Tips for Music History Students on Using the NEC Libraries

Start with the basics.

One important thing to know is that our library contains some materials that are basic, and some materials that are more detailed and advanced. If you are new to a subject, writing a short paper, or preparing for an exam, start with the basics! Check out, for example, the most recent edition of the classic textbook on Western music:

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (New York: Norton, 2010). Call number: ML160 .G87 2010. Check the index for the name of a composer or other topic, and then check the short bibliographies (sorted by topic) at the end of the book. The authors usually give you the most important, basic texts on the subject that interests you, and they tell you why those texts are useful.

What’s next?

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Ref. ML100 G9 2001 or through the library's on-line resources, accessible on campus or remotely with your library ID number) contains articles on terms, concepts, and composers. The articles on composers are divided into a biographical section, a works list, and bibliography. The works list gives dates of composition.

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music is much shorter—only one volume—so if you just need to find the definition of a term, start here. The drawback is that this dictionary doesn’t contain any articles on composers or other people.

Scores. Many good modern editions have extensive introductions on composers and works. As a general rule, newer editions are usually better than older ones.

Recordings often contain liner notes, which are a useful source of information, and may also be cited in research papers. These are not peer-reviewed, though, so make sure you check the facts!

On-line library resources

The library catalogue of books and recordings at NEC and its partner libraries (also accessible through the library home page) shows you how to find materials in the library, including books, scores, journals, and recordings.

1. Try starting with handbooks, which may be found through the catalogue.

  • For the Cambridge Companionseries, enter subject: "Cambridge companion music."
  • For the Princeton series on composers “and their world,” enter basic search: “Princeton ‘and his world.’”
  • For the Cambridge History series, enter basic search: “‘Cambridge history of’ music."
  • For Oxford composer companions, enter basic search: “Oxford composer companions.”

2. General searches can be filtered by library; for scores and books, go to “filter your search” and click on “NEC Spaulding Library” or “NEC Firestone Library.”

  • Keyword searches capture lots of information, but can be good if you have very specific search terms.
  • Search by author to find scores or writings by a specific composer or author.
  • Search by subject to find books about a composer or other topic. (This is tricky, because you need to know what the subject is called in the catalogue before you search. Try asking a member of the library staff for help!)
  • For materials on course reserve, click on “course reserve” at the top of the search page, and enter the course number or professor’s name.

HINT: The library records will usually provide a link to the “Google Books” version of a book. In many cases you can have a look at some of the book without even setting foot in the library!


Articles in scholarly journals present the most up-to-date research on any given subject. Most articles do not present overviews of a topic, but rather arguments about them—ideas that the author will try to persuade you of. (For overviews, see the article in Grove or the New Harvard Dictionary.)

Here are three important databases to help you find articles, all of which allow for “basic searches” and “advanced searches.” Advanced searches allow you to limit results by language, publication name, publication type, date of publication, etc. All three databases are accessible through the on-line resources page of the NEC library.

1. Music Index provides citations and bibliographic information for all articles on music (i.e. where to find them).

HINT: Try the “Check SFX for full text” link at the bottom of each citation. If the library has access to the on-line version, it will appear on your screen as a PDF. If not, the computer will give you the option of searching the NEC catalogue for the item. If we don’t have it, you also have the option of requesting it via Interlibrary Loan (ILL).

2. JSTOR provides PDF files of articles in many of the most important journals on music. The full text, right at your fingertips!

3. RILM provides citations and abstracts (summaries) of ALL books and articles on music.

  • Advantages: it’s comprehensive, and by reading the abstracts you can decide if the work is relevant for your project.
  • Disadvantage: sometimes it gives you more than you want, or more than you can access easily. Still, you can do advanced searches to sort by publication, language, etc., and you can always request things through ILL if you want to see them. 

Resources outside NEC

NEC is very close to the Boston Public Library, which you can join for free! If you do, you’ll also have access to the BPL on-line resources. Head to the main branch of the library in Copley Square and get a library card. As a member you will be able to access the BPL’s electronic collection of articles, books, and more.


WorldCat: Another free resource! You can search for a book, music score, or other publication by author, title, subject, etc., and find out what libraries own it. WorldCat includes records of some very old and rare material, which, if you want to see it for a research project, we may be able to acquire (as a microfilm or pdf) through Interlibrary Loan.


We also have access to the library at Northeastern University and the libraries within the Fenway Consortium. All these catalogues are accessible through the library web page; click here for more information.