A Brief History of Sheet Music

Even though it may sometimes feel like it, sheet music hasn’t been around forever. It has an origin, and what we see on our stands today looks quite a bit different than what our musical ancestors read from.  For some musicians, it’s so different it isn’t even written on paper anymore.

So, Where Did Sheet Music Come From?

Delphichymn Tablet
The second Greek Delphic hymn

Musical notation, which is really what sheet music is all about, has been around since before there were sheets to write it on. Paper had not yet been created, so composers were forced to go with their only option, tablets, as early as 2,000 BC. On some dated as early as 1,250 BC, musicologists have found detailed notations for the lyre, a small harp-like instrument commonly associated with the Greeks. While this is not “sheet music” as it would be seen today, it was the beginning of the sheet music we still use today.

Who Invented Modern Sheet Music?

Long before there were sheet music readers, the Greeks developed their own form of notation. They began in the 6th Century BC and continued through the 4th Century AD. Fragments of these, as well as a few complete compositions, have survived until today. Many of their compositions were written on fragile papyrus scrolls, so musicologists assume most have been destroyed over time. However, the few that survived show us that the Greeks’ musical notation system featured symbols written over the top of text which denotes specific sounds or notes.

What About Western Manuscript Notation?

gregorian chantIn the Western world, notation began to take a more definitive shape due to the Catholic Church’s desire for uniformity.  Melodies were written down on paper so they could be shared throughout the Church and the same chants could be sung by everyone who worshiped in a Catholic parish. During the Middle Ages, there was a great deal of music ‘published’ in this manner, sometimes in bound volumes, and many of these compositions still exist today, most notably Gregorian chants.  This image shows an excerpt of the 14th-15th Century Gregorian chant composition Graduale Aboense, a Mass for the Patron Saint of Finland, Bishop Henry.

The Printing Press Modernized Music

While the monks of the Roman Catholic church wouldn’t have had any iPad sheet music apps to sing from, the invention of the printing press significantly changed the way sheet music was produced.  The first machine-printed music appeared around 1473 but it wasn’t until about 100 years later when plate engraving, the etching of an image into a piece of metal used to create many copies at once, was applied to music duplication and paved the way for composers to distribute written music to a greater number of people. Finally, composers didn’t have to write copies by hand, which meant production on a larger scale and at a lower cost. While initially reserved primarily for court composers who had the means to print music, as time went on more and more musicians were able to learn to play and perform compositions because they could afford to purchase sheet music.

Sheet Music Continues to Evolve

That brings us to the present day.  Never has performing music been more accessible.  All it takes is a quick Google search to find countless pieces of music, much of it free.  While it is certainly still possible to buy paper sheet music, the trend today is toward a digital alternative. Whether you want to better organize your sheet music library, you’re looking to make your practice time more efficient with clean and legible notations, or you’re just sick and tired of having to reach up and turn pages by hand during complex performances, MusicFolio was designed with you in mind. If you’re looking for the best sheet music app for iPad, look no further.

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