Aside from that being a question I ask myself regularly...! I'm doing an Masters in English Language and I'm researching music learners - how does that all come together? What am I actually doing to try to answer all the questions I'm asking?
My MA course (at Lancaster University, but studied mainly by distance learning) has covered a wide range of topics, from the History of English (where I compared a Victorian cookbook to Jamie Oliver's writing) to Spoken English (a tremendously enjoyable analysis of some West Highland dialect) to Stylistics (which looks at how literary texts achieve their effects - I analysed an extract of an opera, and briefly looked at how the textual effects work in combination with the musical ones). The two modules which have most influence on my dissertation, however, were Discourse Analysis and Corpus Linguistics. To quote the course website, discourse is "language in use" and how it relates to society. Different analysis techniques help us examine how people and organisations write about themselves and are written about. My cohort took this module around the time of the supermarket 'horsemeat scandal', which presented me with a wonderful opportunity to investigate the ways in which different supermarkets portrayed themselves in text in their explanations and apologies. To do this I used 'transitivity analysis' as defined by Halliday*, which examines the roles assigned to people, objects or organisations in a text and the types of process they are shown as undertaking, as indicated by verb clauses - processes can be categorised as material (doing), mental (thinking), verbal (saying), relational (being - identity and attributes), behavioural (self-explanatory!) and existential (existing and happening). In case you're interested, I found that the 'ethical' supermarkets - Waitrose and the Co-op - were portrayed as 'thinking and feeling'; Tesco and Iceland both emphasised 'doing' over 'saying'; Aldi underlined their willingness to communicate with lots of verbal processes. Asda was somewhere in the middle.
Obviously I won't be writing about supermarkets this time, but I will be using some of the same analysis techniques - looking at the verbs used by adult music learners when describing their experiences. Do they do a lot of thinking about what they do? Is there a lot of 'feeling', emotional content? What do relational clauses tell us about how they identify themselves? I'm also looking at passivisation - do they portray themselves as doing or as things 'happening to them'? More generally, I'm investigating the main 'discourses' of adult learners - what are the main themes or topics that they talk/ write about and how do they relate to these? The themes and topics I'm investigating are influenced by my own experiences with adult learners, by existing literature on the subject, and by the results of my teacher survey. These include relationships with teachers, family support, expectations and limitations, motivation, exams, and learners' identity as 'musicians' (or not). Whether all of these make the final dissertation is yet to be seen!
In the meantime, going back to that other module - Corpus Linguistics. Basically a corpus is a database of text which can be analysed using assorted types of software. It's particularly useful for large sets of data, where 'manual' analysis would take an incredibly long time. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) contains 100 million words of spoken and written English. If I search for the word 'music' in there, I get a list of 14924 results which pop up in about two seconds. If I was to look through all 100 million words myself to find them all... you get the idea! Corpus Linguistics used to be seen by some linguists as almost a 'niche' area - all about numbers and statistics - but it's increasingly being used in more areas of linguistics, including Discourse Analysis, and indeed within other disciplines. The ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences (CASS) has some fabulous examples of how corpus analysis has been used to investigate topics such as online abuse, seventeenth-century poverty, and metaphors around cancer patients.
So, I've been building a corpus. It consists of texts written by adult learners of music, and in combination with the analysis software AntConc will allow me to investigate how they are writing about themselves. I can look at how they describe themselves, the verbs they use, look for instances of passivisation and search for how they talk about teachers and exams. In my next MA Research post I'll discuss how I put the corpus together, the ethical issues that raised, and how I've dealt with those.
*Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C. (2004). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Hodder Education.
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.
The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!