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Primary Sources in Music

An introduction to finding primary source materials in music, including useful reference works and a selection of online resources organized by topic.

What's a primary source (and how do I find one)?

In historical studies a primary source is, broadly speaking, any source of information about a topic that was created at the time being studied. 

For example, Beethoven's sketches on Schiller's "Ode to Joy" are a primary source for the 9th symphony; Mahler's letters are a primary source for Mahler biography; reviews written after the first performance of Rite of Spring are primary sources for Stravinsky reception.

Sources created after the fact, usually relying on primary sources, are called secondary sources.

General Tips

  • Check the references of scholarly secondary sources relevant to your topic.  Odds are decent that primary sources useful to them will also be useful to you.
  • Familiarize yourself with standard reference works.
  • Think outside the box!  Just because a source isn't primarily about music doesn't mean it can't tell you something about music or the context of music making.

Associate Music Cataloger

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Laura Gayle Green
Allen Music Library
College of Music, FSU
122 N. Copeland St.
Tallahassee, FL 32306
Website Skype Contact: lauragayle
Subjects: Music

Tips for finding primary sources in the catalog

There are several terms you can use in a Subject Heading search that are helpful for identifying potential primary sources in the catalog. If you use the Advanced Search feature of the catalog, you can combine subject terms and keyword searching to narrow down your results.

You can also limit results to the Allen Music Library to further refine your results—but bear in mind there might be useful materials in other libraries, depending on your topic!

Here are some useful subject terms to try:


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Online starting points for primary sources

General Resources


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