Could the old tree-based technology and the new silicon-based technology actually coexist – or even help each other flourish? Photo (CC) Steve Wampler.

While talk of notation is in the air, it’s worth noting that sheet music has a chance to make a comeback in the digital age. After all, passive musical consumption seems to have already peaked some time in the now-past 20th Century. The desire for fans to be able to play the music they love is strong as ever, evidenced by the popularity of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero phenomenon. If you really wanted to be optimistic, you could interpret the downturn in recorded music as a positive trend back to live music and personal performance – the very musical trends that had been eclipsed by recording in the first place.

As with digital music downloads, the hope in digital sheet music is, naturally, being able to connect fans with the growing variety of music they might want to play. Brick and mortar stores where you can buy sheet music have already largely gone the way of the dodo. Here in New York, the big victim this spring is the storied classical music supply around the corner from Carnegie Hall: Joseph Patelson Music House has gone online-only. Music recording can count on some sort of transition to new formats; music publishing has to find a way to rise from the ashes of a business that’s had to deal with the invention of the Internet and records.


Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson is looking to couple successful online track downloads with on-demand sheet music. Photo courtesy Ingrid Michaelson.

Selling MP3s? Try Sheet Music, Too, Says TuneCore

Last week, the latest announcement on this frontier was a partnership between TuneCore and That brings together two real success stories in this arena. TuneCore is an affordable, flat-fee service that distributes music across different online stores (iTunes, eMusic, Amazon MP3); they’ve worked with everyone from indie artists to Areha Franklin, Beck, Bjork, and Cirque du Soleil (among others). Talk long tail: they release more music per day than any single major does in a year.

Musicnotes is interesting in that their catalog of on-demand online sheet music, topping about 100,000 titles, has been accelerating in sales – even as the economic recession takes its toll on the rest of the industry. They also boast 100,000 daily visitors to their site, thanks in part to partnerships with big-name publishers like Alfred, Faber, Disney, and Universal.

So, how do you bridge downloadable tracks with scores?

To start out with, TuneCore is skimming the top of their long tail and turning their work into scores. That means any artist starting this month with more than 25,000 track sales in the last 90 days will get at least one of those songs scored by a pro and available for download, adding score royalties to track royalties. Artists eligible include various artists who might not get sheet music published by a traditional publisher – especially given the overhead conventionally associated with that. (Names as varied as Ziggy Marley, Boxer Rebellion, and MGMT count as “eligible,” though it’s not clear who will take them up on the offer.)

At the time of the announcement last week, Gavin Mikhail, William Fitzsimmons and Ingrid Michaelson had signed up. Michaelson’s pop singer-songwriter hit “The Way I Am” is one you may have already heard; as pictured here, that hit will be among the first offerings via the partnership. (The fact that you may have heard this tune via radio play – even if it’s via a college station – suggests that the old model may transition more gradually to a new model than hyped-up Internet pundits may suggest.)


Ingrid Michaelson’s music, converted to on-demand online sheet music through the TuneCore – Musicnotes deal. Courtesy TuneCore.

The Online Notation Frontier

Notation has managed to survive centuries, so I suspect this could be just the beginning of a convergence in digital scoring. Since Sibelius announced a new release this morning, it’s worth noting that the company has long pushed online music with its Sibelius Scorch platform, which allows you to view and play scores as if you had a copy of the software used to create it. You can publish online directly from Sibelius’ software, and the platform is even used in sales. SheetMusicDirect (US site | worldwide) combines Scorch with a huge catalog of tunes. The company’s own Sibelius Music site, which can publish scores produced in Finale as well as Sibelius, just got a big update and has an active community. Some scores are free, but some are for sale – and anyone can open their own store.

In fact, given that, one question I have about the other stores is whether a dedicated sheet music score can have the success and brand loyalty an iTunes or even Amazon MP3 might, but we’ll see. (The other big question: will your Kindle soon display sheet music?)

Notation has some history. Photo (CC) Taro Yamamoto.

For its part, is happy to sell you tunes for Memorial Day or graduation, plus a free copy of Old Macdonald. (Yes, that’s the guy with the farm – that Old Macdonald.) Of course, Apple for their part seem to have dropped the ball on the whole idea; there’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that their GarageBand Lessons have been too few to make any real impact. But that shouldn’t stop other outlets from getting in on the act – and sells lessons alongside sheet music, a key ingredient for selling sheet mu
sic being the ability to read it.

All this change is not without some wrinkles, as noted by Iowa City New Musical Resources blogger Peter GiIlette:

Sheet Music on the Web: Trends and Trials

He notes, for instance, the irony of the Web Library of 17th Century Music forbidding commercial performance of their online scores – you know, they just want a cut of all the money you’re making on … um … 17th Century musical performance.

At the same time, it’s telling that even G. Schirmer is getting in on its own on-demand delivery system.

So, my question to you is not to debate this in theory, but ask:

Have you found useful ways to sell or freely disseminate your own scores?

Have you bought a score online?

Is there a score you would buy online if an artist made it available, or if there were better stores available?

I’m curious what practical implications there may be.

And incidentally, these lead sheets and such are great, but I would absolutely buy alternative and strange experimental notation from electronic artists if they chose to deliver it.

  • Electronic music scores?? Something akin to this perhaps?

  • Kassen

    Let's hope for the sake of those "pro" people that none of those songs will involve grains; it'd be rather easy to write a short song that would take tens of thousands of pages of notes to score.

    More amusing yet; one could easily write a program that would generate a song that would take a (average) lifetime to put into score for every person being born.

  • Well, I was just thinking about the Danger Mouse album and the idea of adding art / physical objects or even interactive objects to music. I could see all kinds of interesting stuff to do with music, electronic or acoustic, when it comes to scores, not just the traditional lead sheet.

  • This is very interesting news.

    I'm all for the promotion of live music, and welcome a return to live performance in addition to recorded music.

    As a classically trained singer and fledgling electronic artist, I sometimes struggle to find a common ground between traditional sheet music notation and an Ableton Live set.

    Traditional notation has contributed greatly to the preservation and continued performance of works throughout the ages, but what options exist for modern creators of music? Many times our works don't jive well with black dots on white paper, and our contemporary notations may very well not be accessible in a decade, let alone a century. Also, if something like a Max patch or Ableton Live set is the means of notation and performance, will these be distributed through the same venues as traditional manuscripts? Peter kind of touched on this in his last statement, and I hope others with more insight can offer something to the discussion.

  • The thought of a Kindled-up Real Book makes me dork-swoon.

  • Peter, it might be worth taking a look at noteflight

  • velocipede

    Digital scores of electronic music should include the version of the software, all the plug-ins and their settings, etc. Actually, a real digital score of modern electronica would ideally be all the software bundled up together, preferably in a format that can be played back even if the user only has demo versions. In the real world though, it is all going to be very hard to reconstruct.

  • Jake

    talking of electronic music etc have a look at black dice's 'scores' that are floating around the net as an example of why selling such scores would be problematic, how are you meant to interpret them? (as an aside apologies for the lack of links, I can't find any right now…) although I guess that maybe it'd be interesting to watch someone try and interpret them the problem lies in that unlike traditional sheet music their scores are written for specific instruments that aren't easily available and that don't conform to the traditional western scales that sheet is based around.

  • bliss

    Some musicians have created their own notation systems. Anthony Braxton is a good example. If standard notation systems are not appropriate for the music that you want to write, then you have to create new systems. If the intent is that other musicians will be able to perform your music, then written and/or visual representation is very helpful towards that end.

    Sometimes pitch, phrasing, and dynamics are not the most important things for a composer to communicate to performers. Sometimes prompts are more important — an idea that is very familiar with improvising musicians — and they can be represented visually and physically within the context of a written piece.

  • bliss

    Of course, I only wrote the long and dry version of what PK had already said. 😉

  • Thanks for the article and solid discussion, Peter! It's a new program we've started, and just where it will go has yet to be seen.

    When I think about the complexities of notation and the changing way music is made and enjoyed, I always think of DANCE scores–you know, those astoundingly simple yet complex diagrams that ballet uses to record choreography. If a system can be made for that, nothing we do in music can be that much more difficult, right?

    Thanks again. Feel free to write if you have questions.


  • New forms of notation have been bandied about since the mid 20th century with various levels of success. But electronic music notation has always been a pain.

    In the 70s, when I was in music school, we were working on some sort of standardized notation system for working with analog synthesis. Not much success there, as even the best patch diagrams or module specifications would yield different results depending on the hardware.

    It's great to see that people are thinking again about notation in it's various forms and how to keep music alive beyond it's audio recording.

  • Surely the closest thing to notation for electronic music is Midi? I mean, I know theres a lot of differences, but there are quite a lot of similarities between the two (alright, maybe not on a physical level, but in terms of what information they hold relevant to what will be reading the music).

  • Adrian Anders

    It would be nice if added MIDI as a file format option instead of paper scores. Electronic musicians looking to "cover" (i.e. remix) an existing song would get quite a bit more mileage from MIDI over having to painstakingly convert the score to a piano-roll sequence. In fact Musicnotes/TuneCore would make more money by selling both, giving the option to sell them separately or as a bundle to live musicians and/or studio/remix producers.

    This partnership a good step in the right direction, but it’s still far from where it needs to be for this kind of service. Until actual MIDI is available from a legit service like Musicnotes there will still be fan-run MIDI sites out there…with the quality, morality, and legality being somewhat in question.

    Here is another thought: Is the desire to protect the MIDI ringtone market preventing such MIDI file services from getting off the ground? Will this force cover artists & producers to use paper scores as a legal workaround for an artificially imposed hurdle put in place by the music industry? The music industry is still 5 years behind the curve (but at least it’s not a decade behind like a couple of years ago).

  • i want the latest xanopticon album as a music score sheet paper please..

    wait did i say paper? i meant book 😉

  • Kassen

    Perhaps most interesting to me in this is how the issues mentioned above may expose changes in what we considder musical.

    Last night, inspired by this, I experimented with composing pieces that were as simple as possible to notate (typically 10 or less lines of code) but that would be utterly impossible to put into traditional score format, while still being interesting to listen to (at least for me).

    I did this in ChucK (I do all of my music in ChucK, these days), but in the light of some of the remarks above it's probably worthwhile to point out that CSound has always taken care to stay backwards compattible. Pieces written in CSound decades ago can still be rendered now and should sound the exact same.

    I feel this is a non-trivial point; not just compared to using a Ableton Live file with a gazillion plugins that may or may not work a few decades from now but also compared to scores by baroque and classical era composers where we aren't at all sure of the exact intentions in all cases. Renditions of such pieces may vary in ways that we might call a entirely different piece if such changes were made to a minimal techno track; the exact things that make a techno track unique and interesting are the things that staff-based scores seem unable to properly convey.

  • James

    I think this is wonderful for people who generally write for large ensembles, and who are mostly unknown because large ensembles don't like to take risks on new composers.

    Now maybe some new music of our time can come to these orchestras who continue to play only music that was considered great from the past (as much as i love all of that).

    That is why I'm excited about this.

    and to add to the other conversation about electronic music scores. Having to interpret the composers vision is half the fun. Every performer comes out with their own version of the piece. Obviously a little notes section can go a long way to describe the types of effects and sounds they are after…

  • A number of jazz labels are starting to offer this – the option to buy leadsheets to all the songs with a CD. <a>Greenleaf Music has been doing this for awhile.

    Not sure how applicable this is for other types of music. It'll be interesting to see where it goes.

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  • David Cake has this horrible system where instead of getting a straight digital file, they attempt to enforce you being able to print the file exactly once (and actually tell you that if there was a problem with your printer and it didn't work, you have to buy it again). Actually, it seems they have learnt nothing from the whole music industry struggle with DRM, and we have to have the same stupid debate again every time, with each new company having to learn again that treating your customers convenience as a priority is a much better idea than assuming they are all thieves.

    One use of this system, and I never want to use it again, and I now pretty much loathe *sigh*

  • I've been distributing my works (large and small jazz ensemble, sax quartet, etc.) as PDFs for a few years now.
    I don't have a completely automated online store yet, but do accept payments via PayPal, after which I immediately email parts and scores to customers.
    They're thrilled in part because they never worry about the consequences of a student losing the 3rd Trombone part, for instance. They also appreciate the immediate-ness of receiving the product digitally. And I like the fact that I receive 100% of salewin-win as far as I can see, and the best is yet to come, I believe.
    shamelessly: my website

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  • David (Cake), we understand your frustration, but you should know that it is not in our company policy to ever force a customer to "re-purchase" a file if they have a printer error. We encourage you to call our customer service department to rectify this situation at your earliest convenience. (Link to customer service department) We value your feedback and hope that you do not think unkindly of us for this misunderstanding. Best wishes on your music,

  • Nathan

    @ gbsr

    I too would love to see a Xanopticon track transcribed to sheet music – with as many sounds as he uses in one second of music, that sheet would quickly become a book as you stated. 🙂 Xanopticon would be a close second to my personal favorite, Venetian Snares. I don't know how either of them begin to create what they do.

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