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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Locating Primary Sources of Music in Libraries and Archives: Home

A guide for identifying and locating primary manuscript (and early edition) sources by using RISM and other tools.

Introduction to Sources

For a very helpful introduction to anyone studying music sources, see:

Sources, MS (vol. 23) The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians, 2nd ed. New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 2001

Ready Reference ML100 G76N38 2001 

Or available as part of Oxford Music Online (access limited to UIUC students/faculty/staff, and to patrons in the libraries).


Music manuscripts and early printed editions of music are primary sources and are invaluable to the musical scholar. However, identifying, locating, and using primary sources can be a complex process. Facsimiles or modern critical editions of the works you are studying may also be of use. This guide serves as an introduction to the basics of research into musical sources. All materials are located in the Music and Performing Arts Library unless otherwise indicated.

Reference assistance is available by inquiring at the Reference desk. You can also e-mail subject librarian Kirstin Dougan (dougan (at) illinois (dot) edu) or call 1-217-333-7095.


Types of Sources

The primary sources of a musical work (scores or parts) can include the following:

Autograph / Holograph the composer's own manuscript

Copies handwritten by a relative, student, colleague, or professional copyist; or, in the case of medieval works, by monastic scribes

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

Scholarly, or critical, editions edited by a scholar or performer known for his/her knowledge / interpretation of the composer's music. These attempt to establish an "Urtext" that comes as close as possible to the composer's ultimate intentions for the piece, and record the variant readings (differences) in the primary sources, in the critical commentary (German= kritischer Bericht (pl. kritische Berichte)). Some are published as "collected editions," see below.

Collected editions of the composer's complete works. More recent sets are published in scholarly or critical edition (see above).


For more in-depth discussion of these terms, see the "Editions" entry in the Grove Dictionary (via Oxford Music Online) and also, "Editing."

Subject Guide

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Music and Performing Arts Library
1300 Music Building
1114 W. Nevada St.
Urbana, IL 61801
Subjects: Dance, Music, Theatre