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Music 1A: Listing Versus Describing… And A Few More Things About Homework

I frequently see homework assignment answers that make the mistake of providing a list when the question calls for a description. These two things — lists and descriptions — are not the same.

You would not answer the following two requests the same way.

  • List your three best friends.
  • Describe your three best friends.

Make sense? In the first case you could simply name three people. In the second case you need to offer more information and describe some of their characteristics. 

Many of my homework assignments ask you to describe things (or, in some cases list and describe), so read carefully and respond accordingly. For example.

  • List textures used in this piece.
    You could answer, for example, monophonic and polyphonic textures.
  • Describe the use of texture in this piece.
    You could answer, for example, The piece starts with monophonic texture. As more instruments come in it changes to polyphony. The texture becomes homophonic when the piano accompanies the singer.


  • Remember that you must not simply quote text from the book on the homework assignments. At a minimum you must paraphrase in your own words, since that suggests that you understand the information.
  • You will never earn an A grade on a homework paper on which you substitute quotes in place of your own descriptions.
  • Make sure your answers are focused on the subject of the questions. Avoid bringing in unrelated and/or irrelevant material — it actually makes your answer less credible.
  • Avoid excess verbosity — in general it is better to answer in a clear, concise, and efficient manner that conveys your knowledge of the subject.
  • Always answer on the printed form from the website. Please do not attach handwritten or typed sheets unless you clear it with me ahead of time.
  • Always do the listening and consult the text before answering!

When In Doubt, Doubt

Helpful student advice: Never (as in NEVER) preface an answer or statement with “without a doubt” unless you are absolutely, utterly, 100%, bet-your-life certain that there is no room for any doubt at all.

Double-especially… never use that phrase when you make a false statement or assertion. It doesn’t look so great… ;-)

Music 1A: About Page Breaks…

As I read concert reports I sometimes notice that certain basic writing errors appear quite often. This time I am seeing quite a few papers with section titles left hanging at the bottom of the page. The following graphic may help.


When you end up with a section title or sub-title on the last line of the page you have a couple of options to correct this.

  1. Place a page break before the title so that it ends up at the top of the following page and with its associated text, or…
  2. Reformat your text so that at least a line or two of the text following the subtitle appears after it at the bottom of the page.

Too Many Words

“I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.” — attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

A pithier version of this quotation is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

While reading concert reports, I sometimes think of this. ;-)

One goal of editing is to eliminate unnecessary words that interfere with your reader’s comprehension of your points. A longer paper is not always a better paper, and excessive length may mean that you did not edit carefully. On many college papers you should work to make your writing clear and concise. Too many words (yeah, I do it, too) obscures your good points and reduces the quality of your writing.

Many Things Can Repeat, But Few Can “Repeat Themselves”

A new writing/speaking mistake is becoming more common. Let’s see if you recognize it. One of the following sentences makes sense. One does not.

  • I repeat myself.
  • The music repeats itself.

If you say something, you may “repeat yourself” by saying it a second time. In fact, if you are a musician you may repeat music that you previously played.

However, while music may repeat, the music is not doing the repeating. It is fine to say that, “The music repeats.” But it makes no sense to say that music repeats itself.

“You” or “I?” Or Something Else?

On assignments and papers in Music 1A, generally avoid writing things like, “You can hear the loud trumpet.” When I read that I can’t help but think, “No I can’t!” This is a fine and well-understood way to speak in informal conversation—I’m sure I do it, too—but not in academic writing.

What should you do instead? There are a few possibilities, and the best one depends on the situation.

  • It some cases you could write, “I heard the loud trumpet.” This works in a situation in which writing in the first person is appropriate. For example, you could do this in the subjective reaction sections or the quality of performance section of your concert report.
  • In many (most?) cases it is probably better to use a different approach and write something like, “The trumpet played loudly.” Something like this is almost always better in the objective description sections of a concert report.

I have attempted to consider all of the possibilities here, and sometimes the right choice can be a bit subjective and depend upon context.

Without a Doubt

Without a doubt, you should avoid writing “without a doubt” when writing about any subject concerning which you are not 100% certain and/or about which someone else might be less than certain. ;-)

You could reasonably write “without a doubt, two plus two equals four” since no one doubts that.

It might be unwise to write, “without a doubt, no one could play any faster than that,” or “without a doubt, the tempo was allegro” – unless you checked the score to see if was marked that way.

When in doubt, don’t write “without a doubt” at all in your papers. It really does not add anything to what you write, and it looks bad if your statement turns out to be, uh, open to doubt… or just plain wrong.

Remember my motto about how specific to be in your papers: “Tell me what you do know. Do not tell me what you don’t know.”