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Syracuse University Libraries

Music Research Process

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Great for original research
Great for researching what others have already said about your topic
Good for overview, fact checking, and to point you to other sources


Primary sources provide a a first-hand account of an event or person. They are created by the research subject themselves, or by witnesses during the time period or event being researched.

Secondary sources provide an interpretation, critique, evaluation, or conclusion based upon information from primary sources. They can be either popular or scholarly Tertiary sources provide a summary or overview of a research topic. Or, they provide an inventory/list of secondary or primary sources about a research topic.
  • Creative works by a research subject (lyrics, recording, or score of a musical work)
  • Other textual writings by a research subject (autobiographies, memoirs, social media posts, diaries, letters, blog posts, essays)
  • Interviews with or about a research subject (audio, video, or transcripts)
  • Audio or video recording from an event or performance; photographs
  • Original data (numeric data, surveys, experiments, ethnographic observations)
  • Sometimes popular journalism, if the subject of your research is popular opinion
  • Books or book chapters in an edited collection that offer criticism or an interpretation of a subject (scholarly or popular)
  • Commentary within edited works and scores (scholarly)
  • Scholarly journal articles, open-access research articles
  • Popular magazine articles, newspaper opinion pieces, blog posts, social media posts (popular)
  • Reviews of performances, books, recordings, or other creative works (popular or scholarly)
  • Encyclopedias like Wikipedia or Oxford Music Online 
  • Other reference sources like almanacs or Guidebooks
  • Textbooks (sometimes secondary)
  • Bibliographies, discographies, indexes
  • Library catalog or other databases


Remember, websites are a source format, but can be for any audience or have any type of content. The web can provide access to many different types of sources (e-books, encyclopedias, newspaper articles) and it can also serve as a publishing platform (Beyonce's official website). While reading the chart above, think about how websites fit into all of the categories and descriptions.

What's a Primary Source?

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