Should We Care About the Sheet Music We Play From?

In the days of yore (well, let’s say 20 years ago), when I wanted a piece of sheet music, I really had two options: either I went to a music shop and bought it, or I went to the library and borrowed it. We frequently went into Whitwams in Winchester where Stella, the lady who ran the sheet music department, would have either found the book or looked it up in the publisher’s catalogue on the microfiche reader (yes, this was really only 20 years ago!).

Nowadays, we’re not so lucky in respect of music shops, certainly outside of London, and libraries rarely have significant sheet music sections anymore. Despite this, we now have this thing called the internet, and like everything which is available online, the distribution of sheet music is both positive and negative.

Before you all switch off, this isn’t I blog post about illegal photocopying; most of you know my views on that. Increasingly, as a teacher, pupils present me with pieces of music which they’ve got off the internet. Quite often, they are downloaded from sites such as IMSLP, and are works which are perfectly legal and out of copyright. Generally, these are seen as ‘free’ copies (though unless you play from a tablet computer, you do pay for ink and paper). Overall, there are a lot of benefits to getting sheet music in this way, but we do need to be and encourage our pupils to be discerning about accessing editions in this way. Let me share with you two stories:

Firstly, I recommended to a pupil that she would enjoy one of the Liszt Short Pieces; it was available on IMSLP, she downloaded it, printed it, and brought it to the next lesson. We looked at it, then she took it away to learn. She brought it back he following week saying she’d had trouble with the rhythms; I found this quite surprising and asked her to play it. True enough, a relatively straightforward mixture of basic rhythmic patterns had been turned into a series of cross-rhythms and sounded like it might have come from the pen of Bartok.

It took me a while, but on closer inspiration, I discovered the problem: there were certain bars where the right hand was not aligned with the left hand making it look far more complicated than it actually was. This edition was one which had clearly been re- typeset and uploaded to the website for free download.

IMSLP website

Secondly, a pupil wished to play one of the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words. Again. a copy was found on IMSLP and printed off. This was a scan of an original publication rather than a version which had been re-typeset. In this case, the problem wasn’t with the notes themselves, but with the layout. What I have in my printed copy as five pages, had been condensed to three. It was small, cluttered and out of proportion; in this case, I suspect not only was the original edition larger than A4, but that in the scanning process, the aspect ratio had been changed.

As my pupils would tell you, I’m a dinosaur and haven’t yet been converted to these downloads; I still like to have the printed copy in front of me and a book to file in the shelves. Don’t get me wrong, there is much of use in a site such as IMSLP; I frequently use it to look up a piece to assess its suitability, sometimes before buying it.

What am I really saying in this blog post? I think it’s really to say be discerning when using sites like this. Free can so often be a false economy, not just in terms of cost but in terms of time too. In both the cases outlined above, the pupils went out to buy the books with the pieces in.