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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

MUS 511: Foundations and Methods of Musicology I


Identifying, locating, and using primary sources for music research can be a complex process, so we've created a guide to help!

This page will give you an introduction to source types and some examples of primary sources of music that might enrich your research. We've also linked a few tools below that will help you browse digital collections for primary source materials. 

To learn more about working with primary sources in music and how to find and access them, please check out our guide, Finding Primary Sources of Music

Introduction to Source Types

Primary sources are creative works or direct representations of the work of a composer or author. They are sources that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching and are generally created by a participant, witness, or principal actor of the subject you are studying. 

In music, a primary source might be a composer's personal correspondence or diary, a hand-written manuscript of a score, or a review of a first performance from a critic or audience member. 

Example: To fully understand the divisions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, it can be helpful to consider one topic and identify the different source types you could use. If you were researching the composer John Cage, a primary source might be a collection of his letters. 

Click through the other tabs of this box to follow the example across source types. 

Secondary sources are one step removed from primary sources. Often they are an analysis, critique, or interpretation of a primary source. Secondary sources are typically sources that were created after the event you are researching by someone who was not a direct participant or observer

In music, secondary sources could take the form of a biography of a particular composer or a critical essay about performance practice. 

Example: A secondary source about John Cage could be a biography about him or a critical analysis of his compositions. 

Tertiary sources are often a synthesis or compilation of many primary and secondary sources. It can be helpful to think of tertiary sources as works that provide general overviews of a topic and lists of the various sources that have been published on a given subject. 

In music, a tertiary source might be an encyclopedia, bibliography, or discography - sources that direct readers to additional materials rather than present new interpretation or analyses. 

Example: A tertiary source for research on John Cage might be an encyclopedia on experimental music. 

Primary Sources in Music

Depending on the subject you're researching, there are a variety of primary sources you might consider. This is not an exhaustive list, but an introduction to show you the range of primary sources of music you can consult and explore in the course of your research.

  • Scores (particularly manuscripts, facsimiles, or early printed editions of scores)
  • Interviews, speeches, or oral histories
  • Personal writings (including diaries, autobiographies, letters, and correspondence)
  • Musical instruments
  • Film footage of rehearsals or audio recordings
  • Reviews of performances
  • Concert programs

For tips and support tracking down some of the primary sources listed above, check out the Finding Primary Sources of Music guide!