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What is a Discography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A discography is an organized list of musical recordings with basic information about the recordings, such as the dates they were made and the identities of the performers. The term “discography” is also sometimes used to describe the study of sound recordings. Numerous books contain extensive discographies which pertain to various artists and musical genres, and it is also possible to find standalone examples.

The term is a portmanteau of “disc,” as in the discs used for phonograph records, and “graphy,” a Greek suffix which refers to writing. “Discography” has a precedent in “bibliography,” a listing of books. Any type of sound recording can be covered in a discography, including records, tapes, compact discs, and digital recordings, with the type usually being noted in the margins for the benefit of the reader.

A classic example is a compilation of all of the recordings of a single artist or group, typically arranged chronologically. Having a complete list allows people to see which recordings they are missing, and the list can also be used to highlight rare recordings, or changes in musical stylings. When complete, discographies include everything from B-sides to greatest-hits albums, and compiling a complete version can take a lot of time, especially in the case of a prolific artist or group like The Beatles. Music scholars may also disagree on the contents of some discographies, and scholarly debate can get vicious at times.

In addition to compiling lists of music performed by particular people, it is also possible to create a discography which covers a genre or theme, such as African-American spirituals or music about water. Discographies may also be compiled by composer, which can be useful for people who want to compare and contrast multiple recordings of the same work to see how different musicians and conductors interpret it. For noted composers like Beethoven and Mozart, a discography can quickly become quite intimidating and unwieldy, since so many musicians have recorded performances of their works.

Music biographers almost always include a discography in the index of their works for the reference of readers, as do scholars and historians who write about music, with the discography serving as a list of sources and materials used in the preparation of a text. Bands often publish discographies with their recordings or on their websites for the benefit of fans, and sites which collect and distribute information about music may have a repository of discographies as well.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Jul 04, 2011

Discographies are extremely helpful when you are trying to locate all of the music available from an artist whose music cannot be found in music stores or even on iTunes. I love the Celtic band Iona, and even Amazon only had one of their CDs for sale.

Iona is from Scotland, which I'm sure is part of the reason that not too many people in the United States have heard of them. I found them while searching for Celtic music online, and I intend to go through their discography until I have all of their works.

By Oceana — On Jul 03, 2011

As a teenager, I frequently became a major fan of several bands very quickly. I was at the age when I could and wanted to give my undying devotion away to musical groups.

Discographies to me were like a to-do list. I followed them to complete my quest of becoming the true ultimate fan. I had very little money at the time, so it would take me awhile to buy the next album on the list. That kind of made it fun, sort of like the thrill achieved while playing a Nintendo game and finally progressing to the next level.

By letshearit — On Jul 03, 2011

For those that are into collecting music do you prefer the modern business model of artists releasing longer albums every few years, or do you enjoy having more frequent releases, with fewer songs?

I have noticed when looking through new discographies that the albums released today have many more songs than they used to prior to the CD age, with many albums today pushing the 60-minute mark. I actually preferred having more albums released with less content as I loved to collect not just the music but the unique packaging assigned to each album, and more "snapshots" of where an artist's thinking was at during a particular point in time. For myself it feels like it is a more enjoyable way to track a group's progress if you have more chances to track their musical direction.

By popcorn — On Jul 02, 2011

If you are an avid music collector looking at discographies can be an amazing way to build up your collection and make sure you have all of the music from an artist. One of the things I have noticed changing with the popularity of CDs, then digital files is how much easier it is now to pick up bonus tracks and B-side content.

In my opinion I am not really sure that having such an ease of access to all of the tracks from an artist is that great as it makes the whole field of collecting seem less of a challenge. I really liked that feeling of getting my hands on a track that other people had difficulty finding - it would be a point of pride to have something that your friends didn't.

By robert13 — On Jul 01, 2011

@Engelbert - I agree that the music industry seems to be much more about singles than albums nowadays. Personally, as someone who grew up with the Internet being my main source of music, I've become accustomed (or maybe desensitized is a better word) to this fact and now I enjoy songs as a format more than albums - which I'm sure older music fans would find horrifying to think of. I guess it says a lot about mine and other people from my generation's attention spans.

Nonetheless, I do kind of regret that I'll never really get to enjoy the experience of discovering a band or artist and the journey of going through their discography as opposed to just listening to whatever song I happen to be into at the time on repeat. The last time I remember doing this is when I first discovered Tom Waits and while I did like seeing how his music progressed over his career, I still found myself mostly just picking the songs I liked off each album and listening to those.

By Engelbert — On Jun 30, 2011

It seems to me like musicians and bands don’t really get the opportunity to develop extensive discographies anymore. @Stringbender and @HalfStack gave the examples of The Beatles, Eric Clapton and Metallica, all of which have upwards of twenty seven albums over their entire career, whereas nowadays bands are lucky to have more than two or three albums before they’re forgotten about. I think because of the Internet people are far more willing to indulge in “flash in the pan” type bands or genres which are popular for a little while before people move on to the next big thing. I guess the easy accessibility of music now has resulted in a kind of over saturation of the market.

I don’t necessarily think this is an entirely bad thing though because it still gives bands a chance to reach an audience – even if their careers are short-lived - whereas otherwise people would still be listening to The Beatles’ discography over and over again (not that there’s anything wrong with that either).

By HalfStack — On Jun 30, 2011

@StringBender - So true. If you look at the Metallica discography, you discover that Dave Mustaine was on their early recordings. He was their first guitar player. Thank goodness he left though because he went on to play for Megadeth. Amazing.

By StringBender — On Jun 29, 2011

Discographies are terrific. You can get lost in them. They are often like reading a family tree chart. They are great for not just seeing a particular bands history, like the Beatles, but to see an individual's history. For example, if you do look at the Beatles discography, you will see that Eric Clapton played with them on occasion. If you look at Clapton's discography, it might take you days to get through it because he has played with so many people. It's an interesting study.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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