When you're looking for listening experiences to enter into LED, you may well find yourself searching in other databases and online sources. One of the challenges is to devise search terms which will enable you to trawl such resources effectively – ‘music’ alone is highly inefficient, and depending on the content of the database, even combining ‘music’ and ‘listen’ is not necessarily as productive as you might think: in Mass Observation Online, for example, this combination throws up a large number of hits on radio listening that have nothing to do with music, but simply appear in a document in which the word ‘music’ also appears. So in the event that you find yourself working with databases, here are some thoughts about devising search terms.
You need to be sensitive to the type and content of the database that is being used – especially to historical period; some imagination, cultural awareness and understanding of historical vocabularies is helpful. For example, ‘ditties’ and ‘consort’ appear frequently in some earlier sources, while ‘bandmaster’ , ‘busker’ and ‘German band’ occur in later ones. Similarly, phrases such as “power of music” and “lover of music” have produced some promising results in databases strong in 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century content. When you find a relevant source, it may be worth reading a few pages on either side of the highlighted results to get a feel for the language and in particular the words that point to a musical experience.
Some databases cover a period of time when the meaning of words changed significantly. For example, it is possible to search The Times throughout its existence, from the eighteenth century onwards. So even within your investigation of a single database, search terms may need to be adjusted according to the period under scrutiny.
Boolean searches, wildcards and other search techniques
Most existing databases tend to employ what are now rather traditional search techniques, and will normally provide some sort of advanced search facility; but be warned – some accommodate more sophisticated search techniques than others. Anyone who has done advanced or complex searches in – for example – online library catalogues is likely to have used Boolean operators and wildcards. Boolean searches use the words ‘AND’, ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’ (‘Boolean operators’, given in upper case) to search for a combination of words, or to exclude a particular word that you know will yield results that you don’t want. These are some of the possible ways to use operators:
• heard AND music AND band – this will find results that contain all three terms
• heard AND music OR band – this will find results containing ‘heard’ together with either ‘music’ or ‘band’
• heard AND music NOT band – this will find results containing ‘heard’ and ‘music’ but will exclude any results that contain the word ‘band’
Of course, these searches may yield results where the search terms appear in the same document but in fact have nothing to do with each other, so check whether the search facility allows you to specify only results where your search terms occur within a certain number of words of each other (on the basis that, the closer their proximity, the more likely they are to relate to the same experience).
To search for an exact phrase, enclose it in double quotes, as in the example given earlier: “power of music”.
A search facility will often give you the option of using a ‘wildcard’ – that is, a symbol that takes the place of a letter or group of letters, allowing you to broaden your search to cover a group of related words. The most common wildcard symbol is an asterisk.
So, for example, a search for ‘music’ AND ‘listen*’ will find results that include ‘music’ along with ‘listen’, ‘listens’, ‘listened’, ‘listener’, ‘listening’, and so on.
Because ‘music’ only exists as a noun (except in more trendy circles), it should almost always be used in a Boolean string. Full-text searches of facsimile-based collections such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online should also take into account more antiquated terms such as ‘musick’. A wildcard can be useful here (‘music*’), but facsimile-based collections do not always have this facility.
Nouns may present unanticipated challenges – ’band’, for example, signifies any number of musical instrument combinations including (before 1900) the orchestra, but it also brings up ‘band of soldiers’ as well as those of the elastic variety.
Verbs may be most effective in the past tense or combined with a wildcard. Try using the following verbs in a Boolean string; even though some apply to other experiences than just musical ones, you can target them more precisely by combining them with ‘music’ or a more precise musical term (instrument name, musical genre, and so on):
• heard (hear*)
• listened (listen*)
• performed (perform*)
• played (play*)
• sang/sung (s*ng)
• chanted (chant*)
Here is a list of other search terms that have proved useful. Please get in touch if you have any suggestions: