Music blog

From classical and pop to world and traditional music


We have over 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and about 2 million music recordings! This blog is written by our team of music curators and features news and information about the British Library's rich collections of music and sound recordings. Read more

20 March 2015

Musical Journeys to Oman, Qatar and Kuwait

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27 short films on music from Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, made by Rolf Killius (the BL's Gulf History Curator for Oral and Musical Cultures) are now available online.

Traditional music in the Persian (or Arabic) Gulf region creates joy at weddings, helps to deal with death, shows cultural continuity and changes, is part of the history of peoples, accompanies nation-building and national celebrations, reflects ethnic unity, diversity and plurality, expresses cultural heritage and unites people.

In 2013 and 2014 I had the chance to do fieldwork on traditional music in Oman, Qatar and Kuwait for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme. The main aim of this fieldwork was to complement the British Library's historical commercial music collections from the Gulf region (mainly on shellac discs) with new audio and video recordings of traditional music.

I have selected and edited 27 short films from these fieldwork journeys for the Qatar Digital Library Portal, where one can also find contextual pieces outlining the fieldwork and introducing the regions and musical genres. Linked to the portal are YouTube and SoundCloud channels with hundreds of audio and video titles with detailed captions. Additional material can also be found on the British Library Sounds website where one can listen to Middle Eastern music on shellac discs.

Modernity meets tradition: traditional music in Qatar

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Sea-music in Qatar
Sea-music in Qatar. Photo: Rolf Killius

The intention to do fieldwork in one of the richest countries in the world seemed at first to be a challenge. Walking along the Cornice, the waterfront in Qatar’s capital, Doha - with more than its share of skyscrapers and blinking lights, the promenade walkways alongside a superhighway and the wooden boats ready to service tourists and affluent Qataris - gives the impression of a rapidly modernising country which has left much of the Bedouins’ and seafarers’ roots behind. Despite all this we discovered that just a little scratch in the right place can uncover the traditional musical cultures of the desert and the sea again. If one has access to the very intimate family, tribal or informal Qatari Arab gatherings it is surprising how much of the traditional music culture is still alive. 

For instance, try the sea music performance, where the naham (lead singer) Ali Saeed Al Mari, conducts a choir of twenty-five singers and instrumentalists:


Or, watch the al-ardha performance during the tribal gathering of the al-Atteeyah community during the annual Qatar National Day. Here the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, graced the audience and players:


Sea Music - with a Scottish Bagpipe
Sea music, musician with Scottish bagpipes. Photo: Rolf Killius

Sea meets desert: traditional music in Oman

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In the Sultanate of Oman traditional music, poetry and dance are still part and parcel of both everyday life and national/patriotic celebrations, and are practised by experts and laypersons alike. An example of how well Omani people respect music was my late-night arrival at the airport in Muscat: all bags were scanned and the customs official asked me to unpack all my equipment. Finally he pointed at the microphones and barked: “What is this for?” I hesitated at first and then answered that they were “microphones to record Omani music”. A big smile settled on his face and he wished me a good time in Oman. Welcome to the country of music and frankincense!

The musical culture reflects the population’s multi-ethnic origin and has created a unique variety of numerous musical and dance genres. Though they all have been flavoured by the grand cultures of India, East Africa and Persia, the Omani people have developed their own variety of specific Gulf styles. Along with Hijaz (Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia) and Yemen, Oman has the most ancient and diverse culture on the Arabian Peninsula.

For instance, try Galfat Shobani, the sea music from Oman, completely different from sea music in Qatar and Kuwait and – surprisingly – with a Scottish bagpipe as the solo instrument.


Or, watch the Al-Maidan dance and music from a large wedding in Sur. This dance is considered the most complicated and sophisticated dance form and is strongly influenced by African culture.

Maidan dance music
Maidan dance, Oman. Photo: Rolf Killius
Boom in Kuwait with skyline
Boom in Kuwait with skyline. Photo: Rolf Killius

Hidden treasures: traditional music in Kuwait

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Although Kuwait City (where the research was conducted) at first seemed to me a bit dull, once personally introduced, the numerous places where traditional music is still practised revealed a rich heritage of a living Gulf music culture. Indeed Kuwait is musically quite a revelation. Traditional music is performed, at least in private gatherings, on a weekly basis.

Kuwait was and (to a certain degree) still is the centre of traditional music in the Gulf. Together with Bahrain the country shares the honour of being the birthplace of such once popular music genres as sowt (early urban genre of the Gulf). Bahri (sea music), in particular, has been at the heart of Kuwait’s music scene. Numerous old audiovisual documents show evidence of the country’s ‘roaring 1960s’, where male and female musicians performed widely and were recorded by record labels and television companies. Kuwait has maintained a thriving traditional music culture to the present day, which is practised nearly exclusively in private homes and semi-private diwaniyas or traditional meeting places for men, mostly related to music.

For instance, try this sowt performance from a diwaniya in Kuwait City:


Or, try Leywa (or liwah), the ritual music of African origin practised in the whole Gulf region. The instrument players are at the centre of the performance while the surnai (oboe) player leads the dancers and singers who move anti-clockwise around the instrumentalists. 



Guest post written by Rolf Killius, March 2015

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and our new Save our Sounds programme

Follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

Follow the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities on Twitter via @BL_WorldTrad






06 February 2015

Directory of UK Music Sound Collections

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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"

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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.