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Doing Historical Research in Music: Iconography

What's iconography?

Sometimes little or no written documentation survives on performance practices, instruments, or other aspects of music-making in a specific time or place (especially for earlier time periods, like the Middle Ages). When this is the case, visual images from the period can give us valuable clues. The study of images for the purpose of historical research is called iconography.


Images can include:

  • Illuminations in medieval manuscripts
  • Illustrations in theoretical and technical treatises on music
  • Pictures of public processions, dances, banquets, and other court activities involving musicians
  • Religious artwork showing angels as musicians
  • Illustrations of opera productions, concerts, and other performances
  • Illustrated title pages
  • Domestic or street scenes of music-making in art
  • Portraits of composers and performers


      Many historical images have been published in collections, to aid in iconographical research. To locate these collections (and books discussing iconography), search ZSR Library's catalog or WorldCat using the following subject headings:

      • Music in art.
      • Musical instruments in art.
      • [Any other topic] in art.

      General collections can also be found in the stacks (shelves) under the call number ML89.

      One particularly useful series is Musikgeschichte in Bildern ("music history in pictures"). Call number: ML89 M9.


      Subject Guide

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      Leslie McCall
      Office: 251 ZSR Library
      Phone: 336-758-5474