Music blog

2 posts from February 2015

06 February 2015

Directory of UK Music Sound Collections

The British Library’s Directory of UK Sound Collections is one of the first steps in our Save our Sounds programme launched on 12th January 2015 as one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library’s new vision and purpose for its future.

The purpose of the directory project is to collect information about our recorded heritage, to create a directory of sound collections in the UK. By telling us what you have, we can help plan for their preservation, for future generations.

Our aim is to be comprehensive; to search out sounds that exist in libraries, archives, museums, galleries, schools and colleges, charities, societies, businesses and in your homes.  And we’re not just interested in large collections: a single item might be just as important as a whole archive.

So far we have collected information about almost 200 collections amounting to roughly 250,000 items across a range of formats and subjects: oral history; wildlife, mechanical and environmental sounds; drama and literature; language and dialect; radio and popular, classical, jazz and world and traditional music.

A summary list of music collections includes:

  1. Mozart GLASS Collection: former Greater London Audio Specialisation Scheme (GLASS Collection retained by Westminster Music Library
  2. Some commercial music recordings included alongside collection of music scores and news cuttings relating to the life and career of Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)
  3. A large collection of communist period vinyl records from Romania, and smaller collections from Bulgaria, Ex-Yugoslavia and Hungary
  4. Recordings made by many contributors of traditional song, music and drama; dialect speech; calendar customs; cultural traditions; children's games and songs (University of Sheffield Library)
  5. Sound recordings made by ethnomusicologist Jean Jenkins in Africa, India and the Middle East
  6. Recordings of songs by Plymouth artists (with paper transcripts) and photographs of Union Street Project, Plymouth
  7. The Erich Wolfgang Korngold Archive: Interviews, archival performances, acetates, 78rpm discs, broadcast tapes, private recordings, vinyl and CDs covering the life and work of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
  8. organ  and morning service recordings from St Andrew's, Plymouth
  9. gramophone records of Princess Elizabeth's visit to Plymouth, recorded by RGA Sound Services, 21 Cobourg St, Plymouth
  10. 2 troubadour and 10 trouvère songs sung by Francesco Carapezza; 13 troubadour songs in spoken performance by Gérard Gouiran,  from the University of Warwick
  11. Music on LP and some wax cylinders, from Brent Museum and Archives
  12. A comprehensive, primarily classical, recorded music collection from Exeter Library
  13. Scottish Music Centre: Recordings of music by Scottish composers and performers (and associated spoken-word material), mostly dating from late 1960s to present. Over 12,000 items of which over 11,000 catalogued online (as at January 2015)
  14. 3,000 commercial recordings from the 78rpm shellac era, including some rarities and radio transcriptions (Radio Luxemburg, ENSA, BBC), as well as unusual/rare labels of non-jazz content
  15. 12,000 UK 78rpm records, 1920-1945, concentrating on British Dance Bands & personalities of the period
  16. 100 shellac discs of early jazz recordings
  17. Evensong half hour, recorded at Hunstanton parish church and broadcast by the BBC on 19th August 1951
  18. Cassettes of church organ accompanied by a choir boy
  19. Private recordings made on open reel tape of classical music performances
  20. Recordings of Scottish, English, Irish and other folk musicians, made mostly in Edinburgh from the late 1960s to mid-1970s
  21. Recordings of the Broughton Tin Can Band and Winster Guisers
  22. Private folk music recordings made on open reel tape
  23. Music by Derbyshire musicians.

Although this is a good selection across the musical genres, we feel there are many, many more music collections out there.

The census is live now and will run until the end of March 2015.  You can read more about the project, and send us information about your collections here:

You can follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

04 February 2015

Hans Gerle's "Tablatur auff die Laudten"

Consulting the BL's printed catalogue of music can hold certain advantages over the online catalogue, not least in making it possible to browse the holdings for a particular composer on the page. In this unusual instance, a second copy of Hans Gerle's 'Tablatur auff die Laudten' (K.1.b.12), printed in Nuremberg in 1533, was listed only in the printed catalogue until recently, but is a fascinating source in its own right. Unravelling the complexities of this source goes hand-in-hand with cataloguing it fully, and also allows musicologists to study its contents to shed light on the relationship between sacred tunes and secular performances in Reformation-era Germany.

  Hans Gerle, Tablatur auff die Laudten

        BL K.1.b.12 - Hans Gerle's Tablatur auff die Laudten (Formschneider: Nuremberg, 1533)

In 1953, notation expert Willi Apel noted uncompromisingly that 'the transcription of pieces written in the German lute tablature is, of course, very fatiguing and slow work.' Nowadays, the process of transcription whilst surrounded by a wealth of cheat sheets is surely less daunting than the prospect of actually learning to sight-read the music on the lute. The sixteenth-century amateur would have bought a copy of Gerle's book and found a well-intended diagram at the beginning of the book, designating a specific symbol to each fret on each string (see below).

Hans Gerle, Tablatur auff die Laudten

BL K.1.b.12 - Hans Gerle's Tablatur auff die Laudten (Formschneider: Nuremberg, 1533)

Unfortunately, this diagram is spectacularly unhelpful. Not only are the letters, numbers and other symbols lined up along the strings far too small to be legible, but the diagram is also upside-down and back-to-front: in order to read the text along the strings and for the diagram of the lute to match up with a real lute in one's hands, the book must be the other way up. The constant flicking of pages and turning of the book must have been annoying for any amateur lutenist – perhaps Gerle was keen to encourage people to buy his 1532 treatise on lute-playing too!

Transcription does present some challenges. Unlike other forms of lute tablature, in which consecutive letters correspond to pitches a semitone apart, the German system moves the letters across the neck (going up a string each time) rather than along a string. The result of this is that letters in alphabetical order may represent tones that are as far apart as a major third, a perfect fourth, or a compound augmented fourth. The alphabet is repeated once all letters have been exhausted (omitting 'j', but including two additional symbols, 'et' and 'con'), at which point it starts again with a line over each letter ('ā') or a double letter ('aa'). These symbols correspond to pitches that are a perfect fourth above the solo letter ('a'). The repetition of the alphabet gives great potential for printer errors, but these can normally be spotted without too much trouble. A further complication is added by the notation style of the Grossbrummer, or lowest string. Each individual German composer used his own method of notating these pitches: Gerle favoured numbers with lines above them.

Hans Gerle, Tablatur auff die Laudten

Numbers without lines refer to open strings; numbers with lines are notes on the Grossbrummer.                          signifies the open string of the Grossbrummer. 1 signifies the open string of the Mittelbrummer (second lowest string).

One of the trickier aspects of the notation stems from the fact that the symbols for each pitch in any given chord are listed vertically from highest pitch to lowest pitch. This in itself makes sense; what complicates it is that as the notation moves from one chord to another adjacent pitches do not stay in line with each other. This reflects the fact that, unlike in the lute tablature of other European countries at the time, the German system does not depict the strings themselves. A straightforward example is shown below (NB – the stems and tails signify four minims):

Hans Gerle, Tablatur auff die Laudten


Tablature sign

Pitch (ASPN / Helmholtz)


C4 / c'


A3 / a


F3 / f


G3 / g

l (L)

E♭3 / e♭

If the two pitches in line with 'n' ('2' and 'g') were written in the same voice part, the following rather unsatisfactory transcription would be obtained, resulting in a tritone between the lower notes, a second between the held A dotted semibreve and the G on the third minim beat, and a poor melodic line in the upper voice:


When the notes are rearranged, however, a much more musical result can be found:

This also allows long melodic lines to penetrate the texture more easily, which is very important since Gerle did not write his own music. Instead, the pieces are arrangements of motets, psalm tunes and other popular songs by other composers, and through a careful transcription which is flexible enough to experiment with the placing of pitches within each musical line, it is possible to recognise these lines in the same way that they must have been familiar to sixteenth-century lutenists playing Gerle's arrangements.

Hans Gerle, Tablatur auff die Laudten

The main benefit of tackling Gerle's source comes from the process of transcription itself: only through transcribing an original source and playing the music back can a non-lutenist really appreciate the tropes and idioms inherent in Gerle's writing, which reflect both contemporary lute technique and popular musical preferences more generally. Since this piece (O mater Maria Christi) was a popular motet, it also demonstrates the overlap between sacred and secular styles in Reformation-era Germany. 

Elizabeth Bennett, doctoral student in music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the British Library.