Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Finding Primary Sources of Music in Libraries and Archives

A guide to identifying, locating, and accessing primary sources (including manuscripts, early editions, programs, interviews, and more). This guide covers both digital and physical collections.


Welcome to the Music & Performing Arts Library (MPAL) guide to Finding Primary Sources of Music!

Identifying, locating, and using primary sources can be a complex process, so we've created this guide to help! Read through the rest of this guide for an introduction to the basics of research into musical sources, a break down of what kinds of sources you might want to consult, and tips on accessing them through the Library and online. 

Use the tabs to the left to navigate the guide and don't hesitate to ask a librarian if you need help!

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 other pages of this guide!

Helpful Definitions & Terminology for Music Primary Sources

As you are looking for primary sources of music, particularly manuscripts and early editions, you might have to navigate some challenging terminology. The following definitions and translations are here to give you an overview of key terms you're likely to come across.

Manuscript - a handwritten source of music. Sometimes abbreviated as MS (singular) or MSS (plural). 

Related terms and translations:

  • Manuscript (German): Handschrift, abbreviated as "Hs"; Manuscript (French): Manuscrit
  • Folio: term used for the leaves (pages) of a manuscript, often abbreviated as "f."


  • First edition - typically published in consultation with the composer
  • Early editions - printed during the composer's lifetime; sometimes edited by a relative, student, or other person close to the composer, after the composer's death

Related terms and translations:

  • Edition (German): Ausgabe, abbreviated as "Ausg."; Edition (French): edition

Facsimile - a copy or reproduction that is designed to be as faithful to the original edition as possible

Additional translations that might be of use: Publication, Printing (German: Druck; French: imprime); Publisher (German: Verlag; French: editeur); and Collection (German: Sammlung; French: Recueil)

For more terms and translations, refer to the Helpful Terminology tab on our page on Collected Works & Thematic Catalogs. 

Still Unsure?

If you are still unsure about the distinctions between different types of sources or want to engage with more examples, we are linking several excellent resources below from the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library and the University Archives.