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Jazz and Popular Music Research Guide

Using Substantive Sources for Contemporary Music Projects

You must use scholarly sources for your research project, but what happens when your chosen topic seems to not have any scholarship yet? You may run into this challenge if your topic is very contemporary or niche. The academic writing, peer-review, and publication process takes a long time, but it is still worth writing about modern topics. 

In situations like these, you must dig deeper into contemporary, non-scholarly sources to support your research. In this guide, we will explore how to find and use substantive, authoritative non-scholarly sources.


What is a "substantive source”? 

A substantive and authoritative source is a source that can bring knowledge and add value to your research, even if it is not “scholarly.” It is important to understand that there is more than one way of creating knowledge. You can identify a substantive source in the following ways:  

  • It will pass the CRAAP test:  
    • Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose 
    • Beware of excessive ads, blatant propaganda, and exaggeration 
  • It is written/produced by authorities on the subject and/or experience 
    • What are the authors’ credentials? 
    • What type of relevant background knowledge and experiences does the author have?  
  • Proves to be reliable after a lateral reading 
    • What do other sources say about this source? 
    • What are the sociopolitical interests of the people who created this source? 
  • If you are having a tough time determining if a source is substantive or not, ask a librarian.


Why Use Non-Scholarly, Substantive Sources?  

  • Public Reception & Popularity 
    • Public reception is a critical element of popular music. How was a piece of music initially received or interpreted by the public? You might look at local newspapers, music magazines, or blogs by notable music writers. 
  • Author Perspectives  
    • What is the creator of this music saying about it? You might use a documentary or a podcast with commentary from the creator. You may look at their personal website for a written statement, program notes, liner notes, or lectures.  
  • Pop Culture & Public Discourse 
    • Does the music you’re researching make extra-musical culture references that are happening now? Cite the people who are talking about this in blogs or notable people on social media.  
  • Data and Awards 
    • Using numeric data is a good way to put music in context. You can use the latest data on music sales/streaming or nominations/wins at a major award show. You can also use data about diversity in musical spaces or music programming. When dealing with quantitative data, be extra careful to use authoritative and reputable sources.  


Where to Look for Music Substantive Sources (Examples) 

These sources are generally good places to begin looking for non-scholarly, substantive sources, but is not a complete list by any means:

*Note: Be cautious with social media. Use social media posts from artists as primary sources, non-factual quotes, and images and to lead you in the right direction.


How to Use Substantive Sources 

  • Identify relevant substantive sources 
    • Authoritative 
    • Reputable & Accurate 
    • Relevant 
    • Valuable 
  • Contextualize your source  
    • Put your source and music in context of genre, history, location, gender, musical era, medium, etc.  
  • Put it in conversation with your scholarly sources 
    • Ask “what would your scholarly sources have to say about this source and other sources like it?” 
  • Analyze the source
    • Ask “Do I agree with the source?”
    • Ask “How does the source relate to my argument?”
  • Cite accordingly 

In musical research projects, you must analyze music AND its context. Remember to use the sources; don't let the sources use you. Sometimes artists and authors misrepresent their own music; it is up to you to think critically and use every source wisely. Cite all sources, scholarly or otherwise. When in doubt, ask a librarian.  

This guide was created by Damaris Billups and edited by Peter Shirts for use in Emory University Libraries in November 2022