Musical Notes by K-Mozart

Valley Performing Arts Center

The Revolution of Music Printing

July 13, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

Sheet MusicWe often think of music recording as bringing about a revolution in how music is consumed and appreciated. This is of course true. Imagine being able to freeze a single performance and listen to it thousands of times. It’s such a different experience than having to see music live or, if possible, play it yourself. All music lovers can appreciate the highlights of the recording evolution: the early days of recording on wax cylinders; the advent of vinyl; the digital innovations of recent decades; the advanced portability of music. What we don’t talk about as often—since it’s a bit removed from today’s average music lover—is the revolution brought about in Europe by music printing. It’s just as important an innovation in some ways, and it created the first musical product that could be mass-produced and sold.

It was in the mid-fifteenth century that the invention of movable type made the Gutenberg Bible possible. The first musical work printed using a similar process was a set of chants collected in 1465. Before this, music was copied out by hand in a long, painstaking process. The lion’s share of written music that existed in Europe in the pre-printing press centuries belonged to the Catholic Church. In addition to having a large collection of music that needed preserving, the church also had priests and monks who could dedicate their lives to the copying out of medieval manuscripts. These copies ranged from simple reproductions to illuminated manuscripts that contained miniature paintings, colorful and embellished first letters, and marginalia.

Because music printing also provides a history of contemporary music notation, it's interesting to note that the hand-written manuscripts of the medieval period, although small in number, allowed for the development and standardization of written notation. In the early days, the notation served a mnemonic function, merely reminding singers of a melody they likely already knew (using lines representing the melody that went up and down based on the tune). In order to indicate actual pitch, a four-line staff with movable clefs was devised, followed by the first attempts to notate rhythm. All of these early experiments in Western notation are preserved in manuscripts that were copied out by hand.

Although the vast majority of pre-printing press written music was for the Church, secular music existed of course, but much of it was not written down. There are some collections of secular music from the middle ages, but they are rare. One of the most important examples of a secular collection is the Florentine manuscript called the Squarcialupi Codex, which is a collection of music from the Italian Trecento (the fourteenth century). Like its sacred counterparts, it was compiled at a monastery. The title of the manuscript comes from its first owner, Antonio di Bartolomeo Squarcialupi, who was an organist. It stayed in the Squarcialupi family for a while, then passed to the Medici family, finally landing in the Biblioteca Palatina. It now resides in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

The first secular collection printed using the new fifteenth-century printing press technology was a collection of polyphonic compositions called Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, featuring the music of Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Isaac. The printer responsible for this collection (and the man who is credited with developing the first method of music printing) was a man named Ottaviano Petrucci. He was also a smart businessman. For two decades, he held a monopoly on music printing in Venice. His method was less time consuming than individual copies, but it was still quite labor intensive. It required each piece of paper to pass through the press three times; the first pass printed the staff lines, the second the words, and finally, the third time provided the notes themselves.

The second method for printing music was developed in about 1520 by an Englishman named John Rastell. His method was similar to Gutenberg’s movable type in that each note (with staff and word included) was a single piece of type. It was a quicker method, but not without problems. The staff lines didn’t always line up perfectly, but in the end this method was quicker and cheaper and dominated the new industry until the seventeenth century.

The next big step was the use of engraving. The process consisted of essentially hand copying a reverse version of each page onto a copper plate (using special tools to make the staves and other symbols), allowing acid to "bit" the plate, and then inking the plate. A similar process called Lithography was invented in 1796. It was similar to copper engraving, but used limestone instead of copper. The invention of the camera in the 1800s provided a new tool for music printing. In photolithography, one could transfer an image to a plate (stone or metal), which was then used for printing.

Another invention of the 1800s was the music typewriter. Instead of letters and punctuation, the keys had musical notes and symbols. The music typewriter allowed copyists to type music onto blank sheets of staff paper. The resulting manuscript page could then be photographed and transferred to a plate for photolithography. Music typewriters continued to be refined and altered for about a hundred years. The last one, an electronic version of the popular Musicwriter from 1946, the Musicwriter II emerged some time in the late 1980s. Like the regular typewriter, the Musicwriter II fell out of favor when computers became the dominant method for creating documents to print.

On a professional level, computers had been used to create musical scores since the 1960s. Early programs for music notation include Plaine and Easie Code and Digital Alternate Representation of Musical Scores, or DARMS. In the late 1970s, Armando dal Molin devised a computer for notation called the Musicomp. It had two keyboards—one for pitches and the other for symbols—and a small screen. It stored data on a small cassette tape, which was able to hold thirty pages of information. Desktop computers brought more music notation programs with varying degrees of ease and practicality. These days, there are two giants in the music notation world. Finale and Sibelius were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, and each has provided regular updates, adding features, and making each program more intuitive and easier to use. It is possible to enter notation in a note-by-note method and even to play an instrument and transfer your performance into written music.

Music printing and the technology of musical notation have come a long way since the mid-fifteenth century. Like so much of our lives now, music notation and the reproduction of written music has become digital, quick, and very easy. Although the nuances of notation that are available on Finale and Sibelius can take a long time to learn, basic writing can be learned in an afternoon. (Provided you already know how to read music!) Once the music is notated, printing it is as easy as a couple of keystrokes or clicks. And the truly amazing this is that these technologies are available to anyone with a computer and a printer. There are free notation programs in addition to the ones you can buy, and yes, there’s an app for that.

If you’re interested in further details about music printing, there’s an informative website that has pictures of all stages of this technology and goes over many of the early processes step by step. The invention of music printing caused a quiet revolution, one that changed the way people consumed music. It also made musical scores more readily available to students and scholars. Musicology as a discipline would not be possible without these developments. Music pedagogy too, would suffer without the quick and easy duplication of materials. As a student, scholar, and now as an educator, I am grateful for the revolution brought about by music printing. It has touched every aspect of Western music and made it more accessible to the larger world. Check out to learn more.



Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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