Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

Working with Music-related Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources in Music? And what can we learn from them?

Primary sources are original documents that directly represent the work of a composer, author, songwriter, or recorded performer. They reveal information about how music was produced and performed, the history of composition, music theory, techniques, and information about individuals and cultures. 

A musical manuscript on vellum from the fourteenth century can potentially contain as much information about the environment in which it was created as an MP3 on Spotify.

Studying the manuscript, the style of notation often helps date the composition and the text (lyrics) identifies it as sacred or secular, perhaps even isolates it to a certain geographical area. The manuscript leaves below are sacred, circa 1350-1550.

The material on which the manuscript is written also helps identify it within history, since the development of printing and publishing was accompanied by the more widespread use of paper products for commercial consumption. For example, the first picture below is a manuscript written on vellum. The book below shows music printed on paper.

The size of a manuscript often indicates usage: for example, personalized collections of music were smaller and more stylish, like the one you see in the first picture below. Larger choir books however were meant for tall music stands, so that many people could sing from them (see second picture below).

Watch a video on what the size of a book can tell you:

Scribal hand and marginalia can add more context to understanding the musical manuscript, as the ability to recognize different copyists throughout may answer questions about its creation and/or provenance, as well as early commentary.

What is the Difference between Primary and Secondary Sources in Music?

While primary sources are original works, secondary sources are an analysis or restatement of primary sources. The main function of secondary sources is to interpret primary sources and draw conclusions to the information revealed in the primary source. The descriptions and explanations of primary sources that secondary sources offer can also be used to express a certain opinion. 

In music, secondary sources often comment upon and/or shape the history surrounding a composition, recording, or performance. Composers and recording artists often develop their sound over time, based on feedback from audience, critics, or the music-consuming public at large; others are so individual in their style, greater context must be gleaned through analysis, criticism, rearrangement, or some other process.

Examples of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in Music


1. This activity is inspired by Louisiana State University, Libguide, Teaching with Special Collections 

2.  Find a music-related primary source (e.g. score, composer’s notes, live audio/video recording, etc). It does not have to be in a library or Special Collections department. You may check what you can find at home or online.

Describe the primary source
- Dates and names associated with the primary source
- Lyrics
- Scribal hand and marginalia
- Material: vellum vs. paper, etc. 
- Condition of source/whether or not it is original to the work
- Quality of recording 

3. Note any feelings/people associated with the item

Sources & further reading:

Reference and Research Materials in Music
Music: What Are Primary Sources?
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
Music Bibliography and Research: Primary Sources
Music: Primary VS Secondary Sources

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