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Music at the BPL: Getting Started

A guide to the Music Department at the Boston Public Library's Central Library in Copley Square, including resources and suggestions for searching our collections.

About Music at the Central Library

The Music research collection contains materials on every facet of musical study, including biography, history and criticism, ethnomusicology, theory and composition, and music education; the collected editions of all the major composers (and many less well-known composers), many musical first editions and other rare items; and the important music indexes, encyclopedias and bibliographies.

Besides reference works, scores and librettos, there are over 400 periodicals and many other American and foreign music journals, including a number devoted to musical instruments, many of the standard recording review journals, and popular music magazines.

Helpful Suggestions and Search Tips

Searching for music can be tricky for many reasons, including:

  • place of publication 
  • translations/transliterations
  • titles that are also musical forms (concerto, sonata, etc.)
  • titles with nicknames (Surprise Symphony)
  • music comes in a variety of formats (sound recordings, scores, books)
  • Author can be a composer or performer
  • For a specific work, search a combination of composer + work title
  • Start specific with details like opus number, and progress to more general titles.
  • In library catalogs, works are generally listed in the original language of the composer. 
    • Mozart’s Magic Flute = Die Zauberflöte
    • Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or Le Sacre du Printemps = Vesna sviashchennaia.

In music, title searching can be complicated!!  Searching the uniform title will retrieve all catalog records, in all formats (sound recording, score), containing the piece regardless of title variations printed on the item.  Just click the link labeled "Uniform Title" on the catalog record. 

Form Titles are used when the original name is also a musical form. (i.e. Concerto, Sonata) Note that the type of composition will also be plural unless the composer only created one work in that form.

Form titles are constructed using the following information:

Type of composition or form, instruments or voice, thematic catalog # or opus #, key

Example of a Beethoven Sonata:

Sonatas, piano, no. 5, op. 10, no. 1, A major

Distinctive Titles are used fwhen the original name is not a music form.

Example of the opera La Bohéme by Puccini:


Collective Titles are used for collections that contain multiple works by one composer.  There are three options.

1. Works in a single musical form.

Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827.

Concertos [includes all concertos written by Beethoven]

2. Works in a single performance medium.

Brahms, Johannes, 1833-1897.

Organ music [includes all musical forms for organ written by Brahms]

3. Works in a mixture of forms and media.

Gershwin, George, 1898-1937.

Works [includes all works by Gershwin]

Portions of a Work

The name of a movement or a portion of a work, such as an aria, can be added to the end of a form or distinctive title.  Other words can be added to describe that particular version.


Messiah. Hallelujah.

Messiah. Selections.

Tosca, arr.

Sometimes musicians have different translations to their name or use a nickname.  Determining the name of an artist in our catalog will insure you have the correct person and that you are finding all the information about that person.  

An authority name can include the following:

Last name, First name, birth and death date.


Armstrong, Louis, 1901-1971.

Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827.

Jones, Norah, 1979-

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich, 1840-1893.

Swift, Taylor, 1989-

Why use Subject Headings?

  • There is more than one way to describe a topic, subject headings allow us to pick one way and connect all the items about that topic in our catalog.
  • Music crosses many languages, natural languages--English, French, German, etc.--have different ways of expressing the same concepts, subject headings pull these terms together.  

How do I search using Subject Headings?

  • Step 1- Do a keyword search.
  • Step 2- When you find a record of an item related to your search, click on the Subject Heading on that record that most closely resembles your topic.  It's that easy and will save you a lot of time!