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History of Electroacoustic Music

Research paper guidelines

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three

The goal of the research paper is to come to an in-depth understanding of a noteworthy piece of electroacoustic music, based on studying it from a series of differing perspectives.

Choose a piece from Ricardo Dal Farra's Latin American Electroacoustic Music Collection. Choose a piece that is between 10:00 and 15:00 in length.

The trick is to write about the music itself, not about your reactions to it. That is, the paper should be about the music, not about you the listener. This is a skill learned with practice. The guidelines for the paper are meant to help you in gaining this perspective.

The paper should have three main sections, described below.

Click here for an example of an excellent research paper.

It has been said that "talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

Music is largely non-representational. While there are exceptions, as in the cases of vocal or programmatic music, music's intangible elements often seem to defy language-based descriptions, raising problems of how best to discuss them. Many have noted that music can only be described by adopting metaphors.

For example, composer Morton Subotnick has explored how commonly used musical metaphors have become internalized and accepted as concrete. The concept of pitch being "high" or "low," for example, is an imposed description, as there is no intrinsically vertical difference between pitches in different registers. It would be more accurate to call pitches "long" or "short" (describing relative wavelength) or "quick" vs. "slow" (describing frequency). But these more accurate descriptions, besides being simply counterintuitive, would easily be confused for note durations. Subotnick reported that when young children who had no musical training or vocabulary hear pitches at varying frequencies, they describe higher pitches as sounding "smaller."

Yet somehow musicians have found the descriptors "high" and "low," and these terms suit our perceptual sensibilities to the degree that once we learn them, it becomes difficult to imagine any other way of describing them. Incidentally, Subotnick's observations ally well with psychoacoustic research that reveals all hearing to be selective and edited, with auditory perception based on interpretations of acoustic information rather than objective representations.

As electroacoustic pieces tend to be explorations into uncharted sonic territory, listeners are often placed in the role of children with no meaningful assumptions or internalized metaphors, struggling to describe the invisible. But it can be a healthy experience to try to reduce listening to its fundamentals and chart new descriptive territory.

Robert J. Gluck of the University at Albany has also addressed this necessary re-evaluation of listening. He cites spiritual figure Jiddu Krishnamurti, pointing out that it is rare that we truly perceive anything as it is, but rather our memories and assumptions cause us to categorize phenomena into categories that we already know.

The task here is to step outside any of your preconceptions about music, and to appreciate the piece you write on for its own merits rather than according to comparisons of other music with which you are already familiar.


Data Gathering, Part One: The Piece's Language
This first stage will involve listening only. Expect to listen to the piece with your undivided attention at least 10 times during this stage. Do not do any reading about the piece at this point -- that will come in part two. Do not make any interpretations as to what the piece is "about" at this point -- that will come in part three.

Create a graphic timeline of the piece. Create different types of symbols for different types of sound events that occur in the piece. These should not be random graphics, or words. Come up with a graphic that suggests the rhythm and/or texture of the sound types used in the piece. Plot them along a horizontal timeline that shows the progress of the piece. The timeline should have resolution of at least 15 seconds per increment. Don't think too literally. Do not use clip art. Illustrate the sound types with your own graphics that are abstract and suggest the type of rhythms and timbres they correspond to.

Use the Listening Aid and Spectromorphology slides as checklists for musical characteristics.

Based on a discussion of the timeline and a discussion of relevant terms from the above two guides, this section should make at least the following clear:

  • All salient language elements that the composer uses (including, but not limited to, repeating motifs, clear structural points, alternations in instrument type, or many other ways that features may be articulated in music). Described them in concrete acoustic terms.
  • What spectromorphological terms apply to this piece? Since many of these terms are open to interpretation, justify your selection of terms that you make.
  • What are the piece's basic materials? What is the instrumentation? What is the family or instruments (or timbres) that the composer is working with? If the work mixes acoustic and electronic instruments how do the acoustic and electronic elements interact? Do the roles change? Is the electronic music a background to the instruments? Is there an exchange of compositional material?
  • If the piece contains sung lyrics, what is the subject of the text? What relationship does the subject of the text have to the accompanying music?
  • Describe the opening of the piece. Are the events that appear there sustained throughout the work? If so, how and for how long?
  • Discuss tempo. Is the piece fast, slow, or medium? Does the tempo remain the same throughout the piece, or does it change?
  • Discuss dynamics. Is the piece loud, soft, or medium? Does the dynamic remain the same throughout?
  • Does the piece have a beat? Can you tap your foot to it? The meter is a consistent pulse that you can tap your foot to. How important is rhythm to the piece, that is, what is the relationship of the musical events to the meter? Do events/notes fall on metric beats, or between them? What role do rhythm and a repeating pulse (meter) seem to play in the piece as a whole?
  • Does the piece have a melody? If it does, is it stepwise (consisting of pitches that are close to each other in succession) or disjunct (featuring large melodic leaps)? What is the shape of the melody? Ascending? Descending? An arc? Something else? What registers does the piece use (high vs. low pitches)? How important is the use of register?
  • Is there a recognizable motif at any point in the piece? (Perhaps the most famous motif in Western music is the "da-da-da DUM" that begins Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.) Does anything in the piece function as something recognizable that is repeated and developed? Is there a refrain or chorus that is repeated periodically? Are there clearly delineated phrases? Do phrases end with clear cadential patterns of any sort?
  • Does the work have clear-cut sections? If so, how many are there, and how are they distinguished from one another? If not, what keeps it moving? Are there any sections of the work that occur totally "without warning," i.e., that were not in any way anticipated? Were you surprised at their appearance? If so, why? How do the various sections function within the piece's overall structure?
  • If the piece has multiple movements, discuss them separately and compare them.
  • Explain how new structural elements appear in the work. Are they introduced by foreshadowing or do they enter abruptly? Is there a smooth fade-in or crossfade between one element and another? Give some examples using specific timings as a reference.
  • At what rate or pace do new elements appear? Is the work static for long sections? Are there sections where new events appear at a rapid pace?
  • Describe the ending of the piece. Was it anticipated or is it a surprise? Do you hear a strong cadence; a sense of closure, or does it seem as if it might have continued beyond the end point? Explain your reasoning.
The order and length of topics will vary, depending on the composer and the piece.  

Data Gathering, Part Two: The Piece's History
This stage involves reading relevant history. A biographical survey of the composer, a study her works, and the contexts in which she was working add another layer of vital information about the piece. For electro-acoustic music, technology is a significant part of the relevant culture.

  • Give some background on the composer, her/his techniques and/or innovations, and place this piece in the context of the composer's overall body of work. You may need to exercise some resourcefulness here. Doing a Web search on the composer and the piece is a good start. Also examine references such as the Grove Dictionary of Music. What information do you get from the piece's title, the CD liner notes, or any other information that you may find written about the piece? Include references at the end of the paper, and footnotes as appropriate. Your references should include several books - editorial standards on the Web vary from stringent to none. The contents of books all go through editorial scrutiny. Check the books listed in the course's sources. You should make a point of looking at as many of them as you can.
  • What else has the composer written? Have a look at any major articles by the composer. Also listen to other major works by this composer. How does your piece compare to these other works?
  • What tools did the composer use to create the piece? Describe in detail the technology available to the composer, and how it influences his/her compositional decisions. How do they work with their hardware and/or software? What are the strengths and limitations of the hardware and/or software? Be sure to include any relevant information from the class notes.

Part Three: Summary, Conclusions from the Data
The final stage is somewhat speculative and philosophical. It involves creating a guide for listeners, discussing how someone should approach listening to this piece, given its composer's methodology and historical context.

One way to think of this section is that here is where you come up with a thesis for your paper. Having done a thorough study of the piece's materials (part 1) and historical/cultural context (part 2), what can you say about the piece?

What do we as listeners need to recognize from its musical content and historical context to understand it?
What understandings does the composer want listeners to come to?
What sorts of surprises does the piece have?
What is the listening experience meant to be like, moment to moment?

Leonard Meyer (Emotion and Meaning in Music) has described how composers "choreograph the listeners' expectations." How does the composer of your piece choreograph your expectations as a listener?

It may be helpful to think of the piece as a kind of story. What are the characters, what happens to them, and what kind of plot is there? What are the piece's themes? What is it about?

Make observations about the overall design of the piece, and how these elements hold the design together.