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Tips, techniques & resources to help with your research papers, projects, artistic and performance study and practice.

Post-tonal music theory research guide

This guide can help students in Music Theory 4220/7220, as well as others interested in researching notated post-tonal Western Art music.

Other research guides on music theory and composition will be available at a later date.


The research cycle

The research process is a cycle. The first time you go through these steps, you'll probably be looking for a couple of general sources. Each time you repeat the process, you learn more, which helps you to refine your project question (topic) and try different search strategies or tools (McKenzie). 
Be patient! Research often takes a winding path. It's more productive and pleasurable if you allow sufficient time for wandering and reorienting. 

Finding background information

It is helpful to refer to background reference sources that are reliable, such as encyclopedias, to help familiarize you with important post-tonal movements, styles, periods, centers, individuals, etc., and to situate the music into its historical, social, and/or political context. 

Start with Oxford Music Online. Try searching from the Grove Music Online sections.  You can also browse by topic, e.g., Music Theory and Analysis.  

Here are some entries to get you started:

You can also find entries on specific composers or music theorists. Examples include Sofiya Gubaydulina,  Kaija Saariaho

If the composer you've chosen doesn't have an entry, entries that are on composers that relate to your composer somehow (e.g., were a colleague, or from same country or region and composing during the same historical period) may still be beneficial to you. 

There are also Research Starters in Discover@MU. For example Atonality,    Sofia Gubaidulina,   Dmitri Shostakovich,   etc.  

Tip: Don’t forget to look at the resources listed in the Bibliography at the end of each entry. This is an efficient way to find relevant secondary sources and discover key scholars to pay attention to. You'll start to recognize prolific authors, important music theorists, and significant journals or publishers.

Terminology - Make note of useful details and terms during this initial research stage so that you can use them as search terms when you start to search for more in-depth information (e.g., scholarly articles, conference presentations).

Finding scores

Discover@MU includes musical scores. Search a composer's name (surname first!) as an author and then limit by Format - musical scores.

If you want a score in Ellis Library, you can limit by Location.

You will discover that the UMKC Music Library has a larger score collection than Ellis Library. Accessing UMKC scores is not difficult nor time-consuming. Review how to access materials from other UM campus libraries here:

Browsing for scores in the stacks

Scores are shelved near the music books on the 4th floor (East)

M = music scores  

Here is a helpful guide to learn more about the Library of Congress Call Numbers for Music, which may help you to browse the shelves more easily.

Finding scores online

Some places to find scores by 20th and 21st century composers are:

Help finding composers from underrepresented groups within Western Art Music

Selected tools and resources

Finding women & gender diverse composers and their works

Finding secondary sources - Intro

In arts & humanities research, secondary sources are works that interpret, describe, analyze, or evaluate primary sources (e.g., a post-tonal composition). Looking over scholarly secondary sources will help you come up with a research idea and situate it within ongoing scholarly conversations in music theory and 20th and 21st century Western Art music analysis. You also will use them to help answer the more focused question you are investigating for your project.

Finding secondary sources - Books

Browsing for books

Why browse? Great for serendipitous searching and familiarizing yourself with the collections. 
For this project, you need to consult scholarly sources, so be sure to evaluate the books you choose to consult to make sure they are not introductory texts, for example textbooks. 

Browsing for books in stacks

Browse by call numbers

ML = books of literature on music
MT = books of music instruction and study

To browse print books on post-tonal music in Ellis Library stacks (on the 4th floor R), browse the call numbers

  • ML197 "History and criticism. 1901-2000"
  • ML197.2 "History and criticism. 2001-present." 
  • MT40 "Composition" may also be helpful. 

For books on individual composers, look at the ML410s. Some composers will have their own call number under the 410s for composer biography. Some examples are: Schoenberg ML410.S283, Messiaen ML410.M595, Bartók ML410.B26, Varèse ML410.V27, Gubaidulina ML410.G9463, Ligeti ML410.L645.‏   → Keep a critical mindset. Who is missing here? Which voices are prioritized?

Want more information on music call numbers? 


Browsing in Discover@MU

Browse by Subject Headings

To find a book on a topic you are researching, search by subject, rather than just by keyword. This strategy can help you find relevant books more efficiently. Subject headings are tags that libraries assigns to all the books about a particular topic to make those books easier to find (Fary).

Suggested Subject Headings to try browsing with:

Music -- 20th century -- History and criticism
Music -- 21st century -- History and criticism
Music -- 20th century -- Philosophy and aesthetics
Music -- 21st century -- Philosophy and aesthetics
Music theory -- History -- 20th century
Serialism (Music)
Modernism (Music)
Minimal music -- History and criticism
Spectral music  (spectral music leads to few results)

You may come across other useful subject headings during your research. Keep track of them so you can search with them in future. To search with them, paste them into the search box and select SU Subject Terms from the Select a Field tab.


Finding secondary sources using music research databases

Try using the RILM database. 

RILM is THE online database for (most) music research → contains citations, abstracts, and access to full text materials. It is particularly strong for Western Art music research and provides access to materials in many languages. RILM can help you find relevant, varied, and high-quality scholarly resources on music theory and post-tonal composition (e.g., articles, books, conference proceedings, dissertations). It also provides access to concert reviews, recording notes, and composer interviews, which could help you especially if the composer you have chosen has not been researched much yet. 

Before you search - review how to choose keywords to search with and construct a search statement:

How to search

Choose advanced search → enter one or more search terms in the boxes.
- Set the index field (to the right of the search term) 
   Useful choices:
              subject ("official" terms used to label the subjects of a article, book, etc.)
              abstract (looks for your term just in the abstract)
              major topic (broad category, e.g. genre – find the topic number in advanced search →  limit your results  →  major topic)  

- Use AND to narrow your search; use OR to broaden it

- Limit your search (scroll down under Search Options)
   Useful ways to limit:
              Full Text    
              Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals
              Language of Item
              Publication date
              Document type

Watch an informative video on how to search in RILM
Learn more about searching in RILM

The music librarian at the University of Maryland has created detailed RILM guides on finding articles, subject headings, index browsing, and major topics:   


Fary, Christine. “Music: Find Books.” Milner Library, January 8, 2024.
Harmeyer, Jackson. “Music Theory and Composition: Post-Tonal Techniques.” Ball State University Libraries, January 9, 2024.
McKenzie, Janis. “Start Your Research Here.” SFU Library, September 6, 2023.
Pratesi, Angela. “Library of Congress Call Numbers for Music: Overview.” Bowling Green State University Libraries, June 30, 2023.