Classical music publishers need to move on to digital

While the Internet has been successful (perhaps too successful) in making audio files more available on the Web, it is still not used so much to share scores. Sheet music carries a lot of copyright issues, mostly held by publishing companies or- in the case of contemporary music- the composers or the family of composers. I don’t know much about popular music scores (I assume they’re pretty much widely available) but classical music scores are still so difficult to find. Think of the volumes and volumes of music that are out there but difficult to access… how great would it be to have a way to find these scores and use them?

Classical music has always been considered high brow, but that doesn’t mean the accessibility of the music should be high as well. It’s easy to find popular pieces online (like Amazon), but not-so-popular pieces and contemporary pieces can be hard to obtain.

It’s difficult, says Dawn, my classical violinist sister. Finding a piece of music (unless it is a popular piece) can be grueling, and then even when you find it, there are so many complications before you can actually play it. Music libraries are hard to use, because many catalog by type, not under composer (Harvard’s music library catalogs by composer, but it is extremely small). In many cases, the same piece will be all over the library in different sections.

Even music librarians have trouble finding scores. For example, the library may not have all the parts for an orchestra piece; in that case, they must borrow from different lending libraries and sometimes, you can’t buy it or photocopy it, just rent it. Private score-owners can be more picky about lending the music– sometimes requesting crazy conditions for using the score (like having to play it before sunset in a courtyard).

Of course, if you’re a professional musician, it’s easier to find scores. For instance, you would know that reliable sheet music for composers like Debussy and Ravel are all from one publisher, so you know what publisher you’re looking for. With Beethoven, for example, there are certain “versions” that are more accurate than others. Sometimes, the best thing is to go to the music store and look at their (old) catalogs to see the list of pieces and the different versions.  The best resource is the music library at academic institutes, which is difficult to use once you’ve graduated. Some cities like New York have a public music library (the Performing Arts Public Library), but most cities don’t. Also, if you want some music that is out of print, who knows how you’ll be able to find it?

That’s not to say that the entire industry is behind. Most recently, I was told that Baron Reiter made an online store (which I couldn’t find but will post the link as soon as I get a hold of it), which was a huge step for the music publishing industry. Thankfully, many libraries like the William & Gayle Cook Music Library and Harvard’s Loeb Library are digitizing printed music, but search tools are still very primitive and the digitized collection is teeny tiny.

How great would it be if someone could make a comprehensive score database like Google is doing with Google Books? It could point you to where the music is, be searchable by title, composer, instrument, and have Pandora’s music algorithm thing where it can point you to “similar” music. How better would it be if one could find a PDF and just download it instead of waiting a trillion years for some European publisher to ship the score? (I’d be willing to pay, of course) How cool would it be if there could be a Kindle-like device for music, so you don’t have to carry around a bunch of paper? Musicians could prop up the thin e-score book on their stands and turn pages by tapping their foot on a remote control pad and be able to scribble notes on it. The size could also be blown up for people who have trouble seeing.

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