Sheet Music Then & Now

Most modern musicians take sheet music for granted. Sheet music abounds in printed form and can even be downloaded from the Internet. It's a far cry from the days of oral tradition. Centuries ago, there were few ways to pass on music other than to "hum a few bars" until the listener caught on.

The available manuscripts had to be painstakingly marked out by a transcriptionist and were limited in number. In fact, while many songs were known on a wide scale, they were likely spread about by travelling minstrels and troubadours. They were certainly not available in printed form at the local music shop.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century, very few private citizens owned or had access to sheet music. The ones in existence were owned by a few wealthy noblemen. Because the only way to publish written music was to copy it by hand, it's little wonder that sheet music was scarce.

The process took long hours and careful copying skills, plus access to the right materials. Before the printing press, the only songs available in written score were sacred songs. Most of these were chants used in liturgical services. Virtually no secular music scores existed prior to the 15th century.

The invention of the printing press in 1439 changed the history of sheet music. This is in spite of the fact that the earliest methods of reproducing musical scores were almost as painstaking as copying music by hand. Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci may be considered the "father of sheet music."

He developed the first method for reproducing sheet music. He was also granted an exclusive patent for his work, giving him an early monopoly on the business for several years. His method involved three stages. The paper was pressed three times. First, the staff was printed. On the second impression, the words were added. The final impression laid down the notes.

The downside to the process was that it was time-consuming and expensive. This made it relatively impractical for the average citizen to own sheet music. However, technology evolved over the years. Eventually, better and more efficient methods of printing were developed.

Most of the earliest music that was published was sacred music. In fact, the printing, distribution and publication of music were largely controlled by the church for several centuries. Eventually this changed, and soon music companies found themselves in the thriving business of music publishing. The retail distribution of sheet music took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was in spite of the fact that there was no means for promoting particular songs or artists, like radio or television.

The popularity of sheet music prompted many governments around the world to examine the issue of copyright and pass their own laws in that regard. With copyright becoming a worldwide issue, the Berne Convention of 1886 established a universal principle regarding copyright. Today, approximately 76 countries around the world adhere to this standard.

Of course, technology continues to evolve. Radio, television and the Internet have posed new challenges to the ability of governments to enforce copyright laws. Sheet music can now be downloaded straight from the Internet, often illegally. Notwithstanding this, the annual sale of sheet music ranges in the tens of thousands today. Music-publishing software has brought the printing of music full circle from the days when stolid monks sat writing music with a quill by candlelight.