Take Note and Listen Up! Sheet Music at the Watertown Free Public Library

Are you an admirer of Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms? Do you like to jam out with friends to the latest pop hits? Would you like to get started playing piano or guitar, or serenade that special someone with your magical music skills?

Well, you are in luck! The Watertown Free Public Library has a collection of diverse sheet music on the shelf, at your disposal and ready to be checked out.

Though modern conveniences have made sheet music available with the simple swipe of a library card, musical notation goes back to the ancient days of old. The first evidence of musical notation is documented on cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, and complete compositions from the ancient Greeks have survived to the present day. The most famous examples of early Greek music (400 – 200 BC) are a papyrus fragment containing parts of the Hellenistic Euripides play Orestes, and the treasured Seikilos epitaph (pictured below).

The Seikilos Epitaph. Photo from thiscityknows.com

Before the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, all music was painstakingly written out by hand and preserved in large bound volumes. Because hefty musical tomes were quite expensive, laborious to produce, and were very ornate, they were reserved for use in only certain echelons of Middle Aged society. The best known examples of music from the Middle Ages are pieces of mono – or poly – phonic chant used for religious purposes in monasteries, abbeys, sometimes schools, and in other select wealthy hands. The music notation, called mensural notation, dictated both the duration and pitch of notes called neumes – an example of which is pictured here.

Example of mensural notation. Photo by Martha E. Thomae, Julie E. Cumming, Ichiro Fujinaga, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) at McGill University

While the rise of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century very successfully enabled spread of the printed word, there were many difficulties translating musical notation into new printing press technology. Properly aligning musical staffs, notes, clefs was laborious and infuriating, leading scribes to add musical notation by hand into mechanically printed staffs. The first fully machine printed music appeared in 1473, with the invention of music engraving – approximately 20 years after the introduction of the printing press. The landmark body of sheet music in this era is Ottaviano Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton (One Hundred Songs of Harmonic Music, 1501), which was the first widely disseminated work of clean, readable sheet music produced using musical moveable type.

Predictably, like the spread of printed text, the rise of machine printed sheet music meant that musical material disseminated faster since it was available at a much lower cost than onerous hand illuminated tomes. Cheap and more plentiful music made music making available to all classes, not just the wealthy; this phenomenon cultivated amateur musicians and teachers, and freed composers from the constraints of writing music for exclusively upper class consumption.

Though printed sheet music may have taken a while to catch on at first, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw American sheet music dominating a newly founded mass sheet music market. From about 1885 to 1930, Tin Pan Alley of New York City existed as a conglomeration of composers, songwriters, lyricists, and publishers that churned out commercial tunes as fast as catchy melodies could be whistled.  Composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Rodgers & Hammerstein all saw their beginnings in Tin Pan Alley. Parlor and popular music meant to be consumed in middle class homes flew off store shelves until about the 1920s, when broadcast radio programs and phonographs became essential living room fixtures.

Tin Pan Alley 1
Tin Pan Alley. Photo from pbs.org

Since the invention of the World Wide Web, there has been much interest in representing sheet music in machine readable format and downloadable files. 1998, with the internet on the rise, saw the first vestiges of publishers copyrighting sheet music materials to be purchased online. The invention of MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, has allowed artists to play, edit, and manipulate music on computers. There are now also several open source projects where online communities work to create free access to large swaths of sheet music for all to use and download, the most noteworthy being The Mutopia Project and The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP).

Would you like to learn more about sheet music, or browse some yourself? The Watertown Free Public Library is home to about 200 music scores, sheet music collections, and instructional materials that await your lyrical fingertips. As of last week, we have embarked on a project to reclassify your library’s sheet music stash to make it more browseable – come check it out! From movies and musicals, to Adele and Amadeus Mozart, you are sure to find something fun to play or sing. Head to the second floor between the Nonfiction 900s and Large Print to find music to borrow!

“Without music, life would be a mistake” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

– by Emily, WFPL Reference Librarian

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