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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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-staff format for mixed voices.
Tibetan 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 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, 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 most 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.
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 (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, 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, 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, 1884

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.

Current developments

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.[1] 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. [1]

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.

See also


External links

Archives of Scanned Works

Archives of Works in Other Formats


Up to date as of January 23, 2010
(Redirected to Music Theory/Music Notation Systems article)

From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection

< Music Theory

There are many ways to describe musical notes, including solfege, letters, numbers, tablature, and of course the standard music staffs. It is important to have a working knowledge of all of these (except tablature, as it is instrument-specific and many instruments do not use it at all).



Letter names give a label to each letter of the C major scale: C D E F G A B. Notes can be sharpened or flattened; between D and E comes a note called either DSharp.svg ("D sharp") or EFlat.svg ("E flat"). Even more confusingly, E can be called DDoublesharpsign.jpg ("D double-sharp"), and D can be called EDoubleflat.png ("E double-flat")! For now, you need only know that a DSharp.svg and an EFlat.svg are enharmonically equivalent (that is, they have the same pitch, but serve a different diatonic function) in the simplified tuning most commonly used today. You will learn about diatonic function later.

These are the letter names used in English, Dutch, and possibly a few other languages. However, Germany, Scandinavia (such as Iceland, Denmark, Sweden) and Slavic countries have another system: their C major scale is C D E F G A H. Their H corresponds to our B. They also use the letter B, to mean the note we call B flat. They do not use special letters for any other notes, however, for instance, what we call a C sharp they would call "Cis", "Ciss" or "Cís" (depending on the language), which literally means "C sharp". We will not concern ourselves with these differences as this alternate system is almost never encountered in English language texts. Some other countries don't use letters for notes at all, but instead the fixed-doh solfege system, where "Do" or "Ut" always means the note C. This is an inflexible system unlike the moveable-doh one used in English, where "Do" (or "Doh") can be any pitch.


Solfege is one of the most common ways of expressing musical notes for vocalists. In fact, in some countries such as Spain, Portugal and France, solfege is always used instead of note names.

The major scale in solfege runs: do re mi fa sol la ti. (Note: in some regions "ti" is called "si" like in Portugal). After "ti" comes "do" again, one octave higher than the previous "do." Notes outside the scale (sharps and flats) are expressed in different ways according to regions. In some the equivalent to sharp or flat is added after the name of the note (C sharp would thus be Do dièse in France and Belgium). In other regions, another syllable with the same initial letter is used, although this is mostly reserved for instructional uses. For example, the pitch between "re" and "mi" can be called either "ri" or "mé". The proper syllable to use is based on whether you are travelling up or down the scale. The first letter of the syllable should come from the previous note, while the second letter is inherited from the next note in the sequence. Most commonly, the chromatic ascending scale is "do di re ri mi fa fi sol la li ti/si do" and the descending scale is "do ti/si te la le sol se fa fe mi me re ra do."

The "movable do" system is the one most commonly used, where do becomes the tonic of the key (C in the key of C, etc.) "Fixed do" is also used at some major colleges and universities, where do is always C, no matter what the key is. This involves a lot more use of chromatic solfege though.

This book will not use solfege. More information can be obtained in Wikipedia's treatment of the subject. The material should be learned and practiced, but it is useful mostly in communicating with other musicians who use the system.


Numbers are used in lieu of solfege to describe relative tones. Either Roman numerals (I II III) or Arabic numerals (1 2 3) can be used. A major scale would be: I II III IV V VI VII. Each number can be pronounced either like a cardinal number ("one, two, three...") or an ordinal number ("first, second, third..."). These can be sharpened and flattened, but the sharp is usually written before the numeral: Sharp.svgII ("augmented second"), Flat.svgIII ("minor third").

This book will use Arabic numerals for note names and Roman numerals for chord names to avoid ambiguity.

Latin names

Latin names follow the same principle as the solfege scale and numerals. The notes are called the tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone. Of these, it is most important to remember the "tonic" (I), "subdominant" (IV), and "dominant" (V), because these tones and chords built on these tones are used the most often.


Tablature is notation specific to an instrument or class of instruments, usually plucked-string instruments such as the guitar or aerophones like the harmonica. It is mostly used in popular music for guitar and bass, because many players of these instruments do not read standard notation and the notation does not help illustrate fingerings, for instance, a "middle C" can be played on several different strings on the guitar, but they all look the same in standard notation. However, tablature usually lacks information on rhythm. Instead, tablature notation assumes that the reader is familiar with the tune or can hear its demonstration on a recording or other source. For these reasons, much professional guitar music includes standard notation along with tablature, with the tab staff running below the standard staff. Tablature is also common on the Internet, often in ASCII form but also in files that can be read by programs such as Guitar Pro or the Power Tab Editor (the latter is freeware).

Tablatures are not useful for the purposes of explaining music theory because they describe how to play an instrument, that is, the mechanics of producing musical sounds but not the underlying ideas, that is, the expression of certain pitches in a logical rhythmic structure.

Standard notation

This is a preliminary version. Standard music notation will probably have its own chapter, in which case only a cursory introduction will remain here.

Standard notation is used to demonstrate how a piece is played. Unlike tablature, it applies to any instrument. It indicates key signatures, time signatures, rhythms, tempo, dynamics (how loud each instrument should be), and so on. A highly trained musician can sometimes take a piece of sheet music written in standard notation, look it over once or twice, and then play the song as though he or she had been playing it his or her whole life.

For instance, below is the C major scale, including a C at the end, in standard notation.

C major scale.png

The standard notation staff has five lines and four spaces. From bottom to top the five lines are E G B D F, which is commonly memorized as an acrostic such as:


The four spaces between the five lines are F, A, C, and E, which should surely be easy for an English speaker to remember, because together they spell "face".

But what about the first two notes, which are below the staff? Well, the second note is just below the E, so it must be D. The first is below that, so it must be C. It also has a line through it to indicate it is placed on an "invisible" line. This line is called a ledger line. A note could be placed below this ledger line, which would be B. Or a note could be placed below that, on another ledger line, and it would be A. Notes can continue to be placed on ledger lines above and below the staff infinitely, but extending too far from the staff is impractical, because the pitches will become very hard to read.

Simple English

The music that musicians have in front of them when they play is printed music. The sheet or sheets of paper that contain(s) the written notation of what the musician are to play is called printed music.

Sheet music is a subset of printed music. Sheet music usually refers to a "single sheet" of music; that is, one song or piece printed separately. Printed music includes sheet music but also includes music published in collections. People often confuse sheet music with printed music.

Usually people just say “music” if it is obvious that they are talking about printed music:

George went to his piano lesson. When he opened his music bag he saw that he had forgotten to put his music in it.

Most other European languages use the word for “note” in this meaning, but in English the “notes” are the actual little dots on the paper which stand for the sounds:

George was playing from the music, but it was hard to read because some of the notes were badly printed.

The printed music can be used to make it clear that it is printed music; not recorded music:

The music shop sold CDs and printed music.

music can be published as a separate copy ("single sheet music")for one piece or song, or it can be a collection of pieces in a larger book.

If, for example, there is a piece of music for violin and piano, then the pianist will play from the piano part, which will have the piano music written, as usual, on two staves. Above those two staves, printed slightly smaller, will be another stave with the violin part. The violinist will play from a separate part which will just have the violin music. This means that the pianist can always see what the violin should be playing, but not the violinist will not be able to see what the pianist is playing. The violinist may need to look at the piano part sometimes to see how the violin and piano part fit together. It would be difficult for the violinist to play from music with both parts because he would need to turn the pages too often. (Unless the violinist had a few measures of rest right before the page turn, the violinist would miss playing some of his/her part while turning the page.)


A score is printed music of a piece written for several instruments. The music (parts) for each instrument are written above one another on separate staves. A conductor can see from the score what each instrument should be playing and how it fits together. Each player only has his or her own part (the notes that that performer plays) in front of him/her. From time to time, if the instrument has long period where he/she does not play (that is, has a block of rests), the publisher may print, usually in smaller type, a portion of the music another instruments (usually an instrument playing the melody) would be playing to help the performer know what to listen before he/she starts playing. These smaller notes are called cues because it cues, or clues, the performer that he/she is going to start playing soon.)

An orchestral score or full score shows exactly what all the instruments of the orchestra play. If the piece uses a large orchestra with many different instruments, the page must be very tall. The conductor uses the score to be able to see which instruments are playing when. The conductor would cue orchestra members (or sections within the orchestra) when they begin to play. Conductors do much more than this (tempo, dynamics, interpretation, etc.), of course, but most conductors use a score when rehearsing the orchestra or when the orchestra is performing.

A miniature score, "study score," or pocket score is like an orchestral score but much smaller. It will not be big enough for a conductor to conduct from because the print will be too small, but it will be good enough for studying, and it will be much cheaper than a large, orchestral score.

In an orchestral score the order in which the instrumental lines are printed will be: woodwind at the top (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and any other special woodwind), brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn), percussion and strings (violin, viola, cello and double bass). If there is a choir or solo singers their part is written near the bottom, above the cello stave. The bar lines will usually join up the staves of each family. This makes it easier to find the instruments than if they had been drawn all the way down the page.

A vocal score or piano score is the music for a piece for choir and singers (e.g. an opera) in which all the instrumental parts are printed on two staves so that it can be played on a piano. Some notes will, of course, have to be left out to make it possible to play with just two hands.

A short score means a score where an orchestral piece has been written on three or four staves only. It is something between a piano score and a full score. A composer may write a piece in short score when composing it, and write out an orchestral score later. Short scores are not usually published, they are just working copies while the piece is being composed.

See also:


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