Sheet Music


Sheet music is a magic carpet. It is a printed page that, like a book, tells an original story created by the talent, imagination, training—and sometimes genius—of a writer. In the case of music, the writer is a composer or songwriter who uses a long-established set of notes and other symbols as well as lyrics (words that are sung to the music) and other words that instruct the singer or instrumentalist on the dynamics (loudness) and other characteristics of the piece. When the musician reads and performs the music, magic happens as the songwriter's composition is interpreted for the pleasure of the audience.


Some of the earliest sheet music was laboriously written by scribes in the monasteries of medieval Europe. These beautiful examples were carefully inked on parchment and are prized today not only as music history but as artistic masterpieces. With the invention of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg and his followers developed methods of printing music, as well as words, during the fifteenth century. The printing of music was limited in quality and quantity for several hundred years, but the industry traveled to America with the founding of the Colonies.

The first music published in North America was The Bay Psalm Book printed in 1640 by Harvard College Press. The book contained only text because the congregations of churches were assumed to know the songs by heart. Publishing of music, complete with notation, became an industry by about 1800 when a number of firms in both America and Europe rolled out their presses to print both serious and popular music. This explosion was probably a direct result of the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to the middle class and allowed individuals more leisure time and money to spend on pianos for their homes, instruments for the town band, and attendance at the symphony. Composers were motivated to create when, during the nineteenth century, musicians began to pay for the privilege of performing the writer's music.

The growth of many styles of popular music that are considered American in character, including jazz, country-western, bluegrass, spirituals, and musical theater, is attributable not only to talented composers and artists but to the publishers who made it possible to imitate their music on Dad's banjo at home. By 1890, many department stores had counters for the sale of sheet music, and its popularity forced the price down. By 1910, Woolworth sold sheet music for 10 cents a copy.

The musicians of Tin Pan Alley in New York City were made famous early in the 1900s by the swift availability of their tunes in sheet music form; George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) is an excellent example. Composers Aaron Copeland, Charles Ives, and Virgil Thompson established their own publishing house and gave the American public its own contemporary, classical music. When Charles Lindberg made his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, 100 songs commemorating the event were printed in sheet music form within a year.

In 1892, a European firm established itself in the United States as G. Schirmer, Inc.; they publish a vast library of classical music recognizable by its yellow covers. The European influence was felt even more strongly after World War I (1914-1919) and the rise of Hitler in Germany (1933) forced the immigration of Béla Bartòk, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky, composers of international repute who imported music editors whose skills brought a classical tradition. Between the two World Wars, the phonograph and radio further popularized a wide range of music; and, after, World War II, television and technological improvements in the sound business accelerated popular interest in sheet music.

The sheet music industry experienced another boost in 1914 when the first performance rights society was established. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Inc., (ASCAP) was followed by The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC, Inc. 1931) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI 1940). These organizations are essential to the orderly administration of performance data and distribution of royalties for music in copyright. These organizations also play an important role in funding the first efforts of young composers and songwriters.

Raw Materials

The songwriter's or composer's music may be the most important "raw material" in the production of sheet music. When the writer has completed a piece of music, the business of publishing the music must be negotiated among the writer, his agent, and the publisher. A well-known songwriter may receive advances from a publishing company, but, typically, the contract between the writer and publishing house involves negotiation and distribution of royalties, where royalties are fees that are paid to the publisher and writer based on how often the piece of music is used.


Music in print appears in several major formats. Sheet music usually includes arrangements for voice and piano or guitar. Sometimes chord diagrams for other instruments are also shown. Sheet music that is collected under a songwriter's or performer's name is called a personality folio. Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, for example, have popularized many pieces of music that wouldn't be known by the songwriters' names. However, popular writers like Henry Mancini or Herb Alpert have had songbooks of their own music published. Matching folios are collections of music that match all the songs on or in a compact disc, movie soundtrack, or musical. Mixed folios are similar, except they combine music by multiple writers under a theme cover like Great Country Music Hits, Best Songs of the Century, or Music for the Tuba.

Publishing of educational music is also a large part of the sheet music business. Schools, marching bands, drum corps, and choruses purchase or rent large quantities of copies of all categories of music that have been arranged specifically for voice or orchestra, for example, or for players at particular skill levels. Finally, most publishers also develop and sell MIDI sequences, which are electronically sequenced and recorded versions of songs; some are complete, professional arrangements and performances that are ready for use in performance.

The Manufacturing

  1. The process of making sheet music begins in the imagination of composer. The composer or songwriter may write a piece of music on his own accord, or he may receive a commission from an organization or individual like an opera company, film production company, or a jazz singer. The composer may have an established working relationship with a music publisher, or his or her agent may market the piece to publishers specializing in particular types of music.
  2. When an interested publisher is found, the publisher's editorial department reviews the composition for its quality, market appeal, and the practicality of publishing it. Each publisher has an editorial policy that governs the range of types of music the firm publishes and the level or quality. For example, a music publisher that specializes in sheet music for students is not likely to be interested in a ballet score. A large music publishing house may have a number of divisions, however; following a pre-screening, both the beginning-level music and the ballet score will be forwarded to the editorial departments in the respective divisions, and both may be published by the same house.
    Types of musical notation.
    Types of musical notation.
  3. The music publisher also reviews the composer's work in the Legal Division or Rights Clearance Division. The legal staff performs a number of functions. It negotiates a contract between the publishing house and the songwriter or composer. The new piece is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The publisher's legal staff works with the major performance rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) so that royalties from performances of copyrighted music can be collected and negotiates other royalties from performing arts groups (ballet companies, musical theater groups, orchestras, opera houses, and others) and recording, and film, and television companies. The Rights Clearance Division collects and distributes royalties annually.
  4. After the writer and the composition have cleared the hurdles of the editorial department, the U.S. Copyright Office, and the legal department, the piece of music is ready for publication. Traditionally, the composer's hand-drafted music is sent to an engraver who uses sets of type that include musical staffs, notation, and text to etch the music into a metal plate. Engraving has several disadvantages; it is very expensive, and it has been outdated not only by publishing methods but by styles of notation. More recently, composers use specialized music software that writes out notation exactly as it will be printed. Music software, like Finale, produces sheet music that duplicates the quality of music produced through traditional engraving methods. The computer notations can be made through a standard keyboard; often, the publisher or music notation service has a piano-style keyboard linked to the computer, and the notation is entered by playing the piece. The music publisher not only enters the notation and expressive indications but adjusts the size, spacing, and layout by computer. The full score is completed and then the publisher extracts the parts for each instrument, places them in separate sheet music, and repeats the process of adjusting sizing and layout. The writer reviews printed drafts of proofs (from either the traditional engraving process or computer methods). When the music is finalized, the composer is given a hard copy and the piece on diskette to take to the agent and publishing houses.
  5. If an engraving process is used, the music from the engraver is set up on pages to make camera-ready copy. The copy is photographed to make a negative, the negative is burned onto a metal plate using chemicals, and the plate is inserted in a printing press. The areas of the plate that are to be printed attract ink that is pressed onto a page in a process called offset lithography. The pages are collated, folded, or bound (depending on the length and style of the piece of music). A piece of popular sheet music will also bear a color photograph or design on the cover, and all published music includes dedications, copyright information, page numbers and headings, and instructions (if necessary to a beginning instrumentalist, for example). If the piece of music was written using computer software, that same software can be used to instruct a laser printer to print the music using fonts, notation styles, and layouts that are input as data into the program. The cover illustration or photograph can also be input using digital techniques.
  6. The printed music is bundled and shrink-wrapped or boxed in quantity and shipped to the publisher's warehouse where it is stored by edition number for sale. Many types of sheet music aren't "sold" at all; instead, the publisher operates a rental department that rents the material to performance groups like orchestras or ensembles and to other organizations like the libraries of music schools and universities. The major publishers may carry over 20,000 titles, and they attend trade shows where music professionals everyone from opera company music directors to marching band leaders to performing artists shop for arrangements of sheet music and bargains in the rental department. The publisher's rental department also coordinates performance dates so that the top ten symphonies will not be performing the same works in the same season; they are also able to recommend complimentary pieces so performance groups can present an evening of innovative jazz or an afternoon in old Vienna.
  7. After a customer buys or rents a piece of music, the order is processed by the publisher's trade department. Shipment is as simple as sending a box of 1,000 copies of Celine Dion's latest hit to a music store or as complex as assembling the thick scores of a Richard Wagner opera for the 100-plus different instruments in the orchestra, 10 principal singers, 60 chorus members, and the conductor, prompter, various directors, and other musical staff. The shipment is documented and invoiced by computer, and the music is sent to the customer. Finally, the composer's dream will be brought to life by artists who interpret that dream from the written page.

Quality Control

The songwriter/composer has a say in the quality control of his or her music in print form. When proof copies of the music are provided by the publisher, the writer reviews the notations, chords and so forth to verify that they are as written or that they accurately represent the creation. The divisions of a large publishing house also bear responsibility for observing high standards and the legalities of the trade.

The Future

Sheet music from bygone days has become a valuable collectible. Cover art greatly interests collectors who seek out the Art Deco designs of the 1920s and African-American songs published as early as 1835, for example. Photos of singers, band leaders, and Broadway productions as well as autographs by the songwriters, lyricists, and performers whet the collectors' appetites.

Sheet music shows every sign of maintaining its popularity as long as performers from the top of the charts to the beginning piano student at home want to play the latest tunes and the greatest classics. Software like Finale and Overture makes it easy for the youngest musician to experiment with composition and for the most experienced tune-smith to produce data and hardcopy versions of his or her latest song. The issue of immediacy somewhat hampers the music publisher who makes a considerable investment in copyrights and the physical production of sheet music. Despite the advent of many other technical diversions, music is among our most popular entertainments, and sheet music allows us to own copies of Mozart's genius and the joy of a simple Christmas carol.

Where to Learn More


Braheny, John. The Craft and Business of Song Writing. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1988.

Priest, Daniel B. American Sheet Music with Prices: A Guide to Collecting Sheet Music from 1775 to 1975. Des Moines, IA: Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 1978.

Sachs, Carolyn, ed. An Introduction to Music Publishing. New York: C. F. Peters, 1981.

Shemel, Sidney and M. William Krasilovsky. This Business of Music: A Practical Guide to the Music Industry for Publishers, Writers, Record Companies, Producers, Artists, Agents. Billboard Books, 1990.


Mike, Dennis. "Classroom maestros: professional music software that's a boon to the classroom." Electronics Learning (September 1994): 62.

Pogue, David. "Overture 2.0."Macworld (September 1997): 74.


Lewis Music Library. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. December 9, 1997. (June 29, 1999).

Special Collections Library for historic American sheet music at Duke University. 1999. (June 29, 1999).

Gillian S. Holmes

Also read article about Sheet Music from Wikipedia

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