The Past, Present and Future of Sheet Music – by Mike Overly

April 17, 2014

Illuminated ManuscriptOverview 

Sheet music is a form of music notation that uses written symbols and signs to represent the sound of music. The medium of sheet music has progressed from clay tablets to parchment, and from paper to computer screens. Sheet music may be written by hand, printed by a press, or sent from the computer to a graphic printer. The term “sheet” is used to differentiate written music, regardless of the medium, from an audio presentation of sound as experienced through records, tapes, CDs and mp3s.


Sheet music may be thought of as a way of notating sound so as to preserve and more quickly learn a piece of music. Sheet music can be studied to elucidate aspects that may not be obvious from mere listening. Insightful musical information may be gained by studying the composers autograph score, as well as written sketches, early versions of the composition, personal markings on proofs and printed scores.

Sheet music requires the ability to read music notation which is a special form of literacy. This skill enables a musician to perform a piece of music they have never heard by simply viewing the sheet music.  When this occurs the first time it is called sight reading. A more refined skill is needed to read a new and unfamiliar piece of music and then hear the melody and harmony in one’s head without having to play the piece.

With the exception of solo performances, where memorization is expected, most musicians ordinarily read sheet music when performing. However, printed sheet music is less important in certain musical styles such as folk and pop. With jazz and other improvised music, sheet music is called a lead sheet and is used to give only the most basic indications of the melody, harmony, and arrangement. Although much popular music is published in notation of some sort, for example fake books and TAB, it is quite common for improvisational players to learn a song by ear. This was frequently the case with traditional folk music, where songs were passed down by an aural tradition.

Although sheet music is most often thought of as being a means for learning new music, it can also serve as a visual record of music that already exists. Transcriptions of such music into staff-notes and tablature render them into readable form for study, analysis, and performance. This is done not only with traditional folk songs, but also with sound recordings of improvisations by rock and jazz musicians.


Modern sheet music comes in many different formats. For example, sheet music can be issued as an individual piece for a popular song, or as a collection of works by a given group or artist. Usually, if a piece is composed for just one instrument or voice, then the whole work may be printed as one sheet. However, if an instrumental piece is intended to be performed by more than one person, then each performer will usually have a separate sheet from which to play. This is especially true of works requiring more than four performers. In that case, a full score will usually be published for the conductor or director.

When the separate instrumental or vocal parts of a musical work are printed on the same sheet, it is called a score. A score generally consists of musical notation with each instrumental or vocal part in vertical alignment. Scores come in many formats, such as: full score, study score or miniature score, piano score, vocal score, choral score, organ score, musical score, and a short score.

In addition to scores, there are lead sheets, chord charts and tablature. A lead sheet presents a one staff-note melody with harmony symbols placed above the staff and lyrics below. A chord chart contains little or no melodic content, but provides detailed harmonic and rhythmic information. Tablature is a special type of instrumental notation that dates from the late Middle Ages. Tablature includes rhythmic notation, but only shows where to play the pitches on any given instrument, not which pitches to play.

Illuminated Manuscripts 

Artifacts show that sheet music began as rudimentary musical codes written on clay tablets by ancient Babylonians nearly 4,000 years ago. Elementary music notation was then developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This early written music continued to evolve until around the 7th century when Catholic monks began approaching the task of symbolizing sound with quills and ink on decorative vellum and parchment. These illuminated manuscripts were bound in large volumes. The best known of these manuscripts were of religious monophonic chants. With the introduction of polyphony, 9th-14th century, the individual parts were written separately and presented on facing pages. The medieval practice of composing polyphonic parts sequentially rather than simultaneously meant that manuscripts showing parts together in vertical score format were rare.

Fortunately for us, sheet music survived the Dark Ages and went on to become an important musical force during the Renaissance, 14th-17th century. It is interesting to note that even after the advent of music printing in the 15th century, there was still an abundance of sheet music that only existed in manuscript form well into the 18th century.

Printing On Paper 

With the invention of Gutenberg‘s printing press during the 15th century, printed sheet music became much more accessible to the masses. The first machine-printed book to include music was the Mainz psalter of 1457. It included printed staff lines, but, scribes still had to add the rest of the music by hand. In 1501, the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A, which contained ninety-six pieces of polyphonic music was printed. A common way for issuing multi-part polyphonic music during the Renaissance was in the form of part-books. In this format, each voice-part would be printed separately in its own book and multiple books would be needed to perform the music. Scores for multi-part music were rarely printed. The printing method at that time produced clean and readable music but required three separate passes through the printing press. It was discovered that the greatest difficulty in using movable type to print music was aligning all the musical elements, for example, assuring that the note head was properly positioned on the staff. In 1520 single impression printing appeared and eliminated this alignment problem. Around this time, the first tablature with movable type was printed. Printing remained mostly unchanged for the next 200 years.

The benefit of printed music was that it spread information faster and more efficiently to more people than was possible through bound manuscripts. Printed music also had the additional effect of enabling amateur musicians to afford sheet music to perform. This resulted in composers writing more music for amateurs. This increased the number of amateurs from whom professional players could earn money by teaching them. And this in turn, allowed the professional to buy more sheet music. It should be noted that in the early years of printed sheet music, the cost still limited its distribution.

Politics also played a role in the history of sheet music. In many places the right to print music, now known as a copyright, was granted by the monarch. Only those with a special dispensation were allowed to print music. As you can imagine, this right was, more often than not, granted to a favored court musician. Politics aside, printed sheet music was impacting Europe in ways unimaginable by past generations and soon it would do the same in the American Colonies.

The first music printed in North America was The Bay Psalm Book, 1640. This book contained only text because the congregations of churches were assumed to know the music by heart. Print music publishing continued to develop and expand throughout the 18th century.

By the early 19th century, the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers due in part to the fact that by this time musicians began to pay for the privilege of performing a writer’s music. At the same time, lithographic techniques replaced metal engraving as a fast and efficient method of reproducing multiple copies of musical scores. This enabled the printing of sacred and secular music to become a booming industry. This helped to employ more people and give rise to the middle class. As a result, more individuals had the time and money necessary to invest in instruments for their homes, town bands, and attendance to the symphony hall.

The late 19th century saw a massive explosion of parlor music, with a piano becoming the instrument of choice for middle class homes. By 1890, many department stores opened counters for the sale of sheet music, and its popularity forced the price down. It’s safe to say that the growth of American popular music, including jazz, country and western, bluegrass, spirituals, and theater music, may be attributed not only to talented composers and artists, but also to the publishers who made it possible for the amateur to play at home. By 1910, Woolworth sold sheet music for 10 cents a copy!

By the early 20th century, the sheet music industry rose in tandem with a group of New York City publishers and composers collectively known as Tin Pan Alley. These talented individuals were made rich and famous by the swift availability of their songs in sheet music form. The sheet music industry experienced another boost in 1914 when the first performance rights society, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Inc. (ASCAP) was established. In 1931, The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, Inc. (SESAC) was founded. It was followed by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) in 1940. Music rights organizations were essential for the orderly administration of performance data and distribution of royalties for music in copyright. They also played an important role in funding the first efforts of young composers and songwriters.

The mid 20th century saw a new growth in sheet music fueled by the phonograph and radio industry which grew in importance and further popularized a wide range of music. By the early 1950’s, technological improvements in sound recording and television again accelerated popular interest in sheet music. But eventually, the record industry overtook sheet music as the dominant musical force since it was easier to play a phonograph than to play an instrument!

Digital Printing 

Near the end of the 20th century, a great deal of interest arose in how to present sheet music in a computer read-and-write format suitable for the down-loading and up-loading of files. In 1984, computer music notation programs for home use were developed and released. They introduced concepts largely unknown to the home user at that time, such as allowing for the manipulation of music symbols and signs with a mouse. These computer programs allowed for playback of music through various early sound cards. In addition, the user could print the musical score via a graphic printer.

In 1991, software that could read scanned sheet music was introduced. Needless to say, this Music Optical Character Recognition (MOCR) software created a completely new manner of distribution for sheet music which was referred to as virtual sheet music. By 1998, virtual sheet music had morphed into digital sheet music. The difference between the two was that digital sheet music allowed copyrighted sheet music to be purchased online from the publisher or dealer. Another important difference was that digital sheet music could be altered in ways virtual sheet music never could. This made digital sheet music ideal for instrument changes, transposition and MIDI playback. In 1999, a system for coordinating a digital music display to orchestral musicians was presented and performed. The popularity of this instant delivery system among musicians, now through the use of iPads, appears to be the catalyst of growth for digital sheet music that will last well into the future.

In the 21st century, sheet music, like most other forms of communication, has fully joined the digital age. In fact, it may be said that digital sheet music is the musical notation system of the 21st century. The popularity of digital sheet music has revitalized the sheet music industry, which had been languishing since the invention of the phonograph. Digital sheet music has made music notation available on a scale the likes of which its creators could never have imagined. Digital sheet music is the future of sheet music, and no where is this more apparent than with the Mutopia Project. This project is an effort to create a library of public domain sheet music comparable to Project Gutenberg’s library of public domain books. Also, the International Music Score Library Project is attempting to create a virtual library of scores from composers who are willing to share their music with the world free of charge! Projects like these make it easy to understand that there will come a time when digital music libraries will be very extensive indeed.

The long and winding history of sheet music is an exciting story of invention, evolution and distribution. Now, if all those ancient musicians could see the form that sheet music has taken today, I’m sure they would find it beyond belief.

‘Til next time, have some sheet music fun… I’ll be listening!

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