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Center for American Music digital collections: Digital Sheet Music

Digital items held by the Center for American Music

About Sheet Music

"Sheet music" refers to an unbound printed musical score. The term is usually reserved for relatively short pieces of music, such as songs, solo piano pieces, or chamber music.

By the early nineteenth century, sheet-music publishing was firmly established in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York, and over the following decades publishers appeared in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and other major cities. Initially music was printed with engraved plates, but in the 1820s music began to be published using the lithographic process. By the 1840s a complex network of songwriters, publishers, music stores, and consumers had emerged in the United States, and the sheet-music industry began to take off. This was aided by the reduced cost of publishing materials, especially paper, which allowed the more expensive and labor-intensive process of lithography to begin to replace engraving as the preferred printing method. After the Civil War chromolithography, through which publishers printed in color, became increasingly common. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, American publishers issued both popular and classical music. By the end of the century, however, popular music publishing became centered in New York, particularly on 28th Street in Manhattan, where firms such as T. B. Harms and M. Witmark & Sons established themselves. 28th Street and the music published there came to be known as Tin Pan Alley. Non–Tin Pan Alley firms, including Ditson and Schirmer, continued to publish classical music.

[Insert a sentence or two about cover art?] The price of sheet music is typically noted on the cover. In the nineteenth century this was often indicated in dimes; thus an indication of 2 1/2 means the piece cost twenty-five cents. After the Civil War publishers increasingly printed advertisements on the otherwise blank pages of music. By the end of the century lists of songs with melodies or entire pages reproduced for the user to "try over on your piano" became standard. Companies even issued series of sheet music to help advertise their products, notably the Emerson Drug Company's promotion of Bromo-Seltzer. During World War I publishers even promoted the war effort by using the margins of the music for such slogans as "Food will win the war, don't waste it."

Identifying the date of publication for music published before the Civil War is sometimes difficult. There has been considerable bibliographic research in the printing and publishing of American music in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but little bibliographic data is available about the publications from 1825 to 1865. Most of the Center for American Music's digitized sheet music bears some kind of copyright statement, but the statements were not universal in the period before the enactment of the first US copyright law in 1871. Moreover, because most of the music was engraved on plates, the publishers kept the plates in storage for long periods of time, printed new copies as they ran out of stock, and even sold their plates to other publishers. Thus the copyright information on plates was often obsolete. The plate number can sometimes be used to identify the approximate date of publication, but that depends on how much is known about the work of particular engravers or publishers.

Much nineteenth-century sheet music was bound together into volumes by owners, sometimes with ornate, personalized covers and marbled endpapers. Collecting loose sheaves of music into a bound volume gave the music greater permanency and personal value. Not only were bound volumes used in music-making in the parlor, they also became objects for display. Symbols of status and taste, a piano and sheet music were ubiquitous fixtures of most middle- and upper-class American parlors.

Although the Center for American Music contains published scores from a wide variety of composers, the digitized sheet music that is included here is solely the work of Stephen Foster, including arrangements of his songs. We have included every edition of each song that we hold, as well as variants of those editions, up through the 1930s. In addition to US publications, foreign publications are also included. 



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The period after the Civil War saw a great increase in music publishing activity. [I don't think any of our sheet music uses the stereotype process, but I could be wrong. Cut the following sentence?] The stereotype process allowed publishers to issue huge numbers of music for mass consumption. In his article, "Publishing and printing of music" in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, D. W. Krummel suggests that this period could be called the "age of parlor music."

Significant numbers of sheet music continued to be issued in the twentieth century, centering around the area of Manhattan known as "Tin pan alley." The sheer number of "hits" emanating from publishers such as Leo Feist, T. B. Harms, Irving Berlin, Shapiro & Bernstein, Von Tilzer and M. Witmark is remarkable. Sheet music became so popular that it was even issued as supplements to newspapers.


Sheet music