The Evolution of Sheet Music

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


The invention of printing capabilities had a profound impact on the music industry and on musical practices. Before mechanical publishing methods were developed, sheet music was hand written by only those with the knowledge, who could afford the material.

Oral tradition  

Initially, music was passed down orally. Although scribes existed, many did not see the value in copying down music and in several cases, did not have the means to. The absence of a standardized system of musical notation resulted in a large number of variations of each work as it was orally passed from teacher to student. Early in the 11th century, Guido of Arezzo (c. 990-1050), an Italian monk, developed the idea of a musical staff to house the different pitches. With this innovation, musicians could transcribe musical selections and send them to remote locations; learning the melodies from the page alone was now possible. Written music quickly became the preferred method to preserve and share the “correct” version of Church works.

FUN FACT: The phrase “run the gamut” originates from Guido of Arezzo’s medieval scale; gamma was the lowest pitch and ut was the highest. The statement is meant to imply that the full range of something has been experienced.

Invention of the printing press

Paper was invented in China (c. 105 AD) and quickly spread to the middle east. Although Europeans were likely aware of the product as early as the 10th century AD, several communities were hesitant to adopt something from eastern culture and declared that documents written on paper were invalid. It is also possible that the European land owners who supplied the animal skins for parchment desired to block paper from being widely sold in order to protect their personal wealth. Until the 1400’s, parchment was the preferred medium for European scribes, despite its immense cost. With the development of the printing press and a growing educated public, there was suddenly a market for inexpensive writing materials.

According to Friedrich Chrysander of The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, printing technologies were initially invented “for the purpose of noting down language, not music.” Soon publishers realized the financial gain to be made from the distribution of “books with musical notes.” The majority of printed music was commissioned by the Church, one of the richest entities of the period. However, there was one major issue with adapting the printing process to create sheet music; “the intersection of vertical and horizontal lines” that occurs when an individual note’s stem crosses the staff. Early publishers side-stepped the issue of line-crossing entirely and often left blank spaces or plain staves on the page for the musical notation to be hand drawn later. This method also enabled “publishers to tailor their music to different markets” since several different sects of Christianity (and therefore different versions of plainchant) existed in Europe. This was common practice until the early 16th century.

FUN FACT: The earliest book containing music was the Mainz Psalter created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer (

Woodcut Printing

According to Richard Reublin and Richard Beil from the Parlor Songs Academy, “a woodcut is simply a carved block of wood” with raised characters, like a stamp. This technique required enormous foresight since the text/music had to be a mirror image of the desired product.  Mistakes in this process were nearly impossible to correct and usually meant scrapping the materials and begin again from scratch. Woodcuts were also incredibly fragile (note the many thin lines involved in musical notation) and would begin to deteriorate after several uses. This process was popular well into the 16th century.

FUN FACT: The traditional rounded note heads of printed music first appeared in J.F. Locher’s Historia de rege frantile; scholars hypothesize that circular notes were perhaps easier to achieve with woodworking tools than square shapes.

Moveable Types

The next movement in music printing was the creation of a moveable type system by Ottaviano dei Petrucci in the 1500’s. This method, with origins in 11th century China, involved the creation of an individual block (stamp) for each character; the blocks could be rearranged to form any word desired. The challenges involved with creating a complex image, like music, required publishers to employ a multi-step printing process (“multiple impression printing”). First, the staff would be copied onto the paper. The craftsmen would then go over the page a second time to lay the notes on top (and a third time to insert text). This method, while effective, required accuracy or the notes would be displaced in the staff, ruining the entire work. Petrucci’s book of chansons, Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A (1501), was the first polyphonic music to be printed by moveable type.

Copper Plates  

In the 1540’s, printers had moved towards publishing complex images, like music or maps, with engravings on copper plates. This process included scratching the pattern into a large flat sheet of copper and then smearing ink into the depressed areas. Wet paper would then be pressed against the sheet to collect the image (like a giant stamp). The earliest examples of this process were the Intabolatura di liuto di diversi by Francesco Marcolini in 1536 and Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Vincenzo Galilei) printed by Giorgio Marescotti in 1581. The invention of the rolling press (a large rolling pin used to apply pressure evenly across the sheet of paper being printed on) during this period made engraved copper plates one of the quickest and most affordable technological advances of the period and quickly spread across Europe.


The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines lithography as a “planographic printing process that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water.” The process was first developed in 1798 by Alois Senefelder, a German playwright. Senefelder could not afford to have his works professionally printed, so he began to experiment with the opposing properties of grease and water in order to “draw” pictures in ink on a large slab of limestone. The image is then transferred to a sheet of paper. Lithography was not shared with the public until 1818, when Senefelder published his book, “A Complete Course of Lithography.” By the early 1900’s, lithography was the most widely used method for printing artwork and musical scores.

Laser Printers

In 1938, the first step towards laser printers was taken with the invention of Xerography by the American physicist, Chester Carlson. Using Carlson’s new technology, Gary K. Starkweather, a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) developed the first functioning laser printer in 1971. These machines use modern technology to quickly transform digital information (from an adjacent device) into printed ink on a plain sheet of paper. Printers come in a large variety of sizes from desktop to industrial and can, in some instances, function without an attached cord. This machine makes it possible for the user to instantly transfer an image digitally to remote locations (or to printers) without the use of physical paper or ink at all.





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