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.
A common alternative (and more generic) term for sheet music is score, 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.)
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 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.
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:
Even after the advent of music printing, much music continued to exist solely in manuscripts well into the 18th century.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.