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Finding music: manuscript music and music archives

How to find music manuscripts and music archives in the British Library catalogues.

Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts

The Library's music manuscripts, which date from medieval times to the present, are all described in Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts aside from manuscripts in the Additional Manuscripts category with numbers between Add MS 5018-10018.

However, descriptions of some music manuscripts acquired in the 19th century are very brief, and they do not always include the titles of all musical works found in a manuscript. Work is ongoing to improve these descriptions. Fuller descriptions of those manuscripts, together with descriptions of manuscripts in the range Add MS 5018-10018 and composer and title indexes, are available in the following printed catalogue: 

Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, compiled by Augustus Hughes-Hughes (1906-9). 

A digitised copy of this three-volume catalogue is available at the Internet Archive:

Volume 1 (Sacred vocal music)

Volume 2 (Secular vocal music)

Volume 3 (Instrumental music, treatises, etc)

If you are searching for music manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries, you are also advised to consult the international RISM database of music manuscripts. Researchers searching for medieval music manuscripts in the British Library should also consult the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. Both catalogues include very detailed descriptions of British Library music manuscripts from the periods in question.

As well as music manuscripts (i.e. notated music, mainly in score), the Library holds a large collection of music-related archives. This includes the correspondence, diaries, photographs and other papers of composers, conductors and performers, and the administrative archives of musical organisations. These are all listed in Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts, although some recent acquisitions have not yet been described in any detail.

The following music materials are not included in Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts:

• Music recordings and videos, which are catalogued in the British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue 

• Printed music, which is catalogued in Explore the British Library.

Explanation of the numbering system for manuscript music

The manuscripts held by the British Library comprise a series of named collections that have been acquired during the long existence of the British Library and its predecessor institutions. There are music manuscripts in many of the series, the largest being the Additional Manuscripts series, so-called because they were 'additional' to the original Cotton, Harley and Sloane collections with which the library was formed in the 18th century. Over the centuries, each Additional manuscript received was simply given the next available number, no matter whether it was a historical, literary or musical manuscript.

As well as these mixed-subject collections, there are several special collections which are devoted entirely, or in a large part, to music: the Royal Music Library, the Hirsch Collection, the Zweig Collection and the Royal Philharmonic Society Archive.

In 1995, a new MS Mus. sequence was formed specially for newly-acquired music manuscripts. In 2011, we moved from giving each new manuscript its own MS Mus. number to the modern archival practice of allocating a collection a single number and dividing it into series and files, each with a sub-number (for example MS Mus. 1738/1/1).


Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751

E-mail: Ask the Music Reference Team