Sheet music

Sheet music is written representation of music. This is a homorhythmic (i.e., hymn-style) arrangement of a traditional piece entitled Adeste Fideles, in standard two-stave format for mixed voices.

Sheet music, or score, is a hand-written or printed form of musical notation. Sheet music typically is printed on paper (or, in earlier times, parchment), although in recent years sheet music has been published in digital formats. Use of the term "sheet" is intended to differentiate music on paper from an audio presentation from a sound recording, broadcast, or live performance, or video.

Although the role of sheet music, as a recording medium, is similar to that of books for words, while words are not necessarily intended to be recited sheet music is written for the purpose of performance. Some composers and performers write supplementary performance notes.


The development of information science and technology radically changed the way music is preserved. Sounds (music), images (performance), and texts (sheet music, composer's or performer's notes) can be integrated, preserved, and accessed. The indexing and retrieval of sheet music can also extend beyond the traditional author, title, and subject search. For example, Historic Sheet Music Digital Collection, IOWA Digital Library, the University of Iowa indexes music by first line, refrain, lyricist, performer, as well as composer and title.

Purpose and use

Tibetan musical score from the 19th century.

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 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.

Score of Baude Cordier's chanson "Belle, bonne, sage," from The Chantilly Manuscript, Musée Condé 564. The manuscript is one of the classic examples of ars subtilior, which requires red notes, or "coloration" to indicate changes in note lengths from their normally written values. This chanson, a dedicatory piece on the love of a lady and a lord written in the shape of a heart, opens the corpus. Note the heart of notes within the larger heart.

Comprehending sheet music requires a special form of literacy: The ability to read musical notation. Although an ability to read or write music is generally required for musicians, some composers have been capable of producing music in printed form without the capacity themselves to read or write in musical notation with a help of amanuensis. Examples include the blind 18th-century composer John Stanley and the twentieth century composers and lyricists Lionel Bart 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. 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, and so on) in one's mind 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 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 (for example, Bartók's volumes of Magyar and Romanian folk music), but also with sound recordings of improvisations by musicians (for example, 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, and so on.

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 conductor's score
  • 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 practical use 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, and so on. 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 most from piano scores because with one or two pianists they allow unlimited rehearsal before the orchestra is 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.
Excerpt of a piano-vocal score (from the opera William Ratcliff, by César Cui).
  • A vocal score (or, more properly, piano-vocal score) is a reduction of the full score of a vocal work (for example, opera, musical, oratorio, cantata, and so on) 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 (for example, 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).


Excerpt from a thirteenth century Dominican missal (parchment manuscript)


Before the fifteenth 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, writing space was economized by copying the parts in separate portions of facing pages, thus making possible performance by the fewest number of soloists needed. (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.

Even after the advent of music printing, much music continued to exist solely in manuscripts well into the eighteenth 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. 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 honor granted to favored court musicians.

In the nineteenth century the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. In the United States, for example, 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 twentieth 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.

Current developments

In the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century, significant interest has developed in representing sheet music in a computer-readable format, 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.

In 1999, Harry Connick, Jr. invented a system and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra.[1] An electronic system, a device with a screen, used to show the sheet music for the musicians in an orchestra, while they are playing, instead of the more commonly used paper. Harry Connick Jr. uses this system, for example, when he's touring with his big band.[2] Also others experiment with this way of displaying sheet music. In 2007, Marco Leoné developed software for Tablet PC called MusicReader for his Master assignment at the University of Twente (The Netherlands). This digital music stand software became available to the public in 2008.

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.

Some libraries hold music score collections. For example, "Music for the Nation," a music division of the U.S. Library of Congress holds over sixty thousands pieces of historical sheet music published in the U.S. deposited at the Library's Copyright Office.

Scorewriter: Music notation software

A scorewriter, or music notation program, is software used to automate the task of writing and engraving sheet music. A scorewriter is to music notation what a word processor is to written text.


All scorewriters allow the user to input, edit and print music notation, to varying degrees of sophistication. They range from programs which can write a simple song, piano piece or guitar tab, to those that can handle the complexities of orchestral music, specialist notations (from early music to avant garde), and high-quality music engraving.

Music can usually be input by using the mouse and computer keyboard, although some scorewriters will also allow input to be played to them from a MIDI keyboard. As scorewriters tend to use their own unique file formats for storing music, many will include utilities to translate from foreign formats, or MIDI files, to their own. Also a few will allow input by scanning scores using musical OCR software.

The output of scorewriters can usually be fine tuned, either by dragging graphical objects around in a GUI or by adding parameters to text-based input files.

Most scorewriters also allow the music to be played back via MIDI. This means that scorewriters have a certain amount in common with sequencers (many of which can also write music notation up to a point), though scorewriters are used primarily for writing notation and sequencers primarily for recording and playing music.

A few scorewriters allow users to publish scores on the Internet using their own formats, thus making them accessible only to other users of the same program. However more allow the exporting of the score to a PDF file for distributing the score and MIDI for distributing the music. More recently there have been Flash-based scorewriters developed that allow distribution and advanced interaction of sheet music online to any user with a modern browser.

File compatibility

Due to the wide variation in features and notations supported, and because scorewriter programs have only entered into widespread use relatively recently, scores created using one program tend to be incompatible with programs developed by other manufacturers. It is therefore difficult to transfer scores between different programs.

MIDI files are often used as a form of "workaround," because almost all scorewriters can open and/or save them. However, the MIDI file format is designed for representing playback rather than notation, so it only produces approximate results and much notational information is lost in the process.

Various attempts to develop and establish a standard music notation file format have been made, the strongest so far being NIFF (now obsolete)[3]

Sibelius 4 is capable of opening Finale's .MUS files in a limited form as well as its ENIGMA Transportable Files (.ETF). Both Finale and Sibelius support MusicXML files to varying degrees.

See also


  1. Google, Patent: System and method for coordinating. Retrieved October 7, 2008.
  2. Vern Seward, Harry Connick Jr. Uses Macs At Heart Of New Music Patent, The Mac Observer. Retrieved October 7, 2008.
  3. Alan Belkin, The Current Status of NIFF. Retrieved November 6, 2008.


  • Dichter, Harry, and Elliott Shapiro. Handbook of Early American Sheet Music, 1768-1889. New York: Dover Publications, 1977. ISBN 9780486233642.
  • Klamkin, Marian. Old Sheet Music: A Pictorial History. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1975. ISBN 9780801555008.
  • Rose, M. J. Sheet Music. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. ISBN 9780345451064.
  • Sampsel, L. J.2007. "Sheet Music Consortium." NOTES 63 (3): 663-667.
  • Schultz, Lois, and Sarah J. Shaw. Cataloging Sheet Music: Guidelines for Use with AACR2 and the MARC Format. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2003. ISBN 9780810847507.
  • University of Iowa. Historic Sheet Music Digital Collection. Iowa City: University of Iowa, Digital Library Services, 2007. Retrieved October 7, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved September 12, 2015.


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