Get some background on music-related topics and history

Once you've identified your topic, you should start by gathering some background information on it. Keep the following points in mind when you're reading through background sources like encyclopedias and reference books:

  • Brainstorm a list of 6-8 keywords associated with your topic. These can include key composers or theorists, music terms, or any other words that come to mind. These keywords will give you something to watch for when you're reading your background sources.
  • Your list of keywords might change, and that's ok! Keep track of new keywords you identify as you explore the background on your topic. These keywords may get narrower or broader as you learn more about your topic, and it's important to stay flexible - you never know what path your research may take.
  • Don't forget to look at the end of the encyclopedia article you're reading - there may be a great bibliography that can point you toward additional relevant resources!

Start with The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music and Bloomsbury Popular Music

Starting your research with music-specific encyclopedias is a great way to gather trustworthy background info on composers, styles, and individual pieces that can jump start your understanding and help you get more out of resources with a more narrow focus like journal articles and books. Think of these like the scholarly versions of Wikipedia, with information you can trust.

The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music and Bloomsbury Popular Music are great places to get trustworthy background information on your topic! Both are scholarly sources with entries that provide historical context and background information about musical genres, performers, composers, instruments, and more.

  • The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music is a multi-volume set in which each volume is dedicated to a different region of the world. Search by keyword or browse by the region of origin relevant to your topic. Searching the digital version of the Garland Encyclopedia can sometimes be a little tricky, so don't hesitate to reach out to Jessica Abbazio, Music Librarian, at for help if you need it!
  • Don't let the name of Bloomsbury Popular Music fool you - this resource covers many genres and types of music from all over the world! Search by keyword or browse by region or genre. TIP: Check out the bibliographies that accompany the entries in this resource, since they can lead you to other helpful sources!

Not finding what you need? Try some broader music encyclopedias

  • NOTE: Oxford Music Online (which is in English and includes the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and several other music reference resources) and MGG Online (the premier German-language music encyclopedia) are excellent places to start gathering background information for your presentations and program notes. In both Oxford Music Online and MGG Online, you’ll find concise overviews of the life and works of musicians and composers, information on music genres, and more. These are a great places to start exploring your topic and learning about the context; better yet, they're scholarly sources including entries written and reviewed by experts, so you know they're trustworthy.
  • TIPS:
    • Use the search bar at the top of the screen to search for a relevant entry on your topic; usually, this should be an entry for a composer or a musical genre.
    • Once you find a relevant entry, you can use the built-in navigation menus to jump to specific portions of it.
    • While reading through your entry, keep track of any new keywords you come across; these will be helpful for future searches.
    • Many Oxford Music Online and MGG Online entries include:
      • Composer works lists: These may be a complete list of a composer's oeuvre or selected works, and will often provide information about the dates of composition, premiere performances, and even the current locations of manuscript copies.
      • Bibliographies: these are lists of works that could also be helpful sources for your research!


Last Updated: Dec 1, 2020 9:41 AM