Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“Academic music”: a four-letter word.

New college cloister“When I was confronted with official tuition, the academic thing, I could see no relationship whatever between that and the music I’d been writing since I was 11.” – Harrison Birtwistle

For many musicians, and for many music-lovers who listen to them, the term “academic” has become a kind of musical dirty word. Defined variously as “not of practical relevance”, “of only theoretical interest”, or “pertaining to scholarship rather than practice”, the term is assumed to have little or nothing to do with the sound of music, or the enjoyment of music, or of music as an innate form of human expression. Indeed, the term “academic”, can for some by synonymous with “anti-practice”: we engage in “academic” music when we study theoretical concepts or argue about obscure points of critical theory; we engage in “practical” music when we put away our books, pick up an instrument, open our hearts, and sing.

But there is a difference and I can hear it!

blackboardIt’s of course true that reading a book about music is not the same as playing an instrument or attending a concert. And I agree that, in some quarters, so-called “book learning” of historical and compositional concepts can lean strongly toward the abstract, and can aspire to meet expectations of meaning and relevance that appear to have nothing to do with practical music-making or the preferences of the ticket-buying public.

But this is OK with me as a practicing musician, for three reasons: first, because it is these same “book-learners” who have provided musicians with so much of the foundation of practical music-making (from well-edited scores, to treatises, to knowledge about how our brains process musical information); second, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – especially about something as essential as music – is important in its own right (if we can say that art justifies itself, then surely scholarship too can be self-justifying as a human pursuit); and third, because, in my experience, many student musicians and concert-goers vastly underestimate the significance of the role “academic” knowledge plays in the study, performance, and enjoyment of practical music-making, both for performers and for audiences.

Bricks and mortar

bricks and mortarIf sounds in performance can be considered to be the bricks of music, academic knowledge is without a doubt its mortar. The challenge for all music lovers, whether they be students of music, performing musicians, audiences, or scholars is one of balance. Just as we must follow performance only until our ears feel full and the enjoyment has stopped, so too must we read and research only as far as our interest sustains us. The rest – whether it be practicing scales or hunting down obscure manuscripts in dusty libraries – we must leave for those who prefer apples to oranges.

Grazing the fields of musical knowledge

LuttrellAll music teachers will have their own interests, and they will shape their teaching, and with it the learning in their studio, accordingly. For those of you who do enjoy indulging themselves (as I do) in the thrill of discovery and exploration in music, I offer the following list of some of my favourite sites for online musical grazing, both for you and for your students.

These sites are offered in no particular order, but share in common either the fact that they offer free downloadable material formerly only accessible to scholars in libraries or owners of private collections, or that they act as portals to downloadable material.

I hope that this material might inspire you to click through into unknown territory, download and print some PDFs, get out your instruments, look some things up here and there, and indulge in some new exploratory music making. (I apologize in advance for the hours that may well be about to disappear; do be sure to turn off any kettles that may boil dry or anything that you may have baking the oven!)

I hope also that this little selection of online curiosities will encourage you to take the broad view on the difference between music research and music performance. After all, the difference is … academic!

 Some digital resources I know and love: (please add your own in the comments section below!)

1. The British Library Sound Archive:

An extensive collection of unique sound recordings, from music (all genres, including world music) to drama, literature, wildlife sounds, and oral history (the archive of accents, although not strictly music related, is fascinating!)

 2. The IMSLP Petrucci Music Library:

An extraordinary site, containing thousands of public-domain music in PDF format (and some recordings) for free download.

 3. The Hampsong Foundation:

The Hampsong Foundation website is first and foremost a repository for high quality digital multimedia materials relating to song, available in full, for free, to all visitors. From the archives of the Salzburg projects mentioned earlier to sections devoted entirely to the songs of Mahler and Schubert to the expansive Song of America project, the site includes full concert programs, song texts and translations, essays, historic images, and selected audio recordings and videos.

 4. The Digital Archive of Medieval Music:

DIAMM (the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music) is a leading resource for the study of medieval manuscripts. They present images and metadata for thousands of manuscripts on this website, provide a home for scholarly resources and editions, undertake digital restoration of damaged manuscripts and documents, publish high-quality facsimiles, and offer their expertise as consultants.

5. The Royal Holloway Golden Pages:

The Golden Pages provide announcements for forthcoming conferences in musicology and related disciplines, an archive of dissertation abstracts, links to music departments worldwide, and other links of interest.

 6. Oxford Music Online / The Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (paid service, available through most public libraries online catalogues):

Grove Music Online has been the leading online resource for music research since its inception in 2001, a comprehensive compendium of music scholarship offering the full texts of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (2001), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992), and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd edition (2002), as well as numerous subsequent updates and emendations. Including more than 50,000 signed articles and 30,000 biographies contributed by over 6,000 scholars from around the world, Grove Music Online is the unsurpassed authority on all aspects of music.

7. Die Liederkiste:

Downloadable material to hundreds of songs, both German and international. (Website currently in German only.)

8. The Aesthetics of Music and Sound:

A Site featuring work on the Cross-disciplinary Interplay between the Humanities, Technology and Musical Practice. Site of the SDU-IKV Research Program: The Performances of Everyday Living

 9. The Lied, and Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive:

The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive is an ever-expanding collection of texts used in 128,304 Lieder and other classical art songs (Kunstlieder, mélodies, canzoni, canciones, liederen, canções, sånger, laulua, písn, piosenki, etc.) as well as in many choral works and other types of classical vocal pieces. The archive currently indexes 78,200 texts with 22,588 translations to English, French, Italian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and others.

10. The Victorian Popular Music Archive at the British Library:

Leaf through illustrated sheet music for 188 songs and piano pieces from the heyday of Victorian Music Hall to discover an entertaining sidelight on Victorian society.

11. The American Memory Project at the Library of Congress:

A fantastic collection of scores, photos, and mementos, many of which can be downloaded and printed at home.

12. Chopin Early Editions at the University of Chicago Library:

The Chopin collection at the University of Chicago Library includes over 400 first and early printed editions of musical compositions by Frédéric Chopin, maintained in the Special Collections Research Center. Because Chopin’s works were often published concurrently in several countries with variant texts, scholars can establish a sequence of publication by comparing a range of printings.

 13. The Mutopia Project:

The Mutopia Project offers sheet music editions of classical music for free download. These are based on editions in the public domain, and include works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart, and many others.

 14. The Julliard Manuscript Collection:

A digital collection of 140 priceless manuscripts donated to the Julliard library by Bruce Kovner in 2006.

 15. The Cylinder Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the UCSB Libraries have created a digital collection of over 10,000 cylinder recordings held by the Department of Special Collections. In an effort to bring these recordings to a wider audience, they can be freely downloaded or streamed online.

16. Texts on Music in English:

Texts on Music in English focuses on major treatises written in English, allowing them to be downloaded and browsed. The database will eventually comprise all relevant manuscript and printed materials written in English from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century.

 17. Classical Net:

Classical Net features more than 9000 pages and 20,000+ images including more than 7000 CD, SACD, DVD, Blu-ray, Book and Concert reviews and over 5500 links to other classical music web sites.

18. Database of French music treatises:

Traités français sur la musique focuses on major treatises written in French, allowing them to be downloaded, searched, and browsed. The database will eventually comprise all relevant manuscript and printed materials written in French from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century.

19. Database of Italian texts on music:

Saggi musicali italiani focuses first and foremost on the major treatises written in Italian, allowing them to be downloaded, browsed, and searched. The database will eventually comprise all printed materials from the Renaissance to the present.

 20. Google scholar:

Type ‘music pedagogy’ into the search engine and be amazed!

About the Author


  1. Robin Steinweg

    Kathryn, thanks so much for the list of sites. It’s handy to have them in one place. Long live hands-on AND book learnin’! 🙂

  2. Reuben Vincent

    Fantastic article. Love all the links. I’ll be working my way through them. Thanks so much

  3. Kathryn Whitney

    Thanks for your comments! I’m so glad you found it useful!

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