Printing & Publishing of Music

A Short History & How it is Done

For nearly five years now we at Parlor Songs have brought you hundreds of covers and scores of American popular songs from the 1700's to the mid 20th century. We have seen the evolution of music and the artwork that accompanies these wonderful musical treasures from the past. With those songs we have also been witness to the process of publication of music and the covers. We have seen music evolve from sometimes simple engravings, woodcut prints to complex five color lithography. Though the history of the printed word is relatively commonly known, the history of printed music is less known. Of course, there are parallels that are shared by both printed text and music, there are also additional complexities that accompany the publication of music that make for a challenge in the printing industry that text printing does not present. Consider this; to print text (only), the producer must be prepared to have "type" set for 26 letters of the alphabet (with caps), numbers, italics and numerous punctuators. At best somewhere around 100 - 200 characters to be used. Of course, that excludes various type faces which are optional. The printing of music uses more complex symbols and many more of them. In the 19th century, the printer V.J. Figgins of London had already catalogued 460 separate symbols and elements, most of which are variable. The variability comes with, for example the length of a "hairpin" a trill or other performance and technique symbols. Just like text, different type faces and sizes can create an incredibly complex inventory of symbols to be used. Of course, this all pales in comparison to the printing symbols required for some Asian languages, but that is another story best left to someone in Asia to tell. It is not our intent here to tell the entire story of music publishing, that would probably take an entire book, or more. Rather, we want to provide you with an overview of the significant developments that culminated in the incredibly rich and clear covers and scores of American popular music during its golden years from around 1890 - 1920.

For perspective, we need to go back to before the printing press, to the times when music notation was ill defined and when committing a work to paper meant manual scribing of the notes and hand decoration of the score. Illuminated (decorated, illustrated) manuscripts were commonly seen in 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Often attributed to monastic scriptoriums, texts were carefully hand drawn and laboriously scribed. This page from a gradual, published in 1312 is an example of a work done by hand. Certainly, this process resulted in fantastically beautiful results but it was definitely impractical for mass production and circulation. In most cases however, music was "published" as a part of the oral history and passed on by priests or performers. In other words, it was not published but simply remembered and passed on from church to church or performer to performer. By the late 15th century, printing became the most common way of producing literature and educational texts but music continued to be circulated through hand written manuscripts. Part of this related to the fact that no clear and uniform notation systems evolved until much later, but the main obstacle was the complexity of printing music and the need for technical solutions that had not yet been found. Interestingly, though technical solutions emerged over the centuries, some of the most prominent music publishers in Europe such as Foucault in France and Brietkopf in Leipzig were still preparing manuscripts manually as late as the start of the 19th century.. According to the New Grove (see our resources page for a complete bibliography for this and all articles on our site), the first music in a printed volume appeared in the Codex spalmorum, in 1457. Interestingly, the text was printed leaving space for the music which was then added manually in manuscript form in each copy!

By 1473, it seems some technical problems were overcome and the first fully printed music appeared in the Constance Gradual printed probably in 1473 in Germany. In 1476 Ulrich Hahn printed the Missale secundum consuetudinem curie romane, and claimed to be the first to print music. Hahn's methods were copied and soon missals and graduals were sprouting up all over Europe and later by 1500, in England. The technical breakthrough? Woodcut printing. This method, a distant relative and precursor of lithography allowed printers to create complex images such as music which required variable spatial placement of images and symbols. A woodcut is simply a carved block of wood where the characters to be printed are left higher than the surrounding wood. Though simple in concept, the skills required for a quality woodcut are not to be assumed to be simple. It requires an artist's skills, and the ability to imagine everything backwards as the block must be a mirror image of the printed page. The examples shown at right are from 1487 and 1516. That on the right shows a very high level of artistic accomplishment as the woodcutter has included a quite detailed illustration.

As the text printing industry progressed, so too did music printing. The next major step was the use of moveable type. Of course we know that the completion of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455 using moveable type ( it took three years to complete printing of 200 copies!) marked the turning point in making printing of text a commercially viable process. The use of moveable type for printing music however yielded less that satisfactory results in the early years and at least in the US, freehand music engraving (see below) was favored from around 1698 till the late 1700's. European printers on the other hand, spent significant time and energy in the refinement of music typesetting such that by the late 1700's American printers were able to import excellent font sets from the Caslon foundry in London. Brietkopf in Germany also developed a very smooth and detailed type system in 1754 that resulted in high quality printed scores. The difficulties of integrating note and other forms with the staff lines, often resulted in a two or three part printing process. The sheet would first be printed with the staff lines, then a second pass would add the notes and other notation. Of course this required near perfect alignment on each pass and sometimes, multi-pass printed music came out looking rather odd. By the 19th century, type systems reached their maximum complexity through a method called "mosaic" type. Expensive and complex, it took a great deal of effort to refine the mosaic system but even though several resulted in satisfactory results, it was Brietkopf's mosaic system that ultimately became the standard. Of course, type was completely useless for creating the beautiful covers for sheet music, for that we have to turn to engraving and lithography.

Engraving is nothing more than the further development of the woodcut process where the images to be printed are cut from or impressed on some matrix, usually copper plates. Requiring great care and artistic ability, engraving allowed for the addition of decoration and of course sheet music covers. The process of engraving has changed little over the centuries. The basic process for music involves cutting the staff lines onto the plate then either freehand cutting of the images or use of punches for note heads and other standard image elements. A very exacting process requiring great skill and a steady hand, engraving can produce images of extremely high quality and detail. Take for example the detail on bank notes or stock certificates, they are produced using the engraving process. I can only imagine the skill and nerve required. Image spending hours on a detailed engraving and then having an errant sneeze or friendly slap on the back ruin your work!

The engraving process is what allowed the music business to package the music in a way that would attract the buyer and sell music. Though sheet music has always been a showcase for incredible artistic talent, the bottom line is that the cover is there to sell the product. As such, sheet music and particularly popular music, began to display engraved covers that were artistic and interesting. We have seen many examples of mid to late 19th century engraved covers on ParlorSongs, especially in our January, 2000 issue on the "Dead Zone" of American music. Visit that issue to see a number of engraved sheet music covers such as the detailed cover of the Innocence March from 1877. Though engraving could certainly produce excellent and detailed images, something more was needed to produce multicolorcover images. Though in many cases, during the 19th century engraved prints were often colored by hand painting certain details (an example from our collection is the Leslie Polka from 1864, shown in more detail in our essay on collecting sheet music. The breakthrough needed was lithography, first used to print music in 1796 and refined through photolithography into the mid and later 19th century.

Lithography is literally the use of stone ( lith ). The Oxford English dictionary defines it as:

"the art or process of making a drawing, design or writing on a special kind of stone so that impressions in ink can be taken from it."

The practice is based on the principle that one greasy substance will receive another but that any greasy substance will repel water. The inventor of lithography was Alois Senefelder. Aspiring to be a playwright, he could not afford to publish through the commercial trade and as a consequence, took up the study of printing methods. He concluded that copper plate etching was the most promising technique but for some reason began experimenting with a piece of limestone. He found that he could produce a more distinct image on the limestone. He used his own inks made from wax, soap and lampblack and hit upon the idea of etching the stone with nitric acid. After trying the acid, he found that it left a nicely elevated image perfect for printing. Having seen a poorly printed music in a prayer book, Senefelder thought that his process might be valuable in printing music. A friend, Franz Gleissner was a composer and Senefelder experimented with printing Gleissner's works. The first lithograph of music was Gleissner's Feldmarsch der Churpfalzbayer Truppen in 1796. The photo at right is of one of Senefelder's original stones used to print some of Gleissner's music.

Eventually, workers fully understood the chemical nature of the process. Designs were drawn or painted with greasy inks onto a special kind of water-absorbing limestone. The non-image areas were treated with gum arabic and well moistened with water, after which ink was applied with a roller. The oily ink adhered only to the greasy image area and was repelled by the water-saturated non-image area. The image was then printed with a special press in which a scraper bar was drawn across a sheet of paper laid over the inked-up stone. Lithographic stones were heavy, cumbersome, difficult to align (the differing colors had to be printed one at a time over the previous image), and liable to breakage.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, color lithography - or chromolithography, as it came to be known - was the process of choice for a number of ambitious projects. For example, between 1851 and 1853 in London, a massive publication was underway, namely, Digby Wyatt's The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century at the Great Exhibition. It contained 160 illustrations printed by chromolithography, and each one used at least seven colors. According to the preface, 1,300 copies were printed at a rate of about 18,000 impressions per week, for a total of 1,350,500 impressions in all. After each impression, or "pull," the lithographic stone had to be cleaned and the register reestablished for the next sheet. 1,069 stones were required, together weighing 25 tons. The paper alone weighed 17,400 pounds. "With 1,069 stones," said the color printing historian Courtney Lewis, "the place must have looked like a dismantled cemetery." No wonder, as then practiced, chromolithography waned." But not for a long while. Over the next forty years, chromolithography steadily outpaced its rivals until, one day, it too was replaced. At its height, however, and in the proper hands, the process was capable of exquisite results.

Though lithography had at last produced sharp images, it was the combination of the newly emerging technology of photography combined with lithography that allowed lithography to become the standard for producing high quality and multi colored prints in mass quantity. Rather than having to hand scribe a plate or stone a photo could be taken of a drawn image and converted to light sensitized stone. Experimentation for photo lithography began as early as 1839 and by 1860, the process had been perfected with use of zinc plates rather than rocks as the medium. Zinc was cheaper and lighter than limestone and could be curved around a cylinder, if necessary.

When producing cover art, the original painting or image is separated into either a three color "RGB" (Red, Green, Blue) set of plates or a four color "CMYK" (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, & Black). Higher quality, vivid prints such as those on E.T. Paull works were often five color or even seven color separations. Of course, many covers used only twocolors or three colors (RGB) such as the one at the right from 1930 and some, like the E.T. Paull covers featured in our July, 2001 feature, used five or even seven color separations. Obviously, the more separations, the more expensive the cover. The separate plates are inked with the appropriate color and each image is printed over the other till the all the colors combine to make the final image. This process does require accuracy, the plates all must be carefully aligned, otherwise the image becomes blurred and messy. I'm sure we have all seen the occasional newspaper ad where the image looks like a bad 3-D movie without the glasses; that is the result of litho plates being out of register. Usually, the bad ones are rejected but sometimes they get into circulation and we have a few in our collection.

Of course not all sheet music covers use multi color lithography, lower priced, mass produced sheet covers were often published using simple typeset title covers. Covers such as this Victor Herbert work from 1915 abound and though they are not as valuable as the more vividly illustrated covers we usually feature, they did serve the purpose of getting popular music distributed at a more affordable price.

Interestingly, as photo chromolithography improved and was refined into the twentieth century, the quality of sheet music covers declined. Covers began to retreat to earlier simpler covers and artwork, in most cases, became less important. I am sure much of this had to do with costs and profitability. After all, why pay an artist to complete a beautiful cover when a simple photo and typeset title will do? As the century progressed, the age of beautiful covers faded away. Though there are still many avid collectors of the covers from the 40's, 50's and 60's, we still find our greatest interest and fascination with the covers from the earlier years when art ruled the sheet music cover and printing technology was used to create vivid and striking covers that sold the music and in some respects, outperformed much of it.

Parlor Songs is an educational website about American popular music and the history of the genre

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