The Oxford Companion to Music

The Oxford Companion to Music is a popular music reference book in the series of Oxford Companions produced by the Oxford University Press. It was originally conceived and written (almost single-handedly) by Percy Scholes and published in 1938. Since then, it has undergone two distinct rewritings, one by Denis Arnold, in 1983, and the latest edition by Alison Latham in 2002.

The single volume edition by Percy Scholes

The first edition, a single volume work, was produced in 1938, edited by Percy Scholes, and written almost entirely by him alone. This work took him six years to produce and consisted of over a million words (exceeding the length of the Bible).

Scholes tried, wherever possible, to use primary source material, rather than summarising other people's work and his preface to the First Edition describes how he played and read through thousands of sheets of music, as well as reading thousands of concert programmes and studying "old literature and long-bygone musical journals". From this research, he produced about fifty-five volumes of notes, each devoted to a separate branch of musical knowledge. He then sought peer review of each of these volumes with specialists in the particular branch of musical knowledge. Finally, these volumes were broken up and re-constituted in alphabetical order.

Scholes' intention was to produce a work which was of relevance to a wide range of readers, from the professional musician to the concert-goer, "gramaphonist", or radio-listener. His work was aimed at a reader for whom it "will neither be beyond the scope of his pocket nor embarrass him by a manner of expression so technical as to add new puzzles to the puzzle which sent him to the book". The result was a work which was highly accessible to the general reader, as well as being of use to the specialist.

Scholes' style, whilst being scholarly and well-researched, was also sometimes quirky and opinionated. For instance, his original articles on some of the twentieth century composers were highly dismissive, as were his articles on genres such as jazz.

He produced several revisions prior to his death (in 1958), with the last full revision being the 9th edition in 1955. The Tenth Edition, published in 1970, was a revision of Scholes' work by John Owen Ward. Ward considered it "inappropriate to change radically the characteristic rich anecdotal quality of Dr. Scholes' style" and, although he brought some of the articles up to date, he left much of Scholes' distinctive work intact.

The New Oxford Companion to Music

In 1983 a wholly-revised two volume work, titled The New Oxford Companion to Music, was introduced. This was edited by Denis Arnold who made extensive use of other specialist contributors, some 90 in all. The work was significantly broader in coverage than Scholes' original (there was for instance a perceptive article on Bob Dylan), and is the most extensively illustrated of the three versions.

Arnold expressed his intention of adhering to Scholes’ principles and indeed included much of Scholes’ material in the new work. Nevertheless, he cut out much of the personal opinion and quirkiness which was characteristic of the original, but which increasingly appeared politically incorrect and Eurocentric. For instance, he substantially increased the coverage of women composers and performers, who were almost totally absent from Scholes' work.

There were no further revisions of this version, probably due to Arnold's own early death in 1986, and the relative unpopularity in some circles of the bulk and expense of a two volume work.

The 2002 revision

In 2002, a third work was produced. This one, edited by Alison Latham, goes back to the original title and to the single-volume format.

Latham assembled her own team of over 120 contributors, some of whom had contributed to the prior (Arnold) edition, and others drawn from her own previous editing work (for example on the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music). This edition consists of some 7400 articles and aims to bring the work up-to-date, for example, in its coverage of areas such as electronic music and computers.

The 2002 revision is, indeed, more up to date, handier and more affordable than its predecessor. However, the 2002 revision abridges the text and eliminates most of the illustrations and on certain subjects is clearly less useful.

On a positive note, the 2002 edition is the first to have entries to distinguished performing musicians. For the first time, along with entries to composers such J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók and Benjamin Britten, there are entries to the horn player Dennis Brain, the soprano Maria Callas, the tenor Enrico Caruso, the cellist and conductor Pablo Casals and scores more. This change enhances the usefulness of the The Oxford Companion to Music.


  • Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1938
  • Denis Arnold, The New Oxford Companion to Music : Volume 1: A-J; Volume 2: L-Z, OUP, 1983. ISBN 0-19-311316-3
  • Latham, Alison, ed. (2002). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press.

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