Think for a moment how difficult it was for early printers to produce sheet music. If they were printing a book and a letter didn't line up with other letters in a word, the word was usually still readable, but if they were printing music and a note didn't line up precisely with the musical staff, it would become a different note.
In 1501, the Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci published Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, the first book of sheet music printed from movable type that included 96 pieces. "Petrucci's printing method produced clean, readable, elegant music, but it was a long, difficult process that required three separate passes through the printing press," according to the Wikipedia entry for sheet music. "Petrucci later developed a process which required only two passes through the press, but was still taxing since each pass required very precise alignment in order for the result to be legible."
Despite the early difficulties, printing technology had a profound effect on the musical world. Sheet music could be distributed more widely, more quickly, more efficiently, and at a lower cost than ever before. Today, digital technology is amplifying the effect. Several Web sites are developing vast collections of sheet music that let musicians worldwide quickly and easily find and print the music they need at a low or no cost.
Virtual Stores Offer Instant Access
If you want to buy sheet music and have it delivered to you via snail mail, you can shop at an online store such as Sheet Music Plus (www .sheetmusicplus.com). With more than 411,000 individual songs, songbooks, scores, tablature, method books, and collections of sheet music on CD-ROM, the site claims to offer the world's largest selection.
If you want to print sheet music instantly and directly from your computer, you may want to visit Sheetmusicdirect.com, SheetMusicScore.com, or Musicnotes.com. All three sites let you print sheet music from your computer through a free Web browser plug-in called Scorch, which is produced by Sibelius.
Scorch lets you not only view and print officially licensed sheet music, but it also lets you transpose the music to a different key or change the instrumentation. (Sibelius also offers music-notation software, and the company runs a site of its own-SibeliusMusic.com-that lets you self-publish your own music online.)
Musicnotes.com also offers its own browser plug-in. Another site, FreeHandMusic.com, uses a music viewer called Solero, which also lets you transpose music to a different key or clef, but it's available only for PC viewers at the time of this writing.
If you find that the various plug-in requirements are a hassle, Sheet-MusicScore.com is now reportedly working on a new viewer that will instantly display sheet music using Flash technology, so you won't have to download and install software.
If you want to download digital sheet music as well as take a collection of it to your rehearsals or gigs, you may be interested in MusicPad Pro, a tablet-sized sheet music viewer available from Free-HandMusic.com. You can download or scan sheet music into it. The device even lets you make notes on your scores and use the look-ahead feature to avoid missing a measure when you have to turn a page.
As the name suggests, MusicPad Pro is marketed primarily to professional musicians for about $900. A $50 accessory pack provides additional features such as wireless networking, a metronome, a pitch pipe, and an audio player for MP3 files.
Free Sites Offer Classical Collections
The previously mentioned sites offer sheet music for a range of instruments, skill levels, and musical styles, including pop, jazz, blues, standards, show tunes, wedding music, holiday music, country, and classical.
If you're a classical musician, you may be able to avoid the browser plug-in hassle for some sheet music by downloading PDFs from Virtual Sheet Music (www. …