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Doing Historical Research in Music: Modern Criticism

What's criticism?

The term "criticism," in a research context, means analytical or evaluative writing on a topic. Recent scholarly criticism on specific composers or works, or on topics relating to music history, help you interpret the source material you've retrieved in your historical research.

Reference Sources


Entries in encyclopedias like Oxford Music Online (available on our "Databases" page) typically have bibliographies at the end. These provide a good starting point for identifying recent scholarly literature.

There are also specialized encyclopedias that are devoted to the music of specific countries, genres, or instruments. Search them in the Library's catalog using subject headings like these:

  • Music -- Encyclopedias.
  • Music -- Spain -- Encyclopedias.
  • Opera -- Encyclopedias.
  • Piano -- Encyclopedias.

These specialized encyclopedias can also be browsed on the shelves under the call number ML102. Check both the Reference room and the main stacks (shelves).


Other bibliographies

There are separately published bibliographies on composers, instruments, and other musical topics. Search them in the Library's catalog using subject headings like these:

  • [Composer's name] -- Bibliography.
  • Opera -- Bibliography.
  • Piano -- Bibliography.
  • Music -- United States -- Bibliography.
  • Music -- 19th century -- History and criticism -- Bibliography.


You can also browse bibliographies in certain sections of the stacks (shelves):

  • Bibliographies on the music of specific countries are shelved under the call number ML120, alphabetically by country.
  • Bibliographies on other musical topics are shelved under the call number ML128, alphabetically by topic.

Check both the Reference room and the main stacks.



For further literature on a specific composer or work, search the Library's catalog or WorldCat using subject headings like the ones below:


For composers and their works

  • [Composer's name] -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • [Composer's name] [Title of work]
  • [Composer's name] [Category of works]


   Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750 -- Criticism and interpretation.

   Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Fugues.

   Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Keyboard music.

   Bach, Johann Sebastian, 1685-1750. Wohltemperierte Klavier.


For forms, genres, instruments

  • Sonata.
  • Opera -- France -- 18th century.
  • Piano -- History.
  • Chamber music -- History and criticism.


Indexes in books

Don't forget that scholarly books have bibliographies and indexes. You can use these to identify more resources, and to quickly locate discussion of a specific composer or work within a book.

Journal articles


These can be searched in the following databases (available on our "Databases" page):

  •  RILM
  •  ProQuest
  • Academic Search Premiere
  • Project Muse


If a database doesn't have the full text of an article, try these strategies:

  • Click the "WFU Full-Text Options" button, if present in the database entry.
  • Search the journal's title in the Library's catalog, to see if we have it in print or microtext.



There are other journals that are not indexed in the online databases, but which the Library owns in print. Search these in the Library's catalog using subject headings like these:

  • [Composer's name] -- Periodicals.
  • Opera -- Periodicals.
  • Piano -- Periodicals.
  • Chamber music -- Periodicals.
  • Music -- 16th century -- Periodicals.


These provide in-depth, book-length treatment of very specific topics. As a result, you can often find additional information and bibliographical references that do not appear in other sources.


Identifying and accessing dissertations

Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology Online provides citations to music-related dissertations from all over the world. It also refers you to sites where you can purchase a copy of a dissertation.

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (available on our "Databases" page) provides citations and abstracts of  doctoral dissertations and selected master's theses from North America and Europe, on all subjects, including music. You can purchase a copy of a dissertation or thesis using the "Order a Copy" link.



Scholarly websites

These provide good-quality information, and links to other scholarly sites. Look to see if a website is hosted by:

  • a scholarly or educational institution (university, library, museum)
  • a scholarly or professional association or society


Evaluating websites

As with everything on the Web, not all links you encounter will lead you to reliable sources. Evaluate any site you view for its scholarly/professional credentials.

A particular hazard with music is fans' sites: their authors may be enthusiasts who have pronounced biases, or amateur "buffs" who have accumulated a lot of knowledge about a topic, but not all of it may be accurate or thoroughly researched.




Subject Guide

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