Improving Musicology Research Methods

By Barry Pearce, Feb 2019.

The need to improve

Anyone that has performed research will be familiar with some, if not all of the problems encountered when using the research of others and trying to locate some, or all of the declared iconographic data (if indeed you are lucky to have a full list). As researchers we tend to come up against two main problematic areas; issues in referencing and wasted effort.

Referencing issues

Referencing is quite a big area and is a multi-faceted problem of which there are four main issues.

1. Poor or non-existent referencing

The books of the early 20th century are typical in their lack of references for iconographic works.

2. Un-locatable works such as "Valencia, 14th century, Unknown, private collection"

Such references, whilst meaningful to the author are pretty worthless when trying to seek the source material. None of the dated presented is unique enough, even in its entirety to perform any internet search nor trace in indexes. 

3. Outdated references

As artworks are bought and sold the references in journals, books etc date. This same problem in modern internet terminology is known as link rot. Its not a new issue. An additional issue is where libraries and museums change their name or re-issue identification numbers for works.

There is a second form of "reference rot" that occurs. When one refers to other books and journals the ability to access those records over time becomes harder. Thankfully projects like JStor are helping, as is the Internet Archive, IMSLP and so on. However these projects do not tend to scan and archive the large 13 volume works of people such as Professor Post. Libraries change their content over time, and often these very old books tend to be shifted to storage or sold on. A number of my own books were bought second hand and are from many of the large respected university libraries. Given enough time the availability of those books dwindles making the references hard to verify.

4. Vast resources

As an example, to recreate the dataset used by one prominent researcher from the 1980s requires an extensive library. Over 100 books some of which are very large volumes and others now out-of-date catalogues. Only the very largest libraries will have this material available. Not a problem if you are within easy reach of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK. Very much a bigger problem if you are more remote. 

Wasted efforts

The amount of effort required to obtain a data set of any reasonable size to support a research interest is quite significant. Often, the collection of source material has been done hundreds, if not thousands of times over already. It is almost a rite of passage. Each researcher is consigned to repeating the efforts of the ancestors again and again. To what end? So that they may learn to dig up material? All well and good. But 5 years of doing this task has taught me it doesn't get any easier. Quite the contrary - the more source data you have the harder it gets to manage, and the harder it becomes to obtain new source data. Surely rather than everyone expending the same efforts on the same/similar tasks why don't we pool our knowledge?

These frustrations led me to thinking about the whole process of musicology. This is when I reflected that the musicology approach would not be acceptable in scientific research, and scientific publishing. So I started to move to using scientific level of principles in my research. This goes beyond what I present here, and extends deep into my own research methods, but from an inter-researcher perspective we could do so much better.

Scientific Principles

Scientific method is guided by a number of principles. Two of these scientific principles can guide us to improved research methodology in musicology. I wish to encourage their use, and improve both the volume of data used in analysis and open up those analyses to sensible peer review. In particular two core principles that should be adopted are:

  1. Reproducibility
  2. Data sharing

How BSIP helps solve these problems

By using the BSIP database and referencing system to specify source iconographic data consumers and later researchers can readily recreate the prior data sets. Digital publishing on the Internet has the advantage that high resolution full colour imagery may be reproduced without cost implications suffered from print media.

Using BSIP references solves all of the issues identified above. 

Referencing Issues 1 & 2: A BSIP reference yields a source even if nothing is known about the source. Sources that are completely un-locatable and cannot be searched for on the Internet, nor in any book may not only be referred to uniquely but may be found again subsequently.

Referencing Issue 3: BSIP is a live system. The data is editable and maintained, so whilst some information may become outdated the reference itself will still yield a source on the BSIP database. The information about that source can be modified to reflect newer knowledge regarding the source.

Referencing Issue 4: There is no longer a need for a vast library of books. Now anyone in the world can access images, at a resolution at least as good as the original print material.

By researchers sharing their data and pooling their knowledge we can benefit not only the current generation of researchers but those who follow us.

Find out more about BSIP References.

Find out more about Data Sets & Data Sharing and how the BSIP database and referencing can support your research.

Cite this article:

Pearce, Barry. Bowed Strings Iconography Project: Improving Musicology Research Methods. (2019) <>