Toward a Definition of Sheet Music

By Elliker, Calvin | Notes, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Toward a Definition of Sheet Music


Elliker, Calvin, Notes


What is sheet music? This question posed more difficulties for MLA's Working Group on Sheet Music Cataloging Guidelines than perhaps any other raised during the four years the group existed. Ultimately, a universal answer to this question may be as elusive as one to such questions as "What is love?" or "What is music?" The difficulty in answering this type of question is, of course, that everyone has ideas of what these words and their underlying concepts mean, but defining them in terms with which all will agree is probably impossible.

The conditions for our contemporary concept of "sheet music" are similar in that the term has had various meanings in the past - as this essay will demonstrate - and we have been influenced by the accretions of these former meanings, as well as by contemporary thoughts and experiences. Nonetheless, a set of guidelines intended to facilitate cataloging a specific format logically ought to attempt to define what that format is and how one can recognize it. Since a universal definition seems unattainable, a heuristic one - intended for application within the confines of the guidelines - must suffice. One avenue toward developing this heuristic definition is to consider the composite term "sheet music" both as a whole and as its component parts, i.e., the individual words "sheet" and "music."

Chapter 5 of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second edition (AACR2) is entitled "Music," and its scope is "the description of published music."(1) Given the fact that "music" has so many meanings that do not pertain to published documents, why not simply use the term "score"? Perhaps because "score" is a technical term, whereas "music" is vernacular, simpler, and inclusive; it does not make distinctions, and may therefore be more easily understood by individuals without musical training. AACR2 uses the word "score" as well, but with the additional technical distinction that in order to qualify for this term, the notation in the document must present more than one part - a distinction that may be more difficult for the untrained to grasp, but one that must be useful in some way, or we would always speak of "music" and never of "scores."

In the case of "sheet music," "music" is modified by the word "sheet," a clear reference to the major physical attribute of this medium, the format of the paper on which the notation is printed. But this is an odd appellation, considering that virtually all published documents of music notation are printed on sheets of paper. Why did this rather curious terminology develop? The answer to this question has three interrelated aspects. The first derives from a need to distinguish among varying concepts of "music," the second from a need to differentiate among physical formats, and the third from a historical fact: despite many changes over time, the term was simply transferred from each declining format to each emerging one, thus adding layers of connotative - rather than denotative - meaning. These three aspects must figure in the development of a heuristic definition.

The etymological information in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) implies that "sheet music" originated in the United States, claiming the first written use of this phrase appeared in a newspaper printed in Lawrence, Kansas.(2) The 3 June 1857 Lawrence Republican carried an advertisement for a drug store that included "Periodicals, lithographs, sheet music, etc." among its sundries. The OED is mistaken in the case of the earliest written appearance of this term, however, though apparently not about the country in which it originated. The earliest occurrence of "sheet music" known to this author is an advertising circular printed in 1832 in Worcester, Massachusetts, promoting Aaron Leland's Umbrella and Music Store of that city and noting a supply of "sheet music, instruction books, &c, &c" for sale.(3) The following year, the Boston Transcript of 1 November 1833 reported that the music printer "Mr. …

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