument, supported by relevant evidence. Constructing a rigorous thesis statement which includes these elements will make it much easier to create an effective topic proposal and, eventually, a solid paper. Practically speaking, a strong thesis statement is also a very useful guide for your own research.
The elements of a thesis statement should include information on the following:
  1. General topic area: a phrase describing the general topic, genre, composer, time period, or other phenomenon which you will explore
  2. Evidence: a phrase or phrases describing, as precisely as possible at any given time, the types of evidence you will use: scores, images, primary sources (e.g., descriptions from the time period under consideration), secondary sources (e.g., modern analytical discussions of the topic), and so on. It is not too early to select and mention by name the specific pieces, composer, or other item that will form your focus. It is permissible for your specific evidence to change over the course of your research, but you must begin with a clear articulation of what it is.
  3. Conclusions you expect to draw: even at this early stage, you can rough out or hypothesize the conclusions you expect to draw. It is perfectly acceptable for your expected conclusions to evolve or even shift radically as you work through your research, but you must start out, at the thesis statement stage, with a clear articulation of the conclusions you anticipate.
Here is a sample thesis with a rather general conclusion:
In this paper, drawing on poetic and prose descriptions, treatises, and iconography [evidence], I will argue that musical instruments in the Middle Ages [general topic area] were a significant means of transferring cultural information [conclusions you expect to draw].
As stated above, you should be as specific as possible in citing specific examples of pieces, composers, or other phenomena which will serve as your examples. For example, you could make the sample above more specific with the following emendations:
In this paper, drawing on poetic and prose descriptions, treatises, and iconography [evidence], I will argue that the lute is a useful example of musical instruments in the Middle Ages [more specific topic] as a significant means of transferring cultural information [conclusions you expect to draw].
Here is another sample thesis with specific examples:
In this paper, drawing on score evidence, the composer’s letters, and newspaper reviews [evidence], I will argue that Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique [more specific topic and example] was, in Paris in the 1840s’, both a commercial success and a compositionally innovative event [conclusions you expect to draw].

Choosing Examples

In selecting specific examples of pieces, composers, genres, time periods or other phenomena as examples in support of your argument, you need to make those selections carefully and in a fashion that increases the odds of success. Here are the criteria you should use in deciding whether to employ a certain piece, composer, or genre as an example. Before finally deciding on specific examples, you should do a preliminary bibliographic search to establish the following:
  1. Access to information: can you find scores, recordings, biographies, primary sources (from the period, secondary sources (commentary from modern scholars) or other relevant evidence?
  2. Best, clearest, or most obvious examples: whatever your argument, you should seek items which are particularly clear examples of evidence. If, for instance, you want to argue that Beethoven’s quartets are examples of the more “progressive” end of his compositional style, you should probably choose one of the later quartets, because that “progressivism” will be more pronounced in those pieces. Conversely, if you want to discuss the more traditional or “conservative” aspects of Mozart’s operatic writing, you should probably choose one of the early opera seria, as his debts to previous styles are more obvious there than in later works.
  3. In any study which may require comparison (between pieces, between one genre and another, between one composer’s style and another, between a composer’s style and his/her biographical or contextual background), you should select at least 2 but probably no more than 3 examples. You need at least 2 examples for comparison (e.g., A versus B), while 3 examples triples the range of comparisons you can make (A versus B, A versus C, B versus C, etc.). More than 3 examples is likely to create more work, but not necessarily much more persuasive evidence. Thus, if you want to write about the motets of Philippe de Vitry, you should probably have at least 2 motets for purposes of comparison, but no more than 3 for purposes of efficiency.
  4. Alternatively to (3) above, you can choose to focus on a single characteristic in more than 3 pieces. For example, if you really want to look at a number of Bartok piano pieces (rather than just 2-3), you can choose to focus on a single characteristic (say, “aspects of pedaling” or “polyrhythms”) in a number of pieces. However, you should still try to keep the total volume of material or number of pieces cited as examples to a manageable minimum.

Finding Sources

You should be looking for, checking out, and updating your list of sources throughout the entire course of the research project. However, at different stages of the project, different resources are useful.

Preliminary information

In seeking preliminary information sufficient to let you construct a thesis, pick examples, and write a topic proposal, you should begin your source search with the following types of resources. In all cases, every time you encounter a source, you should look at the source’s bibliography: even if the source itself is not relevant (or is otherwise inaccessible, for example in a foreign language), there may well be items in the bibliography that are relevant.
Useful preliminary sources include:
  • Grout, Bonds, or other textbooks and dictionaries: although these may not be cited in your final bibliography, their indexes and bibliographies can provide useful background information and leads to other sources
  • The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (and other specialized NGD collections, like NGD of Musical Instruments, NGD of American Music and NGD of Jazz) is available in both the Main Library’s Reference section and our Music Library, and is the most comprehensive and readily-accessible source (a searchable, online version of the NGD is available at Locate the article(s) on your topic and read those sections which are relevant. Make note of cited pieces, composers, places, dates, and other specific data. Look carefully at the bibliography which appears at the end of every NGD article (and which, in this 2001 edition, is remarkably up-to-date). Note also any word in an article which is capitalized; this indicates that there is a separate article under that keyword elsewhere in the NGD.
  • To find relevant books: do keyword searches in the TTU library’s “online catalog” (under “Electronic Resources” at
  • To find relevant articles and dissertations: do keyword searches using RILM/FirstSearch (under “Electronic Databases” at Remember that, once found, you can order ILL items electronically from within the individual citations.
  • Look at other essential music history resources. These might include:
    • Studies of the period or composer under consideration;
    • Oliver Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History [ML160.S89; look for the most recent edition]. This is a useful source for primary source materials;
    • Other types of evidence: iconographic studies, non-music histories of the period, etc.
Remember that when you find a useful source on the shelf, you should look in its close physical vicinity to find other sources on the same topic.
In all cases, every time you find a source, always look at its bibliography and follow up on what you find there.

Last updated: Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Send mail to Chris Smith