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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. 

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

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).

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."