What in the world has happened to sheet music?

Among the most urgent, and of late the most common inquiries I receive from the musical theater performers I teach and coach concern selection of material, and how to find printed sheet music for these selections.  (The issue extends to music directors, who facilitate acquisition of music materials as part of their jobs.)  There are no easy answers, and, if you’ll forgive a moment of nostalgia, it’s a lot more complicated than it used to be.  On the upside, there are more options than there used to be.  Sheet music may just be harder, and more expensive, to obtain.

Let’s begin with a quick primer: what kinds of materials are we talking about here, who wants them, and why?

Not all music is written down, and when it is, it is not always written down in a way that makes performing it any easier.  But the majority of it is somehow notated, so that it may be more easily distributed and performed.  Printed music can come in many forms.  Classical music can even come in many editions, but for now, because this is a music direction blog, let’s stick to music written for the stage and its closest relative, popular song.  Printed music for songs has been a thorny question ever since the olden days when recorded music first supplanted sheet music as the primary method of song sharing, and has become more so with the demise of what used to be easily accessible resources for “hard copies.”  In New York City alone, we have lost many storefronts, such as Colony Music, Patelson’s, Carl Fischer, and all the other once well-frequented hangouts where singers and musicians would browse through artfully packaged single sheets, vocal folios, and piano-conductor scores before investing their hard-earned and severely limited funds.  University and public libraries might still stock such books, but the fervent demand for them often leads to empty shelves where once the show tunes and pop songs resided, as well as to long ignored overdue notices from the librarians.  (Luckily, here and there one can still find a music shop that has a stock of sheet music along with its instruments and novelties.)

For most musicals that run even a short while commercially and are rented out by one of the main houses that handle theatrical materials (R&H Library, MTI, etc.), there is a printed conductor’s score, usually a piano reduction of some sort with orchestra and stage cues, sort of an overview of a production’s music that a music director can conduct from.  Up through the 1970s, many of these often complex “piano-conductor” (PC) or “piano-vocal-conductor” (PVC) scores, at first handwritten, were engraved and made available for sale to the general public.  Now, with the almost complete integration of music notation computer software into the field of music preparation, most scores are “engraved” (that is, notated digitally) by the composer, arranger, or music director before they are ever performed at all.  Ironically, these newer scores seem more closely guarded by the rental houses, and are rarely offered for sale intact.  There’s a problem with some of the older rental scores, though: quite often the music for the production that eventually represented the musical “Urtext” (original edition) was written down and revised hurriedly during rehearsal, and therefore may contain errors or confusing notation (illegibility and unplayability at the piano are the biggest obstacles).  In some cases these errors were transferred from the handwritten version to the engraving.  Music notation software has obviously made corrections much simpler.

To allow the general public access to them, show scores were, and still are, converted to simplified “piano-vocal” versions made available by other major publishers (Hal Leonard, Warner-Chappell or whoever they are now, etc.) for sale at your local music store or its modern-day equivalent (see below).  Pop artists similarly routinely release their songs in vocal folios, which may or may not capture the essence of tunes that can be hard to realize at the piano, but at least make it possible to take the music home and sing or play it.

Who wants printed sheet music?  As well as fans of the music–amateur pianists and vocalists–all singers and coaches/music directors, or at least all successful ones, are constantly expanding their repertoire.  When starting out, they crave exposure to as much music as they can get their hands, ears, and voices on.  As they continue their educations and careers, coaches and singers alike continue to amass repertoire, and will make choices about what material is most suitable for auditions and performances.  Music directors will want to enable these choices, in part by building collections from which they can draw material for their students and casts.

So… where do they get it?

For learning purposes, the full body of published material really ought to be available to anyone who wants to see it.  But music costs money.  The composer, lyricist, arranger, music copyist, publisher, and distributor/seller of that music, in some combination, all have to be paid.  None of those folks minds if you just want to look at their music to see if you really want to buy it, but if you want to own a copy, or present it before any sort of audience, you have to pay for it.  (Just owning music for practice/library purposes costs a lot less than a public performance, and rates for public performances are scaled according to profit and venue.). The whole operation requires ethical and responsible practices from both buyer and seller in order to function properly.  And like all disciplines with a diverse and scattered literature, it is up to the student/singer and teacher/music director to discover everything that’s out there, and then to use it all responsibly.

And herein lies the conundrum.  If we can’t afford the music, or don’t have access to it, how can we buy it, or even peruse it?  And how then can we know it, and learn it?  And how can we all do this so nobody gets cheated?

Savvy music and theatre departments at colleges and universities simply buy their own collections of everything that is for sale, keep it under lock and key, and institute a reserve system for borrowing, independent of the school library.  Students should be required to only perform the material they view at the departmental library after they purchase copies of their own.  (Hey, textbooks are expensive.  And students can buy sheet music used for a fraction of the original cost.)  Music in the public domain can be found at ISMLP.org and other music archives.  (IMSLP.org also has links to many different versions of a wide variety of music.)

As mentioned, many freelance music directors and coaches have large collections of their own.  If you’re a singer wanting to learn and acquire a song, go have a session with your friendly local music director/coach.  He or she will either make you a copy of any music he or she has, or encourage you to buy a copy for yourself.  Best of all, a music director can make you a customized transcription, one that you can use for a long time, and one over which you have quality control.  Expensive, yes, but durable, and excellent.  You get what you pay for in music.  Most of the time, anyway.

Of late many professional and student music directors have come into possession of an almost complete PDF collection of almost every musical theatre score, scanned and somehow pirated from the conductor scores offered for rental.  One of the best investments for today’s music director has become a large-screen tablet or reader on which to load Dropbox or similar cloud drives and a music reader such as ForScore.  This will give them a virtually unlimited and immediately accessible library of any piece for which they have a PDF file, illegal, illegible, or not.  One would hope that these music directors, and those whom they share this priceless collection with, would never use it except for study purposes.  And by my above definition of ownership, it would seem that they should pay something for the privilege of just studying it and having it among their files.  Of course they do not; why would they, and whom would they pay?  Furthermore, what is the alternative?  These scores are mostly unavailable by any other means (of course the renters want it that way, and rightly so), so why shouldn’t music directors follow morally ambiguous routes to them?  The answer is simply that composer and lyricist (and arranger and orchestrator) have not been paid to have created their music.  It is up to the music director to draw the ethical lines between perusal and ownership, factoring in the realities of survival in the profession.

As far as purchasing goes, Amazon and other services will swiftly deliver whatever printed printed music that does exist, and they do have quite a wide selection.  But it is not one that can be fully examined before purchase.  Moreover, a customer cannot explore the entirely of the repertoire without relying on the sites’ links and suggestions, which may not necessarily result in a successful search.  These sites are gloriously convenient, but libraries they ain’t.

Online sheet music services (I will omit their names, but you know to whom I refer…) offer their own piano-vocal versions of a huge variety of songs, often in any key and arranged for other instruments and ensembles, to boot.  But… and this is a very big but… the buyer is at the mercy of the transcription and the arrangement, which quite often are mere paraphrases of the writers’ intent.  Liberties are taken with form, melody, harmony, or rhythm, and material may be simplified to make it “playable,” unfortunately at the cost of the musical content.  Furthermore, these versions are notorious for errors.  (See my book Music Direction for the Stage: A View from the Podium for an extensive discussion of transcription and its importance.)  My advice is, whenever possible, steer clear.  Sometimes you need something fast, and these services are the only option, but as a rule, you can do much better.

The best solution is, when you want to really spend some time with a piece of music,  purchase it (if it is purchase-able).  A career as an artist requires investment.  But let the buyer beware!  Before you buy anything, do your due diligence, and more.  A career as an artist also involves research.  Ask around.  Do extensive web searches.  Visit a local library that no one else visits anymore, or stop in at the local music store on Main St. with the racks of sheet music in the front and piano lessons in the back.

If you can’t buy a certain piece of music, chances are you’re not allowed to use it.  So don’t.  If you want to study it, pay someone to transcribe it for you.  Don’t simply appropriate it for yourself.  There are plenty of other available pieces of music that you can use instead.  Do not let the difficulty of the search deter you–the fun can be in the looking, and chances are you’ll dig up a gem!

One thought on “What in the world has happened to sheet music?

  1. Some companies only supply “selections” for the perusal now. I was hoping to examine the score to The Addams Family to see if it was vocally appropriate for our children’s theater. They inlcuded many pages of instrumental tango music and very few song excerpts. I was left searching for any online pdf just to get a sense of how demanding it was. (And listening to a library copy of the CD trying to figure out which character was singing).
    As a voice teacher, I have a huge library of musical theater songs to recommend to students, but when they want to work on pop songs they have to buy them online and guess at the key for us to even try them. (And then possibly pay again for a different key).

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