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Music: Program Note Research

Good Sources

  • Oxford Music Online/Grove Music Online = music encyclopedias
    • Search the composer, instrument, genre, and country 
  • Histories of music (ML160 through ML300)
    • for broader picture of what was going on when the piece was written 
  • Biographies (ML410)
  • Bio-bibliographies and guides to research (ML128 & ML134)
    • time-savers and good starting points for a research project
  • Books about...
    • an instrument's history often mention repertoire (ML900)
    • orchestral music 
    • French art song
    • 19th Century piano music
    • Russian music
    • String quartet
  • Dissertations/theses (often full-text in ProQuest)
  • Journal articles (search Music Index/RILM Music Abstracts and JSTOR)
    • you may find articles about sonatas or concertos in specific instrument journals



  • Do your own research! Don't Google your piece and copy what someone else has already written.
  • You can find e-books in the CMU library catalog, JSTOR, and Google Books
  • Always search Worldcat after the CMU library catalog to find out what else has been published on your topic that we don't have
  • Browsing the music books in the library stacks always reveals titles you missed in an online search. Take the time to browse!

Context: Composer vs. History

Production: How does the piece relate to the broader social/historical context?

Performance: Why was it performed? Who performed? what did a symphony mean to people back then?

Reception: What has changed about the way we view the work? Has the function or value changed? What is the attitude now?

Criteria for Evaluating Sources

Author’s credentials:

Are they given? Is the name recognizable? Is he/she associated with an educational institution or organization? Has this person written a lot on this subject?

Searching their name in Cameo, WorldCat, PittCat, the Carnegie public library catalog, or Amazon will tell you if they have written anything else.

See if they have written any articles for or are mentioned in Grove Music Online.

Try searching their name in Google.


Look for University Press books.

Publication date:

When was it published? Is it a revision? If it was published a while ago, does it make the information less valuable? Does currency matter to your topic? In general, recent is better (last 20-30 years). Think before quoting books from the 1920s, unless you're focusing on a historically embedded idea.


Is there a preface or foreword? Bibliographies? Table of Contents? Index?

Think about your writing...

  • Is there a strong opening sentence?
  • Do you get a good sense of when and why the piece was written?
  • Is there any irrelevant information?
  • Do you like the tone of the writing?
  • Are you using quotes by others? Is this helpful or distracting?
  • Is there a balance between historical information and a description of the music?
  • Any technical jargon? Descriptive language?