Sheet music began as musical notations written on clay tablets by ancient Babylonians. It was used by the ancient Greeks, survived the Dark Ages, and became an important musical force during the Renaissance Period. With the advent of the printing press, printed sheet music affected the music industry in ways unimaginable by past generations. Yes, the history of sheet music is a long one, at least four thousand years, and it has been a story of evolution and growing dissemination. Yet if all those ancient musicians could see the form that sheet music has taken today, they would find it impossible to fathom. In modern times, sheet music has, like most other forms of communication, joined the digital age.
Beginning in the end of the 20th century, there was a great deal of interest in representing sheet music in a computer-readable format, as well as downloadable files. Software that can “read” scanned sheet music, called music optical character recognition (music OCR), has existed since 1991. Needless to say, this software created a completely new manner of dissemination for sheet music which, in this format, was referred to as virtual sheet music.
Further progress was made in 1998 when virtual sheet music became digital sheet music. The difference between the two is that digital sheet music, for the first time, allows copyrighted sheet music to be purchased via the internet. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, digital sheet music files can be manipulated and altered as their virtual and hardcopy counterparts never could. Such an attribute makes digital sheet music ideal for instrument changes, transposition, and even musical instrument digital interface, or “midi,” playback. Digital sheet music is the musical notation of the 21st century.
The popularity of digital sheet music has revitalized the sheet music industry, which has been languishing since the invention of the phonograph. Digital sheet music has even made inroads into professional orchestras, which are perhaps one of the most traditional remaining arenas of printed sheet music. In 1999, an electronic system for the coordination of orchestral music was invented by Harry Connick, Jr. This system uses a device with a screen to display the musicians’ sheet music. The advantages of not having to use traditional sheet music during a performance, when the rustle of paper can be very distracting, are easy to see. Other musicians and software engineers continue to experiment with the digital display of sheet music.
Digital sheet music has made musical notation available on a scale the likes of which its creators could never have dreamed. It is the future of sheet music, and no where is this more apparent than with the Mutopia project. Mutopia is a volunteer-run effort to create a library of free content digital sheet music, which is reproduced from old scores that are out of copyright. Although there are only about 1400 pieces of music available at present, this project is makes it easy to imagine that there will come a time in the foreseeable future when digital music libraries will be very, very extensive indeed.
By OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay