How to Read for Musicological Content: A Guide

Reading for musicological content is different than other sorts of reading. When we read for musicological content, we are not only finding our way through the author’s narrative, but also processing the crucial data and insights s/he has to offer. So we use different reading techniques, with our primary goals being speed, accuracy, and retention.
A competent essay is written according to often-predictable formats. For example, we can expect that a competent historical [or critical] essay will summarize its argument, state its thesis, and provide a general sense of its likely conclusions within the first page, and sometimes within the first few paragraphs.
Similarly, the concluding section of the essay is likely to reiterate the original thesis, summarize both the evidence and the argument that has employed that evidence, and restate the conclusion. Typically, the concluding section will also discuss the implications of the essay’s insights for future work, either within the same topic or on parallel topics.

You can read for this.

Step I

What does this mean? Well, read the first two paragraphs, and then the last 2 paragraphs. Ask yourself if you can articulate, in your own words, the thesis, the general topic and evidence addressing that thesis, and the conclusion. If you can, then you have successfully derived the most crucial information from the entire article. That is, you know the author’s intent.

Now, understanding that intent, you are ready to read the body of the article and ask yourself how the author makes the argument. What types of evidence does s/he select? In what sequence is the evidence presented? What is the interaction between description of evidence and the discussion of its implications? Overall, how does the author build the argument?

Step II

A competent musicological essay will employ logical paragraphing. What this means is that each of the steps of the argument the author has cited, each of the pieces of evidence to be discussed, should receive its own paragraph.

Typically, then, the content of each paragraph will be summarized in its first sentence. When reading swiftly and critically, you should then read in sequential order the first sentence of each paragraph. You should find that this summarizes the argument and its evidence and the steps in the process perfectly effectively. Typically, the second sentence will expand upon that first and explain its significance. Hence, if you expand the technique, and read the first two sentences of each paragraph, you have completed a second pass through the article which both reveals each sequential piece of evidence and the author's interpretation of its significance.

Step III

Now, you can make a third pass through the article, reading word-for-word, knowing the intent of each paragraph and the logic behind the paragraph’s sequencing. Here is when you should pay close attention to word-by-word writing style, clarity, and organization.

If you need to summarize the content of the article, you can operate at any of these three levels of reading detail: that is, 1) the level of the thesis, evidence employed, and general conclusions; 2) the level of main points paragraph-by-paragraph; and 3) the level of word-for-word argument-organization. This way, you can be sure you have both the "big picture" and the "fine detail." In addition, you should find that you have a much more complete grasp and retention of how the argument works.

A professor of mine once said, "You should be able to summarize your dissertation in 500 pages, 5 pages, 1 page, 1 paragraph, or one sentence." This requires that you understand the relationship between big picture and fine detail and that you read for both.


After having read a musicological or critical author using the above method, you should be able and prepared to provide the following:
  • Your own brief original articulation of the thesis;
  • Your own brief, 10-20 word description of the topic and evidence employed;
  • Your explanation / articulation of the conclusion;
  • Your articulation of the author’s sense of the essay’s implications for future work;
  • A detailed description of at least one piece of evidence in the essay, and how the author uses it;
  • Your assessment of the author’s reliability: qualifications, perspectives, agendas;
  • Your own sense, based not on subjective response, but rather your considered assessment using the above techniques, of the article’s success (or otherwise). Were you convinced by her/his arguments? Do you agree with the author? What are your reasons?