Thursday, February 18, 2010

Conducting Research into Musical Instrument History

I found this article to be particularly useful and interesting. The author has extensive experience researching the history of musical instruments. We, as amateurs, can learn a great deal from following his advice.

By Peter H. Adams
July 2008


The following suggestions are offered for people interested in conducting research into musical instrument history. My background in researching antique musical instruments includes two books on the subject[*] (check out Ebay), articles published in scholarly journals, and a recently completed index of The Musical Courier, which should be published in 2009 by Scarecrow Press.[**]

To begin conducting research, I strongly suggest acquiring a portable computer and a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. The computer will be a great help in organizing, storing, and writing up your research. The book will help you structure your writing so that it flows logically and the style is consistent throughout. Publishers, teachers, and readers are not interested in poorly organized writings no matter how well researched.

Let’s talk software. Microsoft’s Word program is not the most user friendly software but it is just fine for writing. It also allows you to position images in your text. I also strongly suggest buying a copy of a graphics editing program like Photoshop Elements. This program will help you scan images into your computer (assuming you have a scanner or camera) and allow you to edit the images. For the serious researcher who will be using many images, FileMaker is an absolutely great program. You can store data and images on the same page in a database format. All these programs are available on the Mac and PC and are relatively easy to learn. If you are going to use photographs, buy a digital camera and perhaps some lights. Six megapixls or higher are best when choosing which camera to buy. Because of the learning curve with cameras, consider taking a few classes on how to use your camera. Photographing three dimensional polished objects can be tricky. I even own several scanners one for use at home and one for use at the public library (more about that below).

Save every reference you find. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go back and redo my research because I’ve mislaid my notes. Store your information in a logical manner. Each research project will require thinking about how the data will best be stored. For example, if you are researching a person, you might want to organize your research by chronology with cross references to locations where the person lived and worked. Naming files with meaningful names is also critical.

The field of organology (musical instrument history) is a relatively new one, being little more than 100 years old. The methods for conducting any type of research into historic topics always begin the same way. Start with the Internet and then go to an institution like libraries, museums and historical associations. Most of the important research that has been conducted is not available online and never will be. This is true too for original documents. However, by beginning with the Internet, you will get a sense of what has been written and learn what key terms you will need to research.

Now, onto the Internet: do not expect that using an online search engine like Google will give you all the information out there. Accuracy is another critical problem with the Internet. Use Google and Yahoo for beginning your online search. Some university libraries have more powerful search engines for their online catalog. But you might need a password to gain access to some of these search engines. Consider taking a college class if only to acquire such a password.

Google’s patent search function is a great resource. Don’t be surprised to find that you discover something nobody has reported. The Patent Office’s document files are simply massive. Think “as big as the National Debt” and you would be close to guessing how many millions of patents the PTO has on file. Google’s search engine is a great resource for searching this database. But search by patent number if you have it, then names of people, and instrument. You must search all because the PDF files of the patents have been scanned and electronically indexed. This means that garbled data makes searching a problem. Even so, Google’s search engine is vastly superior to the Patent Office’s own search engines. I can only hope that Google gets such positive feedback about this database that it will do the same for all the countries of the world. That would be an incredible resource.

Currently, the single most important published source of general musical history is The New Grove Dictionary of Music and its off-shoot The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. These encyclopedic dictionaries are available at most large libraries. Several foreign language encyclopedias also exist, but have not been updated as often as NGDM. For wind instruments (brass and wood wind) The New Langwill Index is an absolute must for biographical information. It costs about $150 and is available from Tony Bingham in England. The Galpin Society Journal and The Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society are the two most important periodicals in the English language. Die Zeitschrift fur fűr Instrumentenbau is an older publication and contains untold information about all manner of instrument makers mainly in Germanic Europe. This publication is rarely found in the U.S., but a good reference librarian might find it on microfilm. After examining these works, you should have a good introduction to the subject. But even these publications do not include all the important information. So, some serious digging is in order. I, and others, have posted information on under “Research that needs to be conducted” in order to help people find research topics.

Repositories of historic documents are the most important resource. More and more, information from these institutions are coming online. Even so, much information is hiding on institution’s shelves, especially miscataloged material or material that was never cataloged. So, here is where the serious digging begins. Online card catalogs are a great help in locating publications and documents, but only when the institution’s staff has cataloged the material and put the catalogs online. Small historical associations are the worst for cataloging their holdings and putting their catalogs online. You will surely need to make an appointment to gain access to small historical societies.

Historical societies almost always have very limited hours, and the staff does not always know what they have. Begin by calling the society and asking for hours and possible restrictions to the library or archive. If you get lucky, you might find an historical society that has a librarian or archivist. Try to talk to that person and BE CONSIDERATE OF HER TIME! She can be your best friend when you try to find material. Tell her what you are doing and what you hope to find. She might even suggest other approaches to searching, or other resources you might not have thought existed.

Next, look through the card catalog in the institution. Start by asking for help learning how to use the card catalog. Learning to use local historical associations’ card catalogs can be quite a problem. Some catalogs are almost useless. Learn the key terms if you have not already done so. For example, if you are looking for information about a maker in a city, search by the maker, variant names, and the city or neighborhood where that person lived or had a factory or store. If the historical society does not have an online catalog, you will need to budget some serious time going through the card catalog. Understand that volunteers often cataloged (or miscataloged) the material. Most historical societies are staffed by volunteers who have mixed skills and abilities. So consider related topics when searching the card catalog. Make sure that you check for a heading “Miscellaneous.” Also ask if the society has any uncataloged material.

Searching city directories for information about early instrument makers is best done at local historical societies. All too often, these societies are the only places where these directories are to be found. Treat the directories with great care. They tend to be quite fragile. Through these directories, you can get an idea of when someone moved or set up shop. But understand that city directories are less accurate than the Internet.

Another important resource found at many societies includes newspapers, genealogy books, and volunteers. Do not expect to find indices of early newspapers. You will have to go through them page by page. Some major newspapers like the New York Times have their archives online, but charge a fee to access them. Genealogy books can help you find information about a maker’s ancestors, when he moved to or from an area, and possibly help you find living descendents of the maker. Be careful though about genealogy books. Some books are of no real value. If you are interested in genealogy books, many libraries offer courses in researching genealogy. Volunteers are a wild card. You never know what you might find. Once, I was looking for information about a music store in Easton, PA and the local society had a volunteer there who had worked at the store. He was a fountain of information.

Let’s say you are looking for information about a maker in a given town. Check to see if the information is not already in print. The Musical Index must be checked. This index is available only at large university music libraries. This index will help you look for articles published on a music subjects, persons, or locations printed after 1948. Non-music indices can also be of help. Ask your librarian for help finding an appropriate index to consult, such as Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Consider looking through business directories and related topics. If the maker is important, such as Charles Gerhard Conn, also check with your reference librarian to find out if anyone has written a dissertation or about him. There are specialized reference books available to help looking for dissertations. These reference books are not common, and can be quite difficult to use. So, again ask your librarian for help. That is what they are there for.

RILM is yet another resource that will require some learning to use. RILM is an ongoing effort to index early U.S. music periodicals. While The Musical Index covers 1948 to the present, what about journals printed before then? Well, RILM and others, including myself, are or have indexed some 19th century music periodicals. In the mean time, consider looking through trade journals that might cover the time period for the topic or person you are researching. I’ve found material that simply baffles other researchers who did not have the time to delve into these publications. To access any of these resources, once again you need to start with the card catalog and then ask the librarian. I always ask the most senior librarian for help. They tend to know where things are squirreled away and how to use difficult reference publications.

One last resource that can be helpful is to look in Books in Print. This multi-volume list of books is logically organized and can often be found at even average sized libraries’ reference desks. While this publication is not as important as it was before the introduction of the Internet, it is a valuable resource for finding printed books.

Because few libraries, museums, or historical societies own original 19th century periodicals, journals, or newspapers, learn how to use a microfilm reader. They are not difficult and you can often find one with a print function. One thing I found useful is to buy a 35 millimeter film scanner and take it with me to the library. If I find anything important, I can scan that page into my laptop computer and manipulate the image using Photoshop Elements or any similar software program. This means I can check the image at the library without having to take the file home and hope that the scan was good enough. But I had to jump through flaming hoops to get permission to use my scanner at the library. The library did not want me to scratch the expensive microfilm.

If you live near a large university and the university has a music department, see if you can do research in the general library and also the music library. Many university libraries do not allow the general public to do any research on site. If you have found that the library has something you want to see, think about taking one class at the university just so you can gain access to the library. Alternatively, many public libraries can borrow material from university libraries. Ask to talk to the Interlibrary loan specialist at your public library to see if you can get the material you want, but don’t expect miracles. Many libraries and museums will not loan out anything.

The New York City Public Library, the Library of Congress and the National Archives (Washington, DC), and the Newberry Library in Chicago are arguably the finest research facilities in the U.S. UCLA, USC, Stanford, UC Berkeley, The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, The University of Indiana at Bloomington, and the music library at Oberlin are also important U.S. libraries. [Readers are asked to help improve this list. Please be generous with information about holdings, hours of operations, and any important resources or problems you’ve faced doing research there.]

As with all libraries, begin by looking in the card catalog under every key word(s) you can think of. I like to write down a list of terms and then write down all call numbers for books and journals that I found under that key term. For libraries that do not have their card catalog online, I’ve even photocopied call cards from the card catalog, with permission from the librarian before I start. If the library’s stacks are open to the general pubic, find the area where the call number is located and look at all books on the shelves for any interesting books. Luck is an important research tool. If the stacks are closed to the public, ask the librarian for help searching the card catalog not only by key terms but also call numbers. For example, ML155 is the Library of Congress cutter number for musical instrument trade and auction catalogs. Don’t’ search under ML155.A1. That will only bring up one book. But by searching under ML155 you get a listing of all cataloged books whose call number begins with ML155. If your library uses the Dewey Decimal System your librarian can often help you find the catalog numbers you need to search. Most historical societies have their own numbering system (argh!).

Do not be put off by the brusque nature of a librarian or archivist. They simply have heard it all before and want to get you to where you need to go as quickly as possible so they can get back to their assigned work. Before leaving, ask the librarian if there are any special collections related to your key terms. This is where you will find information that is rarely examined by even the most ardent researcher. Searching uncataloged special collections can be a real challenge, but is always worth the trouble. Always document what you find or don’t find. If we researchers were to post information stating where we looked and what we found or did not find that would help other researchers to avoid wasting their time.

Another resource that many but not all large libraries have is a list of independent researchers who will conduct research for you for a fee. The libraries are often very jealous about keeping these lists up to date and accurate. Ask your reference librarian if you can have a copy of the list of independent researchers and then ask what their field of research is. Why ask a piano researcher to conduct research into brass valve systems? Using these researchers can save you years of wasted time and money. You will need to negotiate with the researcher for his/her fees. Obtaining photocopies of material through independent researchers is often faster and cheaper than using the Photoduplication services of the library. Historical societies rarely have such lists of independent researchers.

Museums are another resource in which gold is often hiding uncataloged on the shelves. For the U.S., the National Music Museum (formerly The Shrine to Music Museum) is a major repository of information and instruments made in the U.S. and Europe. While that museum has cataloged its instruments, it has not cataloged most of its printed resources. To gain access to this museum, you will need to make an appointment. Begin by joining the American Musical Instrument Society. The Society has annual meetings at various museums in the U.S. including Vermillion, South Dakota where the National Music Museum is located. But a word of warning is in order here. The staff number is quite small and they are often overworked. Think about staying over after the conference or getting there a week beforehand. Make an appointment no matter what! This is only common courtesy. Additionally, be warned: the director is no friend of his graduate students! The Metropolitan Museum (New York City), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History also have a small staff of organologists that can help answer questions and help people conduct research on site. To gain access to any museum’s collection, you will need to send a letter of introduction, then follow up with a phone call or email asking for an appointment. Finding addresses and phone numbers is best done by joining the American Musical Instrument Society. You will then get a roster of all members, including libraries and museums along with contact names. Guard it and use is with care.

Still another resource that is of some value is my own list of musical instrument trade catalogs. Check out for this list. I include all the citations from the Library of Congress’ ML155 and the Dayton C. Miller Collection. I was not able to catalog Mr. Miller’s personal letters, most of which related to woodwind instruments. This is one of those special collections that I mentioned earlier that has not been cataloged but contains some very valuable information. I have even included citations from other libraries, museums, historical associations, and citations I found on Ebay. These publications are too fragile to be loaned out. Yet, many can be photocopied by independent researchers for a fee.

Another resource of mixed quality is Ebay’s U.S. and European websites. I’ve found some very interesting information on and O.K. even if you can’t read French or German, you can print out the information and find someone to translate it for you. Always prefer a person instead of a computer to translate anything. Ebay has a few serious problems (well – more than a few). People who post things but don’t know how to describe what they have and people who don’t bother to post the item on the correct board aught to be taken out and horsewhipped, starting with the yutzes in China. They are destroying the value of the antique musical instrument boards and Ebay does nothing to stop them. Many competent people have given up on the antique musical instrument board and are now posting on the regular musical instrument board under pre-1980 instruments. Let’s not get into the question of authenticity or rightful owners. I use Ebay not to look for instruments of quality but rather paper ephemera, like trade catalogs, letters, etc. Quality instruments are best examined before being bid upon at Sotheby’s, Christies, Philips, Bohnam, etc. So, auction houses and private dealers are the preferred resource there. Even so, quality instruments still turn up from time to time on online auctions.

Another important resource, are dealers in antique musical instruments, documents, etc. These dealers advertise in the American Musical Instrument Society Journal and the Galpin Society Journal. They have access to material that is simply amazing. They can be trusted, but will ask top dollar for even a gum wrapper. Online antiquarian book dealers and dealers in ephemera offer material that can be found using an online search engine. These dealers don’t advertise in the scholarly journals. Check out

Now let’s briefly discuss actually writing up your research. If you are uncertain about how to organize your writing remember these two simple rules. 1. If writing about a person, think chronology. Start with birth date, write about the family, then his/her education, military activities, etc. in the order that they happened. 2. If you are writing about a topic, start with the simplest information and go to the most complex. Writing up your research will also require an introduction if only to remind your readers of what other research has been found and not found. The Chicago Manual of Style is not all that user friendly, but needs to be learned how to use if you wish to write for a publisher. Many universities require that students use a style manual when writing papers. Journals often have their own style manuals. If you wish to write for a journal, get a copy of their style manual. Even a well researched paper can be shot down because the paper does not use consistent style throughout. Style manuals are simply not used online – may that someday change.

Perseverance is the linchpin of any good researcher. Just because you did not find something online does not mean that it is not out there. Even when you think you’ve looked in every book, box, closet, and corner, there is always new material coming into the institutions. So, leave contact information asking to be informed if anything comes in. Most institutions will not quickly respond to that sort of request, if at all, but it never hurts to politely ask. Lloyd Farrar (co-editor of The New Langwill Index) even sought out grave stones and obituaries in obscure newspapers to try and find living family members. Now that’s dedication.


*Antique Brass Wind Instruments by Peter H. Adams (1998, Paperback)
Author: Peter H. Adams
Publisher: Schiffer Pub Ltd
Publication Date: 1998-01-01
Series: Schiffer Book for Collectors Series
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN-10: 076430027X
ISBN-13: 9780764300271
Product ID: EPID804209

Antique Woodwind Instruments by Peter H. Adams (2005, Paperback)
Author: Peter H. Adams
Publisher: Schiffer Pub Ltd
Publication Date: 2005-08-30
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN-10: 0764322249
ISBN-13: 9780764322242
Product ID: EPID46743074

**An Annotated Index to Selected Articles from the Musical Courier, 1880-1940 by Peter H. Adams (2009, Hardcover)
Author: Peter H. Adams
Publisher: Scarecrow Pr
Publication Date: 2009-02-28
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10: 0810866587
ISBN-13: 9780810866584
Product ID: EPID71090544

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