Skip to Main Content

Music Subject Guide — Searching and Reading

Database Searching Techniques

Finding useful and relevant articles is often difficult. Here are some helpful strategies to learn how to narrow down your search results in a database.

Boolean logic uses and / or / not  to combine words or terms. 


baritone or alto          ⇒     includes either term

baritone and alto       ⇒     includes both terms

baritone not alto        ⇒     includes first term but not second term

Truncation symbol, usually the asterisk *; offers variant endings on words. 

Example: hypothe* retrieves hypothesis, hypotheses, hypothetical, etc.

Wildcard symbol, usually the question mark ?, replaces a letter or letters in the middle of a word or one letter at the end of a word. Not all databases allow wildcards.


opera? Retrieves opera or operas

colo?rful Retrieves colorful or colourful

Phrase searching, to keep words together as a phrase, you usually use the quote marks around the phrase "words together"

Example:  "classical music"

Author Name - the same author may publish under versions of a name over a lifetime. Search for different combinations of the name OR with unusual last names try searching for last name, first initial with an asterisk.

Example: Type in Silander, J*


Silander, John A.

Silander John Augustus

Silander J.A.

Silander J.

Popular or Scholarly?

Books and periodical articles are source types that can be either popular or scholarly. Your professor will often state what types of sources you should use for your papers or essays, as they are used for different types of arguments and analysis.

Scholarly books are usually published by university or scholarly presses, and they are written by scholars and researchers. The text often has citations or references to support the research and arguments, and it uses discipline-specific terminology. Scholarly books fall into two categories:

  • Monographs are books that are often by a single author, and they cover a topic at length. 
  • Edited collections are books that have an editor(s) who then solicits chapter essays from other authors. The chapters can stand alone, have different authors, and cover a narrow portion of the broader topic of the edited collection. Citations for these books look a lot like journal articles, as they contain the chapter author, chapter title, book editor, and book title.

Popular books can be fiction or non-fiction, and are geared towards a general audience. Authors are general writers, journalists, or novelists. Language is less formal, and they often do not include citations or references. 

Scholarly journal articles are written by scholars and researchers, and are found in peer-reviewed, or refereed, journals. Such journals have editorial boards of experts who accept or reject articles for publication. Therefore, the articles are considered high quality, and represent important research in a given field.

Popular magazine and newspaper articles, as well as blog posts and websites, do not include the same level of research and are not reviewed in the same way as scholarly journal articles. They are written by professional or amateur writers, journalists, or members of the general public. 

Know Your Sources

In the Arts and Humanities, primary research articles have a basic structure which is shown below in the image. Most will have these sections or a subset of them. 

The informational sources of research articles can be classified roughly into three groups - primary, secondary, and tertiary - that reflect their originality.

In the humanities and social sciences, primary sources are the direct evidence or first-hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. A primary source is a work that was created or written contemporary with the period or subject being studied. These are great for original research!

Primary sources are original, uninterpreted information.
Unedited, firsthand access to words, images, or objects created by persons directly involved in an activity or event or speaking directly for a group. This is information before it has been analyzed, interpreted, commented upon, spun, or repackaged. Depending upon the context, these may include research reports, sales receipts, speeches, e-mails, original artwork, manuscripts, photos, diaries, personal letters, spoken stories/tales/interviews, diplomatic records, etc.

Think of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony in a court trial.

Primary sources

  • Autobiographies
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Original works of art
  • Photographs
  • Speeches
  • Works of literature

Secondary sources analyze or interpret historical events or creative works. It contains commentary on or discussion about a primary source. The most important feature of secondary sources is that they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources. These are good for general research.

Secondary sources interpret, analyze, or summarize.
Commentary upon, or analysis of, events, ideas, or primary sources. Because they are often written significantly after events by parties not directly involved but who have special expertise, they may provide historical context or critical perspectives. Examples are scholarly books, journals, magazines, criticism, interpretations, and so forth.

Think of a lawyer's final summation or jury discussion in a court trial.

Secondary sources

  • Biographies
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies (used to locate a secondary source)
  • Journal articles
  • Book about a primary source

A tertiary source presents summaries or condensed versions of materials, usually with references back to the primary and/or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject, but they rarely contain original material. Good for overview, fact checking, and to point you to other sources.

Tertiary sources compile, index, or organize sources. 
Sources which analyze, compile and digest secondary sources included mostly in abstracts, bibliographies, handbooks, encyclopedias, indexes, chronologies, etc.

Think of an index that lists all the cases heard by this court during the year.

Tertiary sources

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks

Example of All 3 Types of Sources:

Subject Primary Secondary Tertiary
Music Music score Critical review of the music List of performances
Art A painting Critical review of the painting Encyclopedia article on the artist
History Civil War diary Book on a Civil War battle List of battle sites