Words and Terms of Music, Bass and Musician – by Mike Overly

October 16, 2014

Music GlossaryA glossary is an alphabetical list of words and terms about a specific subject, followed by their definition. A glossary is like a brief dictionary. Always remember, a words definition can change over time!

In ancient Greece, glossa meant: a word or term which needed to be defined or explained. Then, around 1550, glossa’s meaning change to: the definition or explanation of a difficult word or term. And, as we all know, if it’s difficult ~ it’s probably important. Over time, glossa was shortened to gloss, and today gloss means: to define, explain, interpret, translate, or paraphrase a word or term.

Ary derives from the Medieval Latin, aris meaning: belonging to, and arius  meaning: connected with. So, gloss (words and terms) + ary (belonging to music and connected with the bass) = glossary.

Abridged means: not complete, and since every word and term used to communicate music, bass and musician can’t be listed, let’s discover a few words and terms taken from the Tone Note® Music Method for Bass Book 1 to get you started.

Ability – capable of technique, skill
Accidentals – natural, flat and sharp signs
Again – more than one time, repeat
Analog – does not stop, continuous, connected from the beginning to the end
Anchor Finger – the left hand finger that is connected to the key letter; form
Arpeggio – harmony of three or more different letters sounded one at a time
Attention – conscious of perceiving only one
Audition – hearing, listening, or, a music competition
Aware(ness) – conscious of perceiving more than one

Bass – instrument of 4, 5 or 6 strings and 12 frets in one octave, low frequency
Beat – a steady counted pulse, tempo, rhythm
Beginning – where you should start
B.P.M. – beats per minute, steady and even tempo, metronome mark
Bridge – bass part opposite the nut, or, a song part that connects the verse to the chorus

Change – to become something different, variable
Chorus – song part that usually states the title
Chromatic – flat and sharp, not natural
Clock – steady and regular 60 beats per minute, does not change
Choose – using reason to decide “which one”; logic, philosophy, mind
Chord – harmony of three or more different letters sounded at the same time
Coda – ending, stop
Combine – to add, join or link together
Count – give beat numbers to a steady pulse, meter, time signature

Diagonal – 45 degree angle, slanted line
Different – not the same, variation, enharmonic
Digital – not connected, discrete, separated, fraction, fragment
Dimension: measurement,
1st dimension – width, 1D, how wide something is, interval
2nd dimension – height, 2D, how high something is, treble
3rd dimension – depth, 3D, how deep something is, bass
4th dimension – time, 4D, how much space is between two sounds, motion, rhythm
Down – right hand strum, low to high pitch, thick string to thin string, stroke or ghost
Duration – the length of time a sound or silence lasts, rhythm

End – the opposite of start at the beginning, coda, stop
Enharmonic – same sound, different symbol
Even – regular, equal, same, no variation
Exponential – two or more ideas or thoughts multiplied by each other

Flat Sign – not natural or sharp, one fret lower from any letter or tone number
Fine – the place between the beginning and the end of a song that the music is finished
Form – pattern created by the placement the musician’s anchor finger on a bass string, fraction
Fraction – a part or a piece, the disconnected and separated form, not the whole
Fragment – fraction of a fraction, a part or a piece of a form
Fret – vertical metal strip on the bass fretboard
Fret Zero – the sound at the nut played by using a left hand finger
Frequency – the number of vibrations per second, oscillation, pitch
Fundamental – tone 1, scale degree 1, root, tonic

Genre – categories such as: rock, blues, jazz, classical, etc.
Ghost Strum – a right hand motion, down or up, which does not make sound

Half-Step – interval of one fret
Harmony – interval, arpeggio or chord, letter or numeral symbol
Hearing – touching at a distance, listening, audition
Holistic – connected fragments and form fractions, not the whole
Horizontal – east and west, sideways, bass strings

Idea  – the knowledge that thought carries, theory, mind
Improvise – free to choose,”variable, reason, mind
Interlude – play in the middle, usually between the chorus and the verse
Interval – distance or difference between two sounds or symbols
Isotonic – one sound with one location on the fretboard
Isotonic Thinking – one thought with one idea, theory, mind

Key – the letter of tone 1Key Letter – the letter of tone 1, scale degree 1, root, fundamental or tonic
Key Signature – the letters of tones 1 through 7; key plus signature
Key Tone – tone 1, scale degree 1, root, fundamental or tonic
Knowledge – that which is learned as an idea, carried back to the thinker as thought, mind

Layer – one in front of the other, music symbols seen on the bass fretboard
Learn – understand, comprehend, memorize and remember, mind
Left Hand – finger numbers 1 2 3 4, which fret the strings
Letter – first music symbol of pitch
Lick – a tone row of high sounds, 2D
Listening – awareness and attention to sound, more than just hearing
Location – the string and fret “place” of a pitch on the bass fretboard, position
Logic – thoughts and ideas “in-order,” using reasoning to “choose,” philosophy, mind

Mark – written symbol or sign; rhythm symbol of harmony
Measure – group of beats set by the meter, time signature
Meter – to measure, number of beats per bar or measure, top number of the time signature
Metronome – variable clock, steady and even pulse, tempo, bpm
Metronome Mark – beats per minute number, tempo, time
Melody – in-order scale played out of order, sounds one at a time that can’t be changed
Mind – musician, location of the “thought carries idea” process, theory, thinking, philosophy
Modulate – change the letter of tone 1 for only a part of the song
Music – Art: sound of Nature, artificial: sound of man, artifact: recording of man’s sound
Musician – the one who thinks music symbols to play music’s sound, mind

Natural Sign- not flat or sharp, the original 7 letters and tone numbers
Note – rhythm symbol of duration, connected to a tone number or placed on the staff
Number – numeric symbol for place and order
Numeral – third symbol of pitch, numeric symbol of harmony which indicates type
Numeric – the word, number and numeral for place or order: one, 1, I
Nut –  part of the bass opposite the bridge, turned into fret zero or open by the musician

Octave – the same letter 12 frets apart, a first octave tone number plus 7 (1+7=8, 2+7=9, etc.)
Open – the sound at the nut not played by a left hand finger
Order – in or out of place, numeric
Oscillation – a single swing in one direction of a bass string, vibration, frequency, pitch

Pattern  – a group of things; letter pattern, tone pattern, rhythm pattern
Perform(ance) – the result of practice, playing for others, technique, skill
Philosophy – thinking about thinking, choice, logic, reason, mind
Pick – a plectrum held by the right hand to strum the strings
Pitch – frequency, vibration, oscillation, letter, number, numeral and staff
Place – string and fret location on the bass fretboard, position
Play – will, ability, technique, skill
Position – a four-fret and 4, 5 or 6 string area on the bass fretboard; location, place
Practice – repetition which leads to performance, technique, skill
Process – the analog flow of thought and idea, theory, mind
Pulse – a “sound in time” that is not a beat because it is not counted

Reason(ing) – method used to decide what to choose,”logic, philosophy, mind
Re – again, one more time
Refer – to bring the answer back to the question
Regular – equal distant, steady and even like a clock, metronome, tempo, rhythm, bpm
Repeat – more than one time, a music sign meaning to do again
Represent – present the sound again as symbol; letter, tone number, numeral, staff-note
Result  – a consequence or outcome
reWrite® – to convert staff-note into tone number to create
Tone Note® Rhythm – beat plus notes or marks, two or more analog patterns at the same time
Riff – a tone row of low sounds
Right Hand – finger letters: T i m a c, which strum the strings
Root – tone 1, scale degree 1, fundamental, tonic, key tone or key letter

Same – not different, no variation
Separated – digital, fragment, form fraction
Scale – in-order sounds connect by steps; half-step (one fret) and whole-step (two frets)
Scale Degree – numeric tone number; also used to locate harmony numeral
Sharp Sign – not natural or flat, one fret higher from any letter or tone number
Sign – a call to action, tells you to do something, direction
Signature – what something is, key signature, time signature
Similar – to share somethings but not all
Skill – ability and technique, practice, perform
Stack – one above the other, time signature
Staff – 5 horizontal parallel lines, pitch as letters, not TAB
Staff Note – a connection of a rhythm note with a staff letter
Start – the best place to begin, there are many places to start but only one beginning
Steady – regular and even like a clock, tempo, beat, metronome
Steps – half step (one fret) and whole step (two frets), interval
Stop – at the end, coda
Strings – Bass has 4, 5 or 6
Stroke – a right hand strum down or up which makes sound
Strum – a right hand motion down or up; stroke or ghost
Style – a sub-category of a genre, such as: classic rock, smooth jazz, heavy metal, etc.
Symbol – represents sound as: letter, number, numeral, note, etc.

TAB – 4, 5 or 6 horizontal parallel lines (bass strings) with “layered” fret numbers, not staff
Technique – skill and ability, gets better over time; repeat, practice, perform
Tempo – rate of speed (slow or fast) of the steady beat, bpm, metronome mark
Theme – the original melody or “tone row”
Theory – to think, thought connected to idea, mind
Think(ing) – process of connecting thought with idea, awareness and attention
Thought – carries an idea (knowledge) back to the thinker; refer, theory, mind
Tie – a “curved line” that “connects” sound (tones and notes); silence (rests) do not get tied
Time – rhythm, motion, when a sound or silence occurs, pulse, beat, tempo, count
Time Signature – meter and value numbers “stacked” one above the other
Tonic – tone 1, scale degree, fundamental, root
Tone Note® – the connection of a rhythm note with a tone number
Tone Number – second music symbol of pitch, scale degree
Tone Row – series of connected pitches as tone numbers; melody, lick, riff, etc.
Transpose – change the key of the entire song
Treble – high frequency
Type – what kind of scale, arpeggio or chord; major, minor, whole tone, etc.

Unison – the same sound in more than one location on the bass fretboard
Unison Thinking – one thought with two or more ideas
Up – right hand strum, high to low pitch, thin string to thick string; stroke or ghost

Value – one beat, bottom number of the time signature, note that gets one beat changes
Variation – to change the original, different, not the same
Variable – able to change; metronome, improvise
Verse – song part that tells the story
Vertical – north and south, up and down; nut, bridge and frets
Vibration – repeated back and forth motion, oscillation, frequency, pitch

Whole – all, complete, undifferentiated fragments, forms fractions; not separated
Whole Step – interval of two frets,
Will – self directed action behind thought and idea, play

Zero – the number 0 before 1, as in fret zero, not the letter O as in open

Congratulations, you now have the necessary vocabulary to begin playing music on your Bass!

’til next time, begin having some vocabulary fun with your new found glossary ~ I’ll be listening . . . http://www.12tonemusic.com/bass/tonenote/

Top 10 Behaviors of Successful Musicians – by Mike Overly

June 13, 2014



Do you want to be a successful musician? Of course you do! Then it would be beneficial to learn all you can about how to effectively and efficiently approach the development of your musicianship.

Don’t worry if you feel as if you don’t exhibit these Top 10 behaviors already, the good news is, you can begin to cultivate them now. And best of all, as you acquire these ways of being, you will become more effective, efficient and successful in other aspects of your life as well.

If you surf the internet for advice on how to become the musician you’ve always wanted to be, you will most likely become overloaded with endless suggestions. So, for now, let’s just focus on the Top 10 behaviors that will guarantee your musical success.

1. Successful Musicians Practice Consistently
Successful musicians maintain a regular practice schedule and practice every day. Practicing is easier than most believe it to be. Just 15 minutes a day, everyday, will have you progressing steadily – little by little each day. The key to efficient and effective practicing is time management. In other words, successful musician creates the habit of practicing at the same time each day, every day. Some like to practice in the morning, while others like to practice at night. The time of day doesn’t matter as long as you practice daily. The important thing is to pick a time and do it. Remember, you can’t skip a couple of days and then practice for hours and hours to make up for the lost time – it doesn’t work that way. Slow and steady wins the race.

2. Successful Musicians Are Inquisitive
Successful musicians are curious and ask many questions to get the answers they need in order to progress. They are interested in what other musicians are doing and are happy to learn from them. Start by looking for different ways to approach your practice. Seeking new systems and methods of learning is always healthy and beneficial. Remember, contrary to the old cliche, curiosity did not kill the cat – she just played better!

3. Successful Musicians Are Analytical
Successful musicians don’t practice without thinking about what they’re practicing. They stay focused to avoid distraction and diversion. Successful musicians practice with attention to detail to ensure their success. So, be sure to think through your problems to find ideas that will solve them. Try out several approaches until you find the one that leads you to success. By staying on course you will discover what works and what doesn’t.

4. Successful Musicians Are Lifelong Learners
If you’re new to playing music, you will more than likely face a steep learning curve. But don’t let that stop you, learning and practicing gets easier after you’ve been playing awhile. And no matter how long you have been playing, there is always something new to discover that will keep you inspired and challenged.

5. Successful Musicians Plan Ahead
Successful musicians know where they’re going. They have a plan and stick to it. They realize that prioritization is the key to the success of any endeavor. Successful musicians put things in order and choose what etudes and songs to practice at the beginning. This makes it easy to follow through to the end. Successful musicians work on their plan daily, weekly, monthly and yearly so that they may reach their goals based upon importance rather than urgency. It’s important to periodically evaluate whether your efforts are propelling you toward the achievement of your goals. If they are not, then clarification of your goals and the means needed to achieve them will be necessary. Plan your practice and practice your plan.

6. Successful Musicians Are Self Motivated
Successful musicians take the initiative and are proactive self-starters. This is the primary determining factor for their effectiveness in music and life. Being proactive rather than reactive will quickly lead you to success. If you like the idea of playing an instrument, and perhaps even impressing people with your skills, then you will need to manage yourself. Successful musicians know that through self mastery many wonderful things may be accomplished. Remember, no one will fire you if you don’t show up to practice, and no one will remind you of the deadlines you’ve set for yourself. To paraphrase Smokey The Bear, only you can make yourself a successful musician!

7. Successful Musicians Think Win-Win
Perhaps it is your goal to be in a band or orchestra and play harmoniously with other musicians. If so, it’s important for you to value and respect others, as this will lead to the best long-term relationships. Genuinely striving for mutually beneficial solutions and agreements will guarantee success for all. Win-win relationships are much better than having only one person get their way. When everyone feels included and involved in an environment of trust and loyalty, everyone succeeds.

8. Successful Musicians Listen
Successful Musicians understand that listening to another first and then having them listen to you is the fastest way to create an atmosphere of caring, respect, and positive conflict resolution. This skill of empathetic listening cultivates an environment where misunderstandings can be avoided to facilitate harmonious music making with others.

9. Successful Musicians Realize That The Whole Is Greater Than The Parts
Synergy, or combining the strengths of many people into one positive team, will make possible the achievement of goals that no one person could do alone. Successful musicians know that creating the most prolific performance by a group of people is best achieved by encouraging meaningful, inspirational and supportive leadership by all. It is essential to understand that everyone is a master of something – but not of everything. Be the one who takes the positive approach with other musicians in your group, then everyone’s potential will come together for the best result.

10. Successful Musicians Are Persistent
Successful musicians understand that success doesn’t happen overnight. If you persist in working toward your vision you will eventually realize it, even if there are a few rough patches along the way. Know that constant improvement of one’s self, along with the development of one’s skills, is necessary in order to achieve success. By balancing and renewing your resources, energy, and health you will experience effective musicianship throughout your life and become the successful musician you have always wanted to be.

Okay, now ask yourself which behavior is the most important for you to become a successful musician. It might be one of the Top 10 above, or, you may believe that it’s something else. I, and the others who are reading this post, would like to know what you think, so, please leave a comment… thank you.


image ©Joshua Wells

Harmony Symbolism – by Mike Overly

May 1, 2014

Harmony Symbol Three TypesThere are many systems used to notate harmony, whether that harmony is an interval, an arpeggio, or a chord. For example, orchestral music uses staff notation, harmonic analysis uses Roman numerals, and the Baroque era used figured bass. However, the most popular harmony symbol used in today’s music is the macro symbol, more simply known as a “chord symbol.”

Simply stated, a harmony symbol consists of two parts: the Letter of the harmony and the Type. And although these symbols are seldom used in classical music, they are universally used to specify the harmony of popular music as found in fake books, lead sheets and chord charts. Therefore, a clear and simple understanding of harmony symbolization is essential.

A quick internet search of harmony symbol notation will present you with an overwhelming amount of confusing, incomplete and, dare I say it, wrong information. So, let’s clean the slate, start at the beginning and discover that harmony notation isn’t overwhelming or confusing at all.

For the examples used in this lesson, we will use the C major scale. Let’s begin by presenting the C major scale as seven letters and seven tone numbers, also known as scale degrees. In the first octave they are 1 C, 2 D, 3 E, 4 F, 5 G, 6 A, 7 B. In the second octave they become 8 C, 9 D, 10 E, 11 F, 12 G, 13 A, 14 B. Now, the first thing we need to realize about harmony is that harmony begins with one sound! To many this just doesn’t seem correct, but it is.

Think of it this way. If we were to begin with a complex harmony symbol, say C major 13, which contains the letters and tones 1 C, 3 E, 5 G, 7 B, 9 D, 11 F, 13 A, we would probably quit because as a beginner, that’s a frightening chord! However, if we were to “reduce” this complex harmony by deleting six tones and letters, then, only one tone and letter would remain: 1 C. And that isn’t complex at all. In fact, it’s very simple. Now you can understand that harmony, no matter how complex, begins with one sound, one letter and one tone number. Let’s continue.

Harmony of two sounds is called an interval. In other words, an interval contains two letters and two tone numbers. For this lesson, we will begin with the following intervals: Perfect Fifth: natural 5, Diminished Fifth: flat 5, and Augmented Fifth: sharp 5.

The Perfect Fifth, P5, is simply the fifth sound of the major scale, tone 5 letter G. And when the perfect fifth is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1 letter C, the perfect fifth interval is the result. The perfect fifth interval may be played melodically, which means one at a time, or, harmonically, which means at the same time. Now, to understand the next two intervals, a simple understanding of flat (b) and sharp (#) is necessary. Simply stated, on any instrument, flat is one half-step lower in pitch and sharp is one half-step higher in pitch. To a right-handed player of guitar or bass, flat is one fret lower (to the left) of any letter or tone number, and sharp is one fret higher (to the right) of any letter or tone number. That was easy!

The definition of Diminished is to shrink or make smaller. Therefore, the diminished fifth is simply the fifth sound of the major scale flatted, in other words: tone b5, which is bG in the C Major scale. When the diminished fifth, b5 bG is combined with tone 1 C, the diminished fifth interval is the result. The diminished fifth interval may be played melodically (one sound at a time), or harmonically (at the same time).

The definition of Augmented is to expand or make larger. Therefore, the augmented fifth is simply the fifth sound of the major scale sharped, or, tone #5 which is #G in the C Major scale. When the augmented fifth, #5 #G is combined with tone 1 C, the augmented fifth interval is the result. The augmented fifth interval may also be played melodically or harmonically.

Let’s present the three intervals that are based on tone 3. They are Major: natural 3, Minor: flat 3 and Suspended: sharp 3. You will notice that even though we used the flat and sharp signs with the third intervals, we did not use the designation diminished and augmented!

The Major Third, M3, is simply the third sound of the major scale, tone 3 which is E in the C Major scale. When the major third, tone 3, is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the major third interval is the result. The major third interval may be played melodically or harmonically.

The Minor Third, m3, is simply the third sound of the major scale flatted, tone b3 letter bE. When the minor third is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the minor third interval is the result. The minor third interval may be played melodically or harmonically.

The Suspended Third, sus3, is simply the third sound of the major scale sharped, tone #3 letter #E. When the major third is combined with the first sound of the scale, tone 1, the suspended third interval is the result. The suspended third interval may also be played melodically or harmonically.

One more thought. The definition of enharmonic is one sound with more than one symbol. Therefore, it’s important to point out that when C is tone 1, tone #3 is the letter #E and sounds the same as tone 4 letter F, but they are two different symbols. For further clarification of this important concept, see page 102 of Guitar Fretboard Facts http://www.12tonemusic.com/guitar/facts/, or, Bass Fretboard Facts http://www.12tonemusic.com/bass/facts/.

Okay, it’s now time to use the above information to create Nine Triads of Three Types.

Tri is Greek for three. Therefore, triads are arpeggio and chord harmonies which are spelled with three different letters and three different tone numbers. Here’s the essential idea, there are only nine triads upon which all arpeggios and chords are based! These nine triads are created by combining the three third types: major, minor and suspended, with the three fifth types: perfect, diminished and augmented. In the following examples, C is tone 1. Tone 1 is also known as the root, tonic and fundamental. To learn more about the following nine triads, see page 10 of Guitar EncycloMedia http://www.12tonemusic.com/guitar/encyclomedia/, or, Bass EncycloMedia http://www.12tonemusic.com/bass/encyclomedia/.

Nine Triads

Now, here is something very important. Notice that the harmony symbol for major is nothing. In other words, there is a harmony letter for major, but there is no type symbol for major. Said a different way, when you see nothing — and yes, you can see nothing — it means something! In other words, in this case, when you don’t see a type symbol after the harmony letter, it means major. Think of it this way, when reading the harmony symbol C, you think, say and play C major.

You will notice that each of the nine triads only have one Type, Name, Tone Spelling and Letter Spelling. However, since there is no standardization of harmony symbolism, some of the nine triads have more than one Harmony Symbol. This really shouldn’t be the case because more often than not, this simply leads to confusion. But, oh well, that’s the way it is.

So, ’til next time, have some nine triad fun… I’ll be listening!


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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