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Sheet music

Related: music industry - paper - music - recording

Before the 15th century, music was written by hand and preserved in large bound volumes. The first machine-printed music appeared around 1473, approximately 20 years after Gutenberg introduced the printing press.

In the early years of the phonograph in the late 19th century, the music industry was dominated by the publishers of sheet music. The first sheet music to sell over 1 million copies was a 1892 composition called "After The Ball".

With the start of the 20th century the importance of recorded sound grew and records supplanted sheet music as the largest player in the music business.

Pennies from Heaven, a 1981 American film starring Steve Martin, stars a sheet music salesman in the 1930s.

Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay (1891) - Henry J. Sayers
image sourced here.


Sheet music is musical notation written down on paper; it is the musical analog of a book.

Reading sheet music is the standard way to learn and perform a piece in some cultures and styles of music. In western classical music, it is very rare for a performer to learn a piece in any other way. With the exception of piano, where memorization is expected, classical musicians ordinarily have the sheet music at hand when performing. Even in jazz music, which is mostly improvised, there is a lot of sheet music describing arrangements, melodies, and chord changes.

Sheet music is less important in other forms of music, however. In popular music, although sheet music is produced, it is nowadays more usual for people to learn the piece by ear (that is, by imitation). This is also the case in most forms of western folk music. Musics of other cultures, both folk and classical, are often transmitted orally, though some have sheet music, and a few use hand signals or some other device as a learning mnemonic.

The skill of sight reading is the ability of a musician to perform an unfamiliar work of music upon viewing the sheet music for it the first time. Sight reading ability is expected of professional musicians and serious amateurs who play classical music and related forms, especially for church musicians. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheet_music [Apr 2005]

After The Ball (1892)

"After The Ball" becomes the first sheet music to sell over 1 million copies (for a single publisher in a single year) --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1892_in_music [Apr 2005]

The 1890s witnessed the emergence of a commercial popular music industry in the United States. Sales of sheet music, enabling consumers to play and sing songs in their own parlors, skyrocketed during the “Gay Nineties,” led by Tin Pan Alley, the narrow street in midtown Manhattan that housed the country’s major music publishers and producers. Although Tin Pan Alley was established in the 1880s, it only achieved national prominence with the first “platinum” song hit in American music history—Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball”—that sold two million pieces of sheet music in 1892 alone. “After the Ball’s” sentimentality ultimately helped sell over five million copies of sheet music, making it the biggest hit in Tin Pan Alley’s long history. Typical of most popular 1890s tunes, the song was a tearjerker, a melodramatic evocation of lost love. --http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5761/ [Apr 2005]


Before the 15th century, music was written by hand and preserved in large bound volumes.

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, which contained 96 pieces of printed music. Pertucci's printing method produced clean, readable music, but it was a long, difficult process that required three separate passes through the printing press. Single impression printing first appeared in London around 1520. Pierre Attaingnant brought the technique into wide use in 1528. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheet_music [2004]

Printed music history

Though the history of the printed word is relatively commonly known, the history of printed music is less known. Of course, there are parallels that are shared by both printed text and music, there are also additional complexities that accompany the publication of music that make for a challenge in the printing industry that text printing does not present.

Consider this; to print text (only), the producer must be prepared to have "type" set for 26 letters of the alphabet (with caps), numbers, italics and numerous punctuators. At best somewhere around 100 - 200 characters to be used. Of course, that excludes various type faces which are optional. The printing of music uses more complex symbols and many more of them. In the 19th century, the printer V.J. Figgins of London had already catalogued 460 separate symbols and elements, most of which are variable. The variability comes with, for example the length of a "hairpin" a trill or other performance and technique symbols. Just like text, different type faces and sizes can create an incredibly complex inventory of symbols to be used. Of course, this all pales in comparison to the printing symbols required for some Asian languages, but that is another story best left to someone in Asia to tell.

It is not our intent here to tell the entire story of music publishing, that would probably take an entire book, or more. Rather, we want to provide you with an overview of the significant developments that culminated in the incredibly rich and clear covers and scores of American popular music during its golden years from around 1890 - 1920. --http://parlorsongs.com/insearch/printing/printing.asp [Apr 2005]

see also: popular music - printing

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