Sheet music is written representation of music. This is a homorhythmic
-style) arrangement of a traditional piece entitled Adeste Fideles
, in standard two-staff format for mixed voices.
musical score from the 19th century.
Sheet music is a hand-written or printed form of musical notation; 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 in recent years includes also presentation on computer screens. Use of the term "sheet" is intended to differentiate music on paper from an audio presentation, which would ensue from a sound recording, broadcast, or live performance, which may involve video as well. 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, show, record album, or other special or popular event which involves music.
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 incidental music written for a play, 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 piece of music. Although it does not take the place of the sound of a performed work, sheet music can be studied to create a performance and to elucidate aspects of the music that may not be obvious from mere listening. 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 musical notation. Nevertheless, an ability to read or write music is not a requirement to compose music. Many composers have been capable of producing music in printed form without the capacity themselves to read or write in musical notation—as long as an amanuensis of some sort is available. Examples include the blind 18th-century composer John Stanley and the 20th-century composers and lyricists Lionel Bart, Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney.
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 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.
With the exception of solo performances, where memorization is expected, classical musicians ordinarily have the sheet music at hand when performing. In jazz music, 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.
Handwritten or printed music is less important in other traditions of musical practice, however. Although much popular music is published in notation of some sort, it is quite common for people to learn a piece 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 of western and non-western musics so as to render them 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, c1993), 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 it 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 in order to make the presentation more nearly 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 forces 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 a notable exception), ballets get the most practical benefit from piano scores because with one or two pianists they allow unlimited rehearsal before the orchestra is absolutely needed. They can be used also 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). While not meant for performance, vocal scores serve as a convenient way for vocal soloists and choristers to learn the music and rehearse separately from the instrumental ensemble. The vocal score of a musical typically does not include the spoken dialogue, except for cues.
- 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 usually is 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.
- 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 intended primarily 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).
Excerpt from a 13-century Dominican missal (parchment manuscript)
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 in order 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.
Frontispiece to Petrucci's Odhecaton
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 5-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.
Cover, sheet music composed by W. J. D. Leavitt, Boston
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 parlour 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 for copyright sheet music to be made available for purchase online by the publishers. Unlike their hard copy counterparts these files allowed for manipulation such as instrument changes, transposition and even midi 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 mouse-like manipulation of notes and symbols; the user would "grab" a note or symbol from the 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.
Many modern Digital Audio Workstation software products support generation of sheet music from MIDI files or by manual entry. Examples of products with this feature include Cakewalk SONAR, Pro Tools and Logic Pro.
In 1999, Harry Connick, Jr. invented a system and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra. An electronic system, a device with a screen, used to show the sheet music for the musicians in an orchestra, while they're playing, instead of the more commonly used paper. Harry Connick Jr. uses this system for example when he's touring with his big band. 
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 IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) is 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.
Archives of Scanned Works
Archives of Works in Other Formats