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Sheet music is a handwritten or printed form of music notation that uses modern musical symbols to indicate the pitches (melodies) and rhythms of a song or musical piece. Like its analogs – books, pamphlets, etc. – the medium of sheet music typically is paper (or, in earlier times, parchment), although the access to musical notation since the 1980s has included the presentation of musical notation on computer screens. Use of the term "sheet" is intended to differentiate written or printed music from a sound recording, radio or TV broadcast or a recorded live performance, which may capture film or video footage or the performance as well as the audio component. In everyday use, "sheet music" (or simply "music") can refer to the print publication of commercial music in conjunction with the release of a new film, TV show, record album, or other special or popular event which involves music. The first printed sheet music was made in 1473.
Sheet music is the basic form in which Western classical music is notated so that it can be performed by solo singers or instrumentalists or musical ensembles. Many forms of traditional and popular Western music are commonly learned by singers and musicians "by ear", rather than by using sheet music (although in many cases, traditional and pop music may also be available in sheet music form).
"Score" is a common alternative (and more generic) term for sheet music, and there are several types of scores, as discussed below. (Note: the term "score" can also refer to theatre music written for a play, musical, opera, ballet, television programme or film; for the last of these, see Film score.)
Purpose and use
Sheet music can be used as a record of, a guide to, or a means to perform, a song or piece of music. Sheet music enables instrumental performers who are able to read music notation (a pianist, orchestral instrument players, a jazz band, etc.) and/or singers to perform a song or piece. In classical music, authoritative musical information about a piece can be gained by studying the written sketches and early versions of compositions that the composer might have retained, as well as the final autograph score and personal markings on proofs and printed scores.
Comprehending sheet music requires a special form of literacy: the ability to read music notation. An ability to read or write music is not a requirement to compose music. There have been a number of composers and songwriters who have been capable of producing music without the capacity themselves to read or write in musical notation, as long as an amanuensis of some sort is available to write down the melodies they think of. Examples include the blind 18th-century composer John Stanley and the 20th-century songwriters Lionel Bart, Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney. As well, in traditional music styles such as the blues and folk music, there are many prolific songwriters who could not read music, and instead played and sang music "by ear".
The skill of sight reading is the ability of a musician to perform an unfamiliar work of music upon viewing the sheet music for the first time. Sight reading ability is expected of professional musicians and serious amateurs who play classical music, jazz and related forms. An even more refined skill is the ability to look at a new piece of music and hear most or all of the sounds (melodies, harmonies, timbres, etc.) in one's head without having to play the piece or hear it played or sung. Skilled composers and conductors have this ability, with Beethoven being a noted historical example.
Classical musicians playing orchestral works, chamber music, sonatas and singing choral works ordinarily have the sheet music in front of them on a music stand when performing (or held in front of them in a music folder, in the case of a choir), with the exception of solo instrumental performances of solo pieces or concertos or solo vocal pieces (art song, opera arias, etc.), where memorization is expected. In jazz, which is mostly improvised, sheet music – called a lead sheet in this context – is used to give basic indications of melodies, chord changes, and arrangements. Even when a jazz band has a lead sheet, chord chart or arranged music, many elements of a performance are improvised.
Handwritten or printed music is less important in other traditions of musical practice, however, such as traditional music and folk music, in which singers and instrumentalists typically learn songs "by ear" or from having a song or tune taught to them by another person. Although much popular music is published in notation of some sort, it is quite common for people to learn a song by ear. This is also the case in most forms of western folk music, where songs and dances are passed down by oral – and aural – tradition. Music of other cultures, both folk and classical, is often transmitted orally, though some non-Western cultures developed their own forms of musical notation and sheet music as well.
Although sheet music is often thought of as being a platform for new music and an aid to composition (i.e., the composer "writes" the music down), it can also serve as a visual record of music that already exists. Scholars and others have made transcriptions to render Western and non-Western music in readable form for study, analysis and re-creative performance. This has been done not only with folk or traditional music (e.g., Bartók's volumes of Magyar and Romanian folk music), but also with sound recordings of improvisations by musicians (e.g., jazz piano) and performances that may only partially be based on notation. An exhaustive example of the latter in recent times is the collection The Beatles: Complete Scores (London: Wise Publications, 1993), which seeks to transcribe into staves and tablature all the songs as recorded by the Beatles in instrumental and vocal detail.
Modern sheet music may come in different formats. If a piece is composed for just one instrument or voice (such as a piece for a solo instrument or for a cappella solo voice), the whole work may be written or printed as one piece of sheet music. If an instrumental piece is intended to be performed by more than one person, each performer will usually have a separate piece of sheet music, called a part, to play from. This is especially the case in the publication of works requiring more than four or so performers, though invariably a full score is published as well. The sung parts in a vocal work are not usually issued separately today, although this was historically the case, especially before music printing made sheet music widely available.
Sheet music can be issued as individual pieces or works (for example, a popular song or a Beethoven sonata), in collections (for example works by one or several composers), as pieces performed by a given artist, etc.
When the separate instrumental and vocal parts of a musical work are printed together, the resulting sheet music is called a score. Conventionally, a score consists of musical notation with each instrumental or vocal part in vertical alignment (meaning that concurrent events in the notation for each part are orthographically arranged). The term score has also been used to refer to sheet music written for only one performer. The distinction between score and part applies when there is more than one part needed for performance.
Scores come in various formats, as follows:
- A full score is a large book showing the music of all instruments and voices in a composition lined up in a fixed order. It is large enough for a conductor to be able to read while directing rehearsals and performances.
- A miniature score is like a full score but much reduced in size. It is too small for use in performance, but handy for studying a piece of music, whether it be for a large ensemble or a solo performer. A miniature score may contain some introductory remarks.
- A study score is sometimes the same size as, and often indistinguishable from, a miniature score, except in name. Some study scores are octavo size and are thus somewhere between full and miniature score sizes. A study score, especially when part of an anthology for academic study, may include extra comments about the music and markings for learning purposes.
- A piano score (or piano reduction) is a more or less literal transcription for piano of a piece intended for many performing parts, especially orchestral works; this can include purely instrumental sections within large vocal works (see vocal score immediately below). Such arrangements are made for either piano solo (two hands) or piano duet (one or two pianos, four hands). Extra small staves are sometimes added at certain points in piano scores for two hands to make the presentation more complete, though it is usually impractical or impossible to include them while playing. As with vocal score (immediately below), it takes considerable skill to reduce an orchestral score to such smaller forms because the reduction needs to be not only playable on the keyboard but also thorough enough in its presentation of the intended harmonies, textures, figurations, etc. Sometimes markings are included to show which instruments are playing at given points. While piano scores are usually not meant for performance outside of study and pleasure (Liszt's concert transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies being one group of notable exceptions), ballets get the most practical benefit from piano scores because with one or two pianists they allow unlimited rehearsals at a much lower cost, before an orchestra is absolutely needed. They can also be used to train beginning conductors. Piano scores of operas do not include separate staves for the vocal parts, but they may add the sung text and stage directions above the music.
- A vocal score (or, more properly, piano-vocal score) is a reduction of the full score of a vocal work (e.g., opera, musical, oratorio, cantata, etc.) to show the vocal parts (solo and choral) on their staves and the orchestral parts in a piano reduction (usually for two hands) underneath the vocal parts; the purely orchestral sections of the score are also reduced for piano. If a portion of the work is a cappella, a piano reduction of the vocal parts is often added to aid in rehearsal (this often is the case with a cappella religious sheet music). Piano-vocal scores serve as a convenient way for vocal soloists and choristers to learn the music and rehearse separately from the orchestra. The vocal score of a musical typically does not include the spoken dialogue, except for cues. Piano-vocal scores are used to provide piano accompaniment for the performance of operas, musicals and oratorios by amateur groups and some small-scale professional groups. This may be done by a single piano player or by two piano players. With some 2000s-era musicals, keyboardists may play synthesizers instead of piano.
- The related but less common choral score contains the choral parts with no accompaniment.
- The comparable organ score exists as well, usually in association with church music for voices and orchestra, such as arrangements (by later hands) of Handel's Messiah. It is like the piano-vocal score in that it includes staves for the vocal parts and reduces the orchestral parts to be performed by one person. Unlike the vocal score, the organ score is sometimes intended by the arranger to substitute for the orchestra in performance if necessary.
- A collection of songs from a given musical is usually printed under the label vocal selections. This is different from the vocal score from the same show in that it does not present the complete music, and the piano accompaniment is usually simplified and includes the melody line.
- A short score is a reduction of a work for many instruments to just a few staves. Rather than composing directly in full score, many composers work out some type of short score while they are composing and later expand the complete orchestration. (An opera, for instance, may be written first in a short score, then in full score, then reduced to a vocal score for rehearsal.) Short scores are often not published; they may be more common for some performance venues (e.g., band) than in others.
- An open score is a score of a polyphonic piece showing each voice on a separate staff. In Renaissance or Baroque keyboard pieces, open scores of four staves were sometimes used instead of the more modern convention of one staff per hand. It is also sometimes synonymous with full score (which may have more than one part per staff).
- Scores from the Baroque period (1600-1750) are very often in the form of a bass line with figured chords (figured bass) and one or more melody instruments and/or voices
- A lead sheet specifies only the melody, lyrics and harmony, using one staff with chord symbols placed above and lyrics below. It is commonly used in popular music to capture the essential elements of song without specifying how the song should be arranged or performed.
- A chord chart or "chart" contains little or no melodic information at all but provides detailed harmonic and rhythmic information. This is the most common kind of written music used by professional session musicians playing jazz or other forms of popular music and is primarily intended for the rhythm section (usually containing piano, guitar, bass and drums).
- A tablature is a special type of musical score – most typically for a solo instrument – which shows where to play the pitches on the given instrument rather than which pitches to produce, with rhythm indicated as well. This type of notation, which dates from the late Middle Ages, has been used for keyboard (e.g., organ) and for fretted string instruments (lute, guitar) and is still used for guitar pieces in the realm of popular music.
Before the 15th century, western music was written by hand and preserved in manuscripts, usually bound in large volumes. The best-known examples of these are medieval manuscripts of monophonic chant. In the case of medieval polyphony, such as the motet, the parts were written in separate portions of facing pages. This process was aided by the advent of mensural notation to clarify rhythm and was paralleled by the medieval practice of composing parts of polyphony sequentially, rather than simultaneously as in later times. Manuscripts showing parts together in score format were rare, and limited mostly to organum, especially that of the Notre Dame school.
Even after the advent of music printing, much music continued to exist solely in manuscripts well into the 18th century.
There were several difficulties in translating the new technology of printing to music. The first printed book to include music, the Mainz psalter (1457), had to have the notation added in by hand. This is similar to the room left in other incunabulae for capitals. The psalter was printed in Mainz, Germany by Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, and one now resides in Windsor Castle and another at the British Library. Later, staff lines were printed, but scribes still added in the rest of the music by hand. The greatest difficulty in using movable type to print music is that all the elements must line up – the note head must be properly aligned with the staff, or else it means something other than it should. In vocal music, text must be aligned with the proper notes (although at this time, even in manuscripts, this was not a high priority).
The first machine-printed music appeared around 1473, approximately 20 years after Gutenberg introduced the printing press. In 1501, Ottaviano Petrucci published Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A, which contained 96 pieces of printed music. Petrucci's printing method produced clean, readable, elegant music, but it was a long, difficult process that required three separate passes through the printing press. Petrucci later developed a process which required only two passes through the press, but was still taxing since each pass required very precise alignment for the result to be legible. This was the first well distributed printed polyphonic music. Petrucci also printed the first tablature with movable type. Single impression printing first appeared in London around 1520. Pierre Attaingnant brought the technique into wide use in 1528, and it remained little changed for 200 years.
A common format for issuing multi-part, polyphonic music during the Renaissance was part-books. In this format, each voice-part for a collection of five-part madrigals, for instance, would be printed separately in its own book, such that all five part-books would be needed to perform the music. (The same part books could be used by singers or instrumentalists.) Scores for multi-part music were rarely printed in the Renaissance, although the use of score format as a means to compose parts simultaneously (rather than successively, as in the late Middle Ages) is credited to Josquin des Prez.
The effect of printed music was similar to the effect of the printed word, in that information spread faster, more efficiently and to more people than it could through manuscripts. It had the additional effect of encouraging amateur musicians of sufficient means, who could now afford music, to perform. This in many ways affected the entire music industry. Composers could now write more music for amateur performers, knowing that it could be distributed. Professional players could have more music at their disposal. It increased the number of amateurs, from whom professional players could then earn money by teaching them. Nevertheless, in the early years the cost of printed music limited its distribution.
In many places the right to print music was granted by the monarch, and only those with a special dispensation were allowed to do so. This was often an honour (and economic boon) granted to favoured court musicians.
In the 19th century the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. In the United States, the sheet music industry rose in tandem with blackface minstrelsy, and the group of New York City-based publishers and composers dominating the industry was known as "Tin Pan Alley". The late 19th century saw a massive explosion of parlor music, with a piano becoming de rigueur for the middle class home, but in the early 20th century the phonograph and recorded music grew greatly in importance. This, joined by the growth in popularity of radio from the 1920s on, lessened the importance of the sheet music publishers. The record industry eventually replaced the sheet music publishers as the music industry's largest force.
In the late 20th and into the 21st century, significant interest has developed in representing sheet music in a computer-readable format (see music notation software), as well as downloadable files. Music OCR, software to "read" scanned sheet music so that the results can be manipulated, has been available since 1991. In 1998, virtual sheet music evolved further into what was to be termed digital sheet music, which for the first time allowed publishers to make copyright sheet music available for purchase online. Unlike their hard copy counterparts, these files allowed for manipulation such as instrument changes, transposition and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) playback. The popularity of this instant delivery system among musicians appears to be acting as a catalyst of new growth for the industry well into the foreseeable future.
An early computer notation program available for home computers was Music Construction Set, developed in 1984 and released for several different platforms. Introducing concepts largely unknown to the home user of the time, it allowed manipulation of notes and symbols with a pointing device such as a mouse; the user would "grab" a note or symbol from a palette and "drop" it onto the staff in the correct location. The program allowed playback of the produced music through various early sound cards, and could print the musical score on a graphics printer.
In 1999, Harry Connick, Jr. invented a system and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra. Connick's invention is a device with a screen which is used to show the sheet music for the musicians in an orchestra instead of the more commonly used paper. Connick uses this system when touring with his big band, for instance.
Of special practical interest for the general public is the Mutopia project, an effort to create a library of public domain sheet music, comparable to Project Gutenberg's library of public domain books. The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) is also attempting to create a virtual library containing all public domain musical scores, as well as scores from composers who are willing to share their music with the world free of charge.
- Eye movement in music reading
- List of Online Digital Musical Document Libraries
- Manuscript paper
- Musical notation
- Music stand, a device that holds sheet music in position
- Scorewriter – music notation software
- Shorthand for orchestra instrumentation
- Lalage Cochrane. "Open score". In Macy, Laura. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
- U.S. Patent 6,348,648
- "Harry Connick Jr. Uses Macs at Heart of New Music Patent". The Mac Observer. 2002-03-07. Retrieved 2011-11-15.
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Archives of scanned works
- International Music Score Library Project (Wikipedia article) – A public domain sheet music library featuring original scores scanned to PDF.
- Sheet Music Consortium – Metasearch using OAI-PMH.
- Music for the Nation – American sheet music archive.
- Historic American Sheet Music – Duke University Libraries Digital Collections Digital images of 3042 pieces of sheet music published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.
- Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music – sheet music project of The Sheridan Libraries of The Johns Hopkins University.
- University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections – Pacific Northwest Sheet Music Collection This collection contains historical sheet music from and about Washington State, the Pacific Northwest and the University of Washington.
- The European Library – digital images of the most important pieces of sheet music published in Europe, free access.
- National Library of Australia – Australian sheet music archive.
- IN Harmony: Sheet Music from Indiana - sheet music from the Indiana University Lilly Library, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Museum, and the Indiana Historical Society.
- University of Virginia – 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century American and European Sheet music from the University of Virginia Library.
Archives of works in other formats
- Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki) – free sheet music archive with emphasis on choral music; contains works in PDF and also other formats.
- Mutopia project – free sheet music archive in which all pieces have been newly typeset with GNU LilyPond as PDF and PostScript.
- Project Gutenberg – sheet music section of Project Gutenberg containing works in Finale and/or MusicXML format.
- Three examples of sheet music as interactive hypermedia at the BinAural Collaborative Hypertext.
- Werner Icking Music Archive – free sheet music archive ; contains works in PDF and also other formats (MIDI files).
- Open Music Score – Free public domain sheet music in MusicXML format.
- TabCrawler - Extensive archive of sheet music published for educational use in ASCII and PDF.