Center for Popular Music Launches New Music Manuscripts Website

Hundreds of American music manuscripts–handwritten musical documents dating as a far back as the Colonial era–have been put up online for the first time, thanks to a three-year joint effort between MTSU’s Center for Popular Music and the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts.

The American Vernacular Music Manuscripts website made American music manuscripts from the 1730s to 1910. These documents are now available online for the first time, not only for MTSU students, but people around the world through WorldCat, a combined library catalog that encompasses 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and territories, according to a release from The Center for Popular Music, a part of the College of Mass Communication.

“The AVMM project makes available to everyone an overwhelmingly large collection of manuscripts that reveal what kinds of music Americans enjoyed at home before the advent of radio and recordings,” said Dr. Greg Reish, the Center’s director.

Approximately 350 handwritten manuscripts of vernacular music dating from the Colonial era to the early 20th century were included in the project, totaling more than 17,000 pages of music.

The new AVMM archive serves as a front page and search engine for the manuscript images, where users can search the collection directly by song title or by other properties such as keywords, year, subject, origin and creator. Center staffers involved in the project scanned manuscripts in high resolution for preservation, then stored the images at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music and many other forms of media.

Dr. Dale Cockrell, AVMM project co-director, noted that, “Handwritten music manuscripts by common Americans contain primary and direct evidence of their musical preferences during a particular time and in a particular place. To see, play from or study one of these old manuscripts brings us as close to that person’s musical life as history allows.”

“The cataloging of these manuscripts was uncharted territory in the library and archival fields,” Reish said. “What the project team accomplished will be of inestimable value not just to musicians and musical researchers but also to other institutions who hold similar items and never knew how to deal with them.”

The collections of the Center for Popular Music and the American Antiquarian Society are some of the largest and most significant of such material in the nation. The Center for Popular Music created a set of guidelines to allow other institutions to catalog similar manuscripts in their collections.

Dr. Thomas Knoles, curator of manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society and AVMM project co-director added, “Until now, repositories such as the American Antiquarian Society that had this material had no way to help researches identify particular pieces of music in order to understand what tunes were in circulation and how widely they were copied.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities, who funded the project, said that their organization is “pleased” with the success of the digitization project, according to senior program officer Joshua Sternfeld.

“Such a rich collection of early American materials, collaboratively produced, will not only reveal new insight into music-making,” Sternfeld said, “but also shed light on the social and cultural fabric of communities, including ethnic traditions, social networks, religious practices, family life and class.”

The staff of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music maintains a unique archive of research materials that range from shaped-note songbooks to hip-hop mash-ups in a collection stretching from the early 18th century to the present. It also develops and sponsors programs in American vernacular music and regularly presents special concerts, lectures, and events for the campus community. If you’re a music fan, visit to see how you could revolutionize your Hi-Fi.

For more information on the Center for Popular Music, visit here.

To learn more about Greg Reish, read our profile of him here.

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To contact news editor Max Smith, email

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