Arts and Entertainment | Music

Breaking Down Classical: Scores of Scores: Music Made Easy on the Web

As every musician knows, sheet music is extremely over-priced and sometimes hard to come by.

Even at Manhattan’s most famous music stores like Patelson’s Music House, a well-priced and well-stocked collection is hard to find. It is true that it’s possible to order music online or from store warehouses, but the order can take weeks to arrive.

Music libraries, such as the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, are an alternative, although for the most part they aren’t stocked very well and what they do have is in poor condition and often missing parts. University and conservatory libraries are exclusive. Where are we musicians supposed to get our music—cheaply, easily, and not in a decrepit state?

The answer is the International Music Score Library Project. The IMSLP, a public domain music score library, has been online since Feb. 16, 2006 and currently has 26,269 scores available to the public. The library consists mostly of scans of old editions out of copyright as well as the scores of contemporary composers. IMSLP has the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, George Frideric Handel and a large portion of Franz Liszt, among others.

IMSLP states its philosophy on its Web site: “We at the IMSLP believe that music should be something that is easily accessible for everyone. To this end, we have created the IMSLP in order to provide music scores free of charge to anyone who has internet access. IMSLP will always be freely accessible.” This simple declaration has larger implications: IMSLP allows anyone from professional musicians to amateurs to read music online, and gives classical music an opportunity to reach new people in new ways.

Listening to music, reading music, and listening to and reading music at the same time are three distinct things. Listening to music is a passive experience. Reading music can be very technical and requires a basic knowledge of theory. But listening to music and reading its notation simultaneously is a visual experience. Even if the person doesn’t understand what this chord is or why that accidental is there, watching the contours of the musical lines and experiencing the complexity of so many notes or the simplicity of so few inspires awe in the minds of anyone who even remotely appreciates music.

IMSLP makes classical music more accessible to the casual listener or musician. But on a higher level, perhaps it will one day contribute to a movement of making music—reading as common as reading a magazine or a book. The fact is that not everyone reads music, and the quality of music education in most public schools is dubious at best. The easier it is to obtain sheet music, the easier it will be to distribute it and educate with it.

Playing an instrument is not imperative in learning how to read music, although it certainly helps. IMSLP has the potential to transform the universal language of music into a commonly read language as well.

The Web site itself, based on the Wiki principle, is well organized and comprehensive. It has forums for discussion on copyright issues and musical analysis. Supplementary materials accompany more standard pieces. Several editions are included, even orchestral parts (in the case of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies, for example), as well as transcriptions for any number of pianos, scholarly analysis, and a recommended list of recordings.

Besides offering a huge score archive, IMSLP also has repertoire for solo instruments and chamber groups. I, for one, would much prefer to print out Camille Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Oboe and Piano from IMSLP and get it bound myself than pay at least $30 for a copy that I will end up writing all over anyway.

Of course, the Web site only has a select number of editions, and editions of earlier music from the baroque and classical eras can vary widely in articulation and ornamentation. Even so, IMSLP provides an economical alternative for more creative musicians and a chance for music reading to become a favorite pastime rather than an acquired skill.

Catherine Rice is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in music. Breaking Down Classical runs alternate Wednesdays.

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