Music manuscripts and archives

John Taverner, Mass 'The western wynde'Add. 17803, ff. 23v-24r

We hold a world-class collection of music manuscripts dating from the middle ages to the present day.

About the collection

The collection includes medieval songs and settings of the liturgy, which are the earliest manuscript music in the collection; English music of the 16th and 17th centuries; Sixteenth-century manuscripts, including My Ladye Nevells Booke; a beautifully-copied collection of keyboard pieces by William Byrd, dating from 1591. Autograph manuscripts from the 17th century include volumes of music by Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. The 'Royal Music Library' holds 97 volumes of autograph music by Handel, including his score of Messiah.

We also have archives of music publishers, including that of Novello, and the private papers of composers, performers and musicologists.

We collect new manuscripts and archives relating to music through bequests, donations and purchases.

The Library's music manuscripts are all described in Search our Catalogue, Archives and Manuscripts aside from manuscripts in the Additional Manuscripts category with numbers between Add. MS 5018 and 10018. Those manuscripts are only listed in printed catalogues.

In many cases there are other sources (either printed or online) giving more detailed information about individual music manuscripts, including an item-by-item inventory of the contents.

20th-century British musical autographs form one of the largest elements of the collection. Among these are major collections of manuscripts of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Tippett, Britten, and Maxwell Davies.

What is available online?

We have digitised all of our Britten manuscripts, which you can find by searching for 'britten' on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

The British Library's music collection also includes the autograph manuscripts of many important European composers, notably the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and music by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner. Many of these form part of the Zweig Collection. This collection is currently being digitised. You can find them by typing 'zweig' into the search box on Digitised Manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Music manuscripts dating from before the year 1500 are consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Those dating from 1500 onwards are generally made available in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

How to guides

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

With Explore Archives and Manuscripts you can search for information about our rich and unique archive and manuscript collections.

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to handle archives

Watch our guide and help us keep our archive material in good condition

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

Access the manual of analogue audio restoration techniques

Manual of analogue audio restoration techniques

Search the catalogues for radio recordings

A guide to seaching the catalogues for radio recordings

Listening and Viewing Service

With our Listening and Viewing Service you can access our extensive collection of recorded sound and video. The collection includes: music, wildlife, drama, literature, oral history and archived BBC Radio broadcasts.

How to request a copy of a sound recording

The British Library can provide copies of audio recordings held in the collections to users who are able to obtain the appropriate copyright clearance.

How to request a copy of a wildlife sound recording

The Library can provide copies of wildlife and environmental recordings held in the collections, subject to some restrictions.

Find Persian manuscripts

Details of Persian manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Find Arabic manuscripts

Details of Arabic manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

Search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

How to search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue