The first thing you need to do when starting a research project is, well, having something to research. You'll probably have some ideas from current or past experiences and interests that can help you brainstorm topics.
It's a good idea to brainstorm a couple of different topics, since there's always the chance that you won't be able to use the first topic you pursue (someone may have already done it, you may not be able to find enough information, you may not be able to complete the research in time, etc.).
But most importantly, don't panic! This is just the beginning of the process, and the most fluid. Have fun and pick something that interests you and about which you can get excited.
Once you've selected a topic, it's time to start researching in order to learn more about it. Don't just start grabbing everything from everywhere! First, take some time to get to know your topic better and draw a road map of where to look next.
Use reference sources, like Grove Music Online, Baker's Biographical, or even Wikipedia to read up on the people, places, and subjects that relate to your topic. Keep track of the information you find using a mind map. This will help you to both identify patterns and trends in your research, but also to establish a heirarchy of information (which items are most important, which are related and somewhat important, what is irrelevant to your topic).
The two best places to start looking for books and media are InfoHawk and WorldCat. InfoHawk will show you what's available on the shelf here at Iowa. WorldCat will show you what's available in other libraries, and then you can use Interlibrary Loan to get what you need.
In order to get a sneak peak of a book's content, use Google Books. You can often see the table of contents and at least a handful of pages, which can help you determine the usefulness of a source to your project.
When looking at catalog records, keep track of the Subject Headings that appear in the records. You can click on the headings to see related items in the catalog, but subject headings can also help you produce new search terms and/or strategies.
And last - but not least - look at the bibliography and/or footnotes in each book in order to identify additional relevant sources. Usually you can find a handful of sources that your catalog searching did not produce, and an even longer list of articles to locate when you start searching indexes and article archives.
There are several key online music indexes you can use to find articles, including RILM, Music Index, IIMP, and RIPM. There is content overlap amongst these indexes, but each also contains unique items (e.g., RILM indexes primarily scholar content, Music Index includes more popular or magazine sources, IIMP contains a wealth of reviews, and RIPM indexes content from the 19th century). All of these indexes contain or link to some full-text content, but they are not online archives of articles.
JSTOR and Project Muse are both online journal archives bursting with full-text content. They can be difficult to search effectively because they rely on keyword searching of full-text documents in order to produce results, but no indexing (so no subject headings, no cross-referencing links for authors or journals, etc.).
Google Scholar can be used to search for articles, too. You can set Google Scholar to recognize your Iowa credentials, and it's pretty handy for searching broadly across disciplines. It's not great at pulling up results from smaller databases, like RILM, etc. If you use Google Scholar, expect it to route you to a lot of content from science & social science databases and JSTOR.
As you find information, take time to inspect it. Don't immediately rush to the library and grab every biography of Brahms, haul them home, and then realize only a handful are truly relevant to your project. Don't download every JSTOR article on Brahms and think that you're ready to write that paper. Having stacks of information is not the same as being informed.
Evaluate sources as you look through results lists and records before selecting items to add to your working bibliography. This not only saves time, it also helps you to start thinking about your topic as something under development, leading to the crafting of a thesis.
Here are some key tools and methods for evaluating items, either by looking at the physical item or by reading the item's record in a catalog or database.
When you start to check books out of the library or download articles from databases, be sure to organize everything. Have a dedicated folder for all articles and a shelf for library books.
Even more importantly, start a working bibliography of your sources. Pull citations and format them in a consistent style (Chicago, MLA, APA). Add annotations, or brief notes, to sources as you begin to make observations and select quotations. In other words, use annotations to articulate how you plan to use sources in your document.