The harmony of digital music
Orchestre Nouveau conductor Zach Tay leafs through a score of a Haydn horn concerto obtained through the Internet Music Score Library Project. Photo: Craig Abraham
MUSIC is conveyed to us in lots of ways in a digital world, but for the musicians it all begins with the little black dots on paper. Music has a pulse of its own, and these dots and squiggles are moving through their own graceful and melodic revolution.
Singer-songwriter Missy Higgins is part of the revolution, releasing her new album simultaneously on CD, iTunes and as printed sheet music through publisher Hal Leonard. Meantime, British singer-songwriter Adele, who as a hit-maker trumped the US and European song-production factories that churn out material for Katy Perry, Beyonce, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson and their ilk to win several Grammy awards with her own booming love songs, is perhaps the most downloaded singer-songwriter of the year - for her sheet music, as well as her recordings.
Musicians will always want to scribble and annotate on paper.
A century ago and through the early decades of the 20th century, hit charts did not mean just record sales or radio airplay. Home entertainment was big business, and the backbone was the home piano - or organ, or even the guitar.
Adele with a swag of Grammys. Photo: AP
Before records and, later, cassette tapes and CDs dominated the scene, music stores employed music ''pluggers'' to play and sing the latest offerings from the big US sheet-music publishers based in lower Manhattan, in a district known as Tin Pan Alley, to win over potential buyers. The Judy Garland movie In the Good Old Summertime is the perfect evocation of those days.
Music stores were not the only sales point. In the US and Australia, too, the big sheet-music publishers such as Chappell and Alberts would employ pianists and singers to go to ballrooms, hotels and anywhere music was played to plug the latest songs, building up sales in the days when just about every home created music of some sort.
This was also a time when every choir, ballet school or dance academy would employ pianists to accompany the dancers as they learnt their steps or performed. Recorded music all but wiped out this group of performers and their demand for sheet music, but professional ballet and opera companies and producers of Broadway-style musicals still rely on those little black notes and the remarkable people who can decipher them.
So while sheet music might no longer be the dominant force it was, much live music-making is still dependent on the printed page. However, delivery methods are changing and the internet is supplementing those traditional music publishers and stores.
There are dozens of online sheet-music suppliers, most based in the US, as the sheet-music publishing industry was from the 1890s.
One company leading the way is OnlineSheetMusic.com from the US, with its affiliate program for retailers, Sheet Music Now. OnlineSheetMusic and Sheet Music Now have a library of about 140,000 digital sheet-music titles available for instant downloading and printing. Songs for every genre and instrument are available.
This was the first company to launch a worldwide interactive sheet-music system, and its director, Hal Morton, boasts that its launch, in 1997, was five years before iTunes revolutionised recorded-music sales online.
But forget Tin Pan Alley. Control of print music shifted long ago from New York to California, and OnlineSheetMusic is headquartered in Los Altos about 14 kilometres from Cupertino, where Apple is based.
Visiting the website is a fascinating experience. Piano-vocal-chords arrangements sell for $US4.95 ($4.80) and lead sheets for $US1.95. I visited the site to familiarise myself and found it a breeze to download and print a piece of music using their free sample offerings, choosing a composition by recent Medal of Freedom winner Bob Dylan.
I took an amateur's viewing. Actual buyers of a product can use either ''Instant Print'' for a complete piece of sheet music or download the Online Sheet Music Viewer, which allows you to transpose certain pieces by key, instrument, clef or interval, and print from there. That's everything a professional would need.
And in the digital world, what are the big sellers? The results are surprising, with British sensation Adele rubbing shoulders with Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin - and with a surprising predominance of religious-themed songs, reflecting American obsessions.
That is the commercial face of downloading. But there are other sites whose creators believe in the freedom of music. Young Harvard Law School student and composer Edward Guo is working assiduously to bring the world of classical music to the masses through his Canadian-based Internet Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), which you can reach via the website imslp.org.
His project is making more than 100,000 scores available, from Wagner to Stravinsky, and the service is proving a boon to many, especially to members of amateur orchestras. There have been some legal issues with copyright holders, though being based in Canada, where copyright lasts only 50 years instead of our 70, does give him some protection. The site has closed three times because of legal issues, but has arisen each time: a musical phoenix. Guo says the world of music must come to terms with technological change.
Here in Melbourne, Zach Tay, director and conductor of local orchestra Orchestre Nouveau, found out a couple of months ago just how useful IMSLP was, when he found there were no sources for an arrangement he needed of the Haydn Horn Concerto No. 1 in D for horn, strings and two oboes.
He checked out IMSLP, where he finds most of the scores for non-copyright concert music, but there was nothing there. So he posted a notice on a web forum hosted by IMSLP. Within two days he had a response from a musician who had the physical printed score. Showing true musician's camaraderie, this musician transcribed to his computer all the parts from the score and sent them in PDF form to Tay. Concert saved, courtesy of IMSLP.
''That's what musicians do for each other,'' Tay says. ''We couldn't pay for that sort of effort.''
The online experience is leaving some room for the retailer. Many buyers of sheet music make their purchase after visiting a dedicated music store or instrument showroom, and here the burgeoning internet business lets stores create an account and instantly buy and print sheet music on customer demand.
Sheet Music Now lets music stores have access to 140,000 titles ready for instant sale, without the need for inventory or even sheet-music racks.
Diligent scourers of the web can find free and often illegal download sites for sheet music, or even digital files to output not onto paper but to computer tablets . But the legal publishers aren't overly worried by the piracy, which they see as analogous to the old ''fake'' sheets of popular songs that used to be circulated in loose-leaf books for musicians to improvise around.
Online Sheet Music says that while a digital version of sheet music might be useful for someone such as a school's bandleader who has to travel a circuit, most professionals want to stick to the conventional paper product, even if it becomes increasingly digitally delivered. Musicians will always want to scribble and annotate on that paper. And the digital retailer has found that people who illegally download a single song become prime candidates for the legal purchase of a complete printed songbook.
Renowned french horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell is technologically alert, but simply cannot imagine doing without old-fashioned paper as he teaches and takes part in international masterclasses and seminars. He agrees that while the revolution is here, past practices can't be dropped easily.
This is the sort of digital revolution that enriches the future while respecting the heritage of the past.
Would that all the digital revolutions we're living through be so harmonious.