On April 12, 2009, The New York Times reported on the closing of a small sheet music store a stone’s throw away from Carnegie Hall. For over six decades, Patelson’s had been a musical mecca for classical musicians who would browse through its musty stacks of sheet music bins and work up the courage to ask an indignant employee about the best edition for Chopin Etudes or the availability of an obscure work by Szymanowski. The passing of Patelsons highlighted the new realities of the digital age for retail sheet music. And with the powerful advent of tablet computers like the iPad, we are on the brink of seeing another transformation from online shopping and physical delivery of paper sheet music (a la Amazon Books) to downloads of digital versions directly into tablets and computers (a la Amazon Kindle).
More and more, the question of “how do I get sheet music into my digital reader?” will be answered by downloadable options from the Internet. Getting digital sheet music from the Internet is still a foray into the electronic “Wild Wild West” in many respects, and you’ll find viable commercial options as well as a staggering array of free ones from resources that range from legitimate to dubious. Before we go into a listing of sites and apps over the next few articles, it might be helpful to get a bird’s eye view of some general aspects of the types of sheet music files you’ll find available for download.
Static vs. Dynamic
PDFs created from scans of paper music are basically “static” files – in other words, you can read the music as it appears on the page, but you can’t modify the notes other than to draw digital ink markings or to type text on the page. For all intents and purposes, PDF files display music just like physical paper. You can’t transpose the music into a different key or change the size of the printed notes, other than by changing the zoom options or using a larger monitor.
Dynamic files, on the other hand, display music in formats that can be modified. Text files of lyrics can be edited to change the words, and the font properties can be altered to modify its size, style, and color. In some cases, chord symbols can be identified and transposed to any key on the fly. In the case of traditional music notation, not only can you transpose the music into any key, but (depending on the app) you can also hear the notes played back in a variety of tempi (speeds) and sometimes with different instrumentation for multi-part scores.
Portable vs. Proprietary
The universal nature of PDF and text files make them easy to migrate from computer to computer. That makes them extremely portable – great news for reading musicians, perhaps, but a commercial quandary for composers and publishers trying to make a living from selling sheet music. Proprietary formats are generally favored by commercial sheet music sources. They either provide a limited number of times that you can physically print the music you purchase, or they can be read in custom apps that can be used by licensed users, preventing them from copying and distributing their music beyond their own tablets and computers. Understandably, most free sites use portable file formats and most commercial sites use proprietary files and custom readers. We’ll take a look at resources for both types and discuss pro’s and con’s for each.