Free sheet music? Is there a catch? Is this for real?

Yes, there IS a free lunch, but there IS a catch!

I’ve been astounded by the amount of free sheet music available – it’s also called “open source” music. Heavens, I’ve even posgted some pieces for free over at www.MacMusicGuy.com.  So what are the advantages/disadvantages and parameters?

I am NOT referring to the legitimate and semi-legitimate websites out there that are offering a few pieces of sheet music, but the bulk of the site is devoted to selling sheet music. While a valid selling strategy, those sites are not the scope of this article.

There is an amazing amount of LEGAL sheet music available for download at sites that are dedicated to making the music available. These free sites seem to divide up into a few categories:

  1. Music that composers put out there for free
  2. Scans of public domain publications. In the US this is anything printed before 1923.
  3. Public domain music that someone has taken the time to typeset.
  4. Free samples that publishers put out.

 Let’s ignore #4 for this article. For the other three, what are the advantages / disadvantages?

#1 – Music that composers put online for free

Some of this music can be pretty good, while some is dreadful. You can find music for just about any combination of instruments, and by composers of all sorts of skill levels.

It is a bit gratifying to see people creating music and put it “out there” who have never composed before. You’ll see that situation quite a bit on the MuseScore website.

#2 – Scans of public domain publications.

This has been done by quite a few libraries, especially the US Library of Congress.  An advantage here is, again, breadth – you can find music by composers that Grove’s Dictionary barely mentions. Often, however, the scans are of music that is not quite clean (some of the scans look like the sheet music was 200 years old or more) – so that can reduce legibility if you are trying to play from a printout.

More often, though, the difficulty lies in decoding the old-style printing. Much of today’s printed music is FAR easier to read, a result of decades of effort in the printing industry.

#3 – Public domain music that someone has taken the time to typeset. 

 Again, an amazing breadth of material is available. Most of the scores I have seen have been of decent quality, but are variations in notation usability – i.e. some of the scores are easier to read because the submitter followed standard notation practices when setting the piece. All in all, though, this category is where I start when looking for a piece.

So what advantage is there in BUYING music now?
There are some SERIOUS advantages to buying sheet music produced using the traditional publication route. First is quality – the paper used, the printing, the ease of reading are all going to be superior to what you are likely to print on your inkjet or laser printer.

The editing – assuming it’s a quality edition – will also make it easier to play the music. Things like Finger numbers on piano music often gets left out of the public domain music because it is a royal pain to put in (though MUCH easier than it used to be!)

Then there’s the issue of supporting the music industry – especially your local music store. Let’s face it – the music industry is basically a “Mom & Pop” operation. There’s not a whole lot of depth – i.e. money in the bank!


Where is this stuff located?
Here are several sites I’ve been using:

Happy hunting!

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