A little ditty about sheet music

One of the hidden treasures at AAS is its sheet music collection.  The collection numbers about 60,000 pieces of music, all printed before 1880, including instrumental, vocal, secular and religious music, by both American and foreign composers.  You might be thinking, I can’t read music, what’s in it for me?  The sheet music collection is actually an amazing resource for research, not only for those lucky enough to be able to pick out a tune, but for anyone doing research at AAS. 

Glancing through sheet music is an interesting, and very entertaining way of learning about popular issues and ideas of the time.  What topics were important enough to compose a song for the general public for?  What were people singing about?  What ideas and morals were being instilled in people through music?  Temperance, women’s rights and slavery are but a few of the issues being discussed through music in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Titles and lyrics say so much, and so do the images on the covers of the sheet music.  AAS has separately indexed sheet music with pictorial lithograph covers and pictorial engraved covers.  Covers can be found illustrated by some of the nation’s most famous artists, including Winslow Homer, David Claypool Johnston, and James McNeill Whistler.  These pieces are used extensively by readers and fellows, as the cover images in and of themselves make excellent research material. Click here to see the topical classification of the pictorial covers – http://www.americanantiquarian.org/sheetmusic1.htm

The sheet music collection is one of the few collections left at AAS that is only accessible through its card file, located in the card catalogs in the Reading Room.  The card file is organized as a title index for the general sheet music collection.  There is also a separate card file for the pictorial covers, organized by subject and by lithographer.  So if you’re ever at AAS and need to fill that final research gap, why not try looking at some sheet music!

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Tracey Kry

Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Assistant Reference Librarian, American Antiquarian Society

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