Our collection of printed music contains material published in every European country, from the beginnings of music printing in the late 15th century to the present day. A separate lending collection of modern scores is also available.
About the collection
As well as first editions of music by the major European composers, we have numerous collections of dance music from the 17th and 18th centuries, many of which are illustrated with finely engraved plates.
The nucleus of the printed music collection was formed in the early 19th century, with the aim of building up as complete an archive as possible of music published in the United Kingdom, including the popular and ephemeral, and a more selective archive of overseas publications. Our collection of foreign music was greatly enhanced with the acquisition of the Hirsch Collection, containing important first editions of music by Austrian, German and other European composers.
Publishers of printed music in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have a legal obligation to send one copy of each of their publications to the Legal Deposit Office of the British Library within one month of publication. Our collection of modern editions (of popular music, educational material and 'classical' repertoire) therefore continues to grow rapidly.
Many examples of early music printing are held in the reference collections, including a substantial collection of lavish music prints issued by Ottaviano Petrucci of Venice in the early 16th century. A superbly printed bass part of 20 songs issued in 1530 is one of the earliest examples of English music printing.
Finding printed music in the catalogue
Printed music is included in the Library's main catalogue, Explore the British Library. To restrict your search to printed music, choose 'Advanced Search' and then select 'Scores' from the 'Material Type' menu.
What is available online?
More than 300 of the Library's earliest music books, including the Petrucci volumes, have now been digitised for the Early Music Online project.
Popular music from the Victorian era onwards is a particular strength; much of this material has illustrated covers depicting contemporary scenes. A selection of these can be viewed in the Online Gallery.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Our collections are available in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.
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Reference Enquiry Team