In a recent article for this journal Barry S. Brook discussed the function of oral history in musical research, its special advantages to historians, and the distinctions between oral and written documents.1 Oral history, he noted, provides "the intimacies, the subtleties, the inflections—the sound and sense of a life history" usually unavailable from written sources.2 He also described the Project for the Oral History of Music in America (POHMA), a national archive housing tapes and transcripts of interviews, based at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This article is a discussion of practical considerations for the oral historian.

In the Spring of 1977 an initial interdisciplinary graduate course on oral history methodology was offered jointly by the music and sociology departments at the Graduate Center and taught by Brook and Bernard Rosenberg, professor of sociology. The instructors discussed sociological processes affecting the artist in society, such as commercialization, socialization and alienation, as well as practical suggestions for the use of oral history in music and other arts. As a musicologist and oral historian I would like to share my experiences in collecting data from interviews and coordinating this new information with other source materials.

Although all oral history projects are designed to uncover information found nowhere else (opinions, attitudes, experiences), the purpose of each interview must be clearly defined. Two projects sponsored by POHMA are contrasting examples of how the design is a function of the purpose of the interview. In a study of the influence of Edgar Varèse, each of the composers interviewed was asked specifically about his relationship to Varèse.3 However, in a project on contemporary women composers in America, each of the women interviewed spoke more generally and autobiographically, expressing in her own words her experiences, attitudes, and ideas about herself as a musician in contemporary society.4 Despite their differences both projects provided not only new information but also fresh perspectives on extant information. For example in the interviews about Varèse contemporary composers challenged traditional assumptions that Varèse's influence was less significant than Stravinsky's and Schoenberg's.

Because the oral historian functions within a historical perspective, researching primary and secondary sources is always a first step. Familiarity with background information about a chosen topic and interviewees is essential. During the course of research it is important to keep a list of possible questions or subject areas to be explored. These questions can then be organized into an interview grid, i.e., a broad outline of essential information to be covered in the interview. Example 1 is a sample interview grid for the project on women composers.



  1. First musical interest
  2. First compositions
  3. Family and social group influences
  4. Parental backgrounds—interests, occupations
  5. Siblings—place and position in family
  6. Early training—schools, teachers, peers, friends
  7. Early career—opportunities for study and travel, awards
  8. Mentors and models


  1. Career development—publications, recordings, performances, public relations, audiences
  2. Patronage, unions, other areas of financial support
  3. Academia—relationship to students and colleagues
  4. Politics and institutions relating to arts
  5. Organizations, networks
  6. Difficulties, obstacles, highlights of career
  7. Musical style, genres
  8. Other musical activities—conducting, performing


  1. Other interests—artistic, literary
  2. Expectations, self-analysis
  3. Feminism, other women composers (past and present), relationship to women's movement, political implications
  4. Aesthetic/psychological profile—creative process, inspiration
  5. Working schedule, points of tension and relaxation
  6. Domestic, marital arrangement affecting career
  7. Perception of sex roles influencing work
  8. Future plans


Criteria for choosing subjects to be interviewed must be carefully considered. For the study of Varèse we developed a list of living composers who knew Varèse and were influenced by his music. After we had read about and listened to a number of contemporary works, composers were selected who were likely to shed light on Varèse and his influence. Once the subjects have been selected the best way to make the initial contact is by letter, stating the aims of the project and why it is of particular value to speak to that person. Example 2 is a sample introductory letter used in the Varèse project.



The Project for the Oral History of Music in America (POHMA) is now under way at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Enclosed is a description of POHMA and its objectives. In connection with the Project and as part of a Varèse seminar in progress at the Graduate Center, I am interviewing a number of leading composers on questions of concern in twentieth-century music, among them the impact of Varèse's music and his continuing influence on music today. POHMA will house and preserve the tapes and transcripts at CUNY for the future use of scholars and researchers. Hoping that you will be able to participate in this project, I will contact you soon to arrange a convenient time and place for our discussion.


Following this an appointment can be arranged by telephone. Whenever possible try to meet the subject in his or her home or office; a familiar setting makes the interviewee more comfortable. Also documents and memorabilia that are relevant to the discussion will be at hand. Interviews usually should last from 60 to 90 minutes; if necessary a second interview can be arranged to obtain additional information. If one is working intensively with an individual subject, it is best to space the series of interviews over several weeks or months. Before the interview it is crucial that the subject sign an agreement, in accordance with established oral history procedure, regarding the availability of the tape and transcript, and the use of his remarks for future publication. The subject has the right to closure, i.e., to withhold from the public any portion of the material for any period of time.

During the interview the oral historian must allow the subject time to speak yet also cover the questions in the interview grid. How to accomplish this will depend on the subject's pace of speech and degree of articulation. According to Deena and Bernard Rosenberg "rapport—but not so much of it as to preclude a measure of detachment—is absolutely essential."5 When faced with a series of one-word answers, the oral historian may have to change from questions to statements that the subject can then comment on. One must be attuned at all times to the subject's reactions; subtle inflections can give the interviewer signals to proceed with a line of questioning or may tell the interviewer to change direction. To facilitate this the presence of a second interviewer, particularly one with a different background, can be enormously helpful and enrich the conversation with another viewpoint. Sometimes direct questions on controversial topics do not yield fruitful answers, while an indirect approach can often elicit a flood of information. For example in our work with women composers we wanted to find out why the person being interviewed thought there had been no great women composers, but instead of asking the question that way we asked, "What has happened to the Clara Schumanns?"

Turning to more practical matters of equipment, a reel to reel tape recorder is best for producing a broadcast quality tape. However, a high quality cassette recorder will yield a good clear tape if outside noise is kept to a minimum and microphones are properly placed. Cassette recorders are more convenient to transport and are less intrusive during the interview. Subjects not familiar with modern technology (especially elderly people) may resist being taped. If the subject cannot be persuaded by historical or archival considerations, i.e., the tape being an important document for the future use of scholars and researchers, a stenographer might be used. This will free the interviewer from the dual task of taking detailed notes and interviewing.

Even though a session is recorded, additional note-taking is advisable. The interviewee may say something that triggers a set of questions more appropriately raised at a later point in the interview. Or the interviewer may want to jot down notes about the environment or other visual objects, for example the specific measure of a score being examined or the title of a work played during the interview.

Transcription is a costly and time-consuming yet essential step in the oral history process. The best time to transcribe is immediately following the interview and the best person to do it is the interviewer. A tape recorder with a foot pedal will free the hands for typing. Transcriptions should be verbatim except for obvious monosyllabic "uhs" and the like. The scholar is more likely to read a transcript than to listen to a tape. Nevertheless both tape and transcript are primary source materials and should not be altered.

Editing the raw transcript is necessary in preparing the material for publication. The spoken sentence and written sentence may differ in style, but they should not differ in content. Word and sentence order may be changed around and repetitions omitted to ensure smooth reading. Omitting entire sections from the rough transcript will depend on the purpose of the edited transcript. Example 3 is a comparison of a raw vs. an edited transcript. In the latter some material is condensed and the questions are incorporated into the narrative.6


Interviewer Julius is the author; subject Fine is Vivian Fine.

JULIUS: O.K., let's go back to earlier times. Before we even get to Ruth Crawford, I'd like to know about your early musical memories, very first compositions. You were born in Chicago. Were your parents musical?

FINE: My mother is musical, but she came from an immigrant family, and while she had some lessons, she had to go to work when she was 14. She has almost absolute pitch.

JULIUS: But no formal training.

FINE: No, just a few piano lessons. My very earliest musical memory I do remember, it was a kind of critical one. I don't think we put enough weight on the early experience for the children that one comes in contact with, how critical they are for them, in a way we can't realize. One of my aunts had a piano.

JULIUS: You did not have a piano?

FINE: No, we did not. When I was three years old, my mother used to go visit her sister and I remember standing at the piano and striking a note, and I could swear it was an E. My mother said if I didn't bang on the piano, I just used to stand there and listen to the sound. For many years I had a recurrent dream that I was playing either an organ or a piano that had enormous keys, gigantic keys, they were very broad and I was below the instrument. This was before I knew this thing in my childhood. I had this dream and there I was, the keys were very big and heavy and I was standing below the piano, but I was a grown-up person in this dream. Then I guess it's my mother that told me that I used to go to the piano and play the separate tones and listen. Then I realized this dream was exactly like what happened when I was a child. There I was, a little child, and the keys seemed very very big to me and heavy to push down, and I was standing below the whole thing and pushing down. The sound of one sound on the piano is still very beautiful to me, and in all the magic of the making of that sound. It is magical to a child to press down something and out comes this sound, its reverberations and its decay. I feel the same closeness to sound that I felt as a child. This was a very early memory. Then when I was five my sister who was eight had been taking violin lessons. My parents were very very poor, but certain things were done, we did have music lessons. My sister had violin lessons and I do remember this, I evidently wanted to study the piano and I didn't know how to say it to my mother, but it came out in a violent outburst. I was a very mild, well-behaved child, perhaps too well behaved. I threw myself on the floor and I cried and cried and said I wanted piano lessons. Gregor Piatigorsky, whom I knew, said this was very common that gifted children, often it comes out in a tremendous rush of emotion that they want lessons. So my mother said, of course, you can have the lessons, so she found a piano teacher for me.

JULIUS: But you didn't have a piano in the home.

FINE: I think the piano was then moved from my aunt's. My mother gave me my first lessons. She knew about reading music and was musical, but very shortly she felt she couldn't. There was a neighbor's child who was taking lessons. So Miss Rosen was invited to see me and said she wouldn't take anybody so young. I was just barely five at the time. My mother said, listen to her play. So I played for Miss Rosen and she said she would take me. Maybe that was misfortune when you hear what came after. Because Miss Rosen's idea of discipline was that if I played a wrong note, she'd hit me on the hand with a fly swatter.

Planning, taping, transcribing, and editing the interview are preliminary steps leading to the more important task of interpretation. The oral historian then becomes the music historian who assesses the raw data in the context of other evidence. The oral historian who has participated in creating the raw material is in a uniquely advantageous position to use it in clarifying issues. Conclusion can then be drawn based on readings, archival work, analysis of scores, as well as the interview. Because oral history supplements the written word, it enlarges the scope of traditional musicology and provides new avenues for scholarly inquiry.



My mother is musical, but she came from an immigrant family, and while she had some piano lessons, she had to go to work when she was 14. She has almost absolute pitch, but no formal training. My very earliest musical memory is a critical one, for one of my aunts had a piano; we did not. When I was three years old, I remember standing at the piano and striking a note. I could swear it was an E. My mother said I didn't bang on the piano, I just used to stand there and listen to the sound. For many years I had a recurrent dream that I, as an adult, was playing either an organ or piano that had gigantic keys that were very broad and heavy, and I was below the instrument. Talking to my mother, I realized that this dream was exactly like what happened when I was a child. The sound of one tone on the piano is still very beautiful to me, as is the magic of making that sound, hearing it reverberate and decay. I feel the same closeness to sound that I felt as a child. Anyway, my parents were very poor but we did have music lessons. My older sister had violin lessons. I wanted to study the piano. I didn't know how to say it to my mother, so it came out in a violent outburst. I threw myself on the floor and cried and said I wanted piano lessons. Gregor Piatigorsky, whom I knew, said that gifted children often express their desire for lessons in a tremendous rush of emotion. So the piano was moved from my aunt's house and my mother gave me my first lessons. Very shortly afterwards she found another teacher for me who, when I played a wrong note, disciplined me on the hand with a fly swatter.




Baum, Willa K. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1971.

Cash, Joseph H. The Practice of Oral History. Glen Rock, N.J.: Microfilm Corp., 1975.

Curtis, Richard D. Guide for Oral History Programs. Fullerton: California State University, 1973.

Cutler, William W. "Accuracy in Oral History Interviewing," Historical Methods Newsletter III (June 1970), 1-7.

Davis, Cullom, Kathryn Back and Kay MacLean. Oral History: From Tape to Type. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.

Grele, R.J. Envelopes of Sound. Chicago: Precedent Publications, 1975.

Hoffman, Alice. "Reliability and Validity in Oral History," Today's Speech XXII (Winter 1974), 23-27.

Mason, Elizabeth and Louis Starr. The Oral History Collection. New York: Oral History Research Office, 1973.

Meckler, Allan and Ruth McMullin. Oral History Collections: A Directory. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1975.

Merton, Robert K. and Patricia Kendall. "The Unfocused Interview," American Journal of Sociology LI, No. 6 (May 1946), 541-57.

Moss, William W. Oral History Program Manual. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Neuenschwander, John A. Oral History As a Teaching Approach. Washington: National Education Association, 1976.

Oral History Colloquia—Proceedings. 1966-

Oral History Association—Newsletter. 1967-

Richardson, Stephen A. Interviewing: Its Form and Function. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Shumway, Gary L. Oral History in the United States: A Directory. New York: Oral History Association, 1971.

Shumway, Gary L. and William G. Hartley. An Oral History Primer. Fullerton: California State University, 1973.

Thompson, Paul. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973.

Waserman, Manfred J. Bibliography on Oral History. New York: Oral History Association, 1975.



Baker, David M. The Black Composer Speaks. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Jacobson, Robert. Reverberations. New York: Morrow, 1974.

Kreuger, Miles. Showboat: The Story of a Classical American Musical. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Perlis, Vivian. Charles Ives Remembered. New York: Norton, 1974.

Rosenberg, Deena, and Bernard Rosenberg. The Music Makers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Shaw, Arnold. Honkers and Shouters: The Rhythm and Blues Years. New York: Macmillan, 1976.



Columbia University, Oral History Research Office, Louis Starr, director, Elizabeth Mason, assistant director. Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.

City University of New York, Project for the Oral History of Music in America, Elizabeth Wood, executive research coordinator. Graduate Center, City University of New York, 33 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036.

East Tennessee State University, Oral History Archives, Thomas G. Brinton and Ambrose N. Manning, directors. East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN 37601.

Indiana University, Archives of Traditional Music, George List, director. Maxwell Hall 013, Bloomington, IN 47401.

Tulane University, Archive of New Orleans Jazz, Richard B. Allen, director. Music Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118.

University of Louisville, Oral History Collection, Charles R. Berry, director. Department of History, Belknap Campus, University of Louisville, KY 40208.

Yale University, Oral History: American Music, Vivian Perlis, director. Music Library, Yale University, 98 Wall Street, New Haven, CT 06520.

1Barry S. Brook, "Oral History and Music History in Our Time," SYMPOSIUM 19, No. 1 (Spring 1979), 233-238.

2Ibid., p. 234.

3For more information see Ruth Julius, "Edgar Varèse: An Oral History Project, Some Preliminary Conclusions," Current Musicology XXV (1978), 39-49.

4Contemporary Women Composers in America is in progress, directed by Elizabeth Wood and Ruth Julius.

5Deena Rosenberg and Bernard Rosenberg, The Music Makers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 5.

6Questions may also be included in the final edited version of an interview. For example see the interview with William Kimmel in this issue of SYMPOSIUM.

2147 Last modified on October 25, 2018