Public Domain Music: Music you already own!

Guide to Free Sheet Music on the Web for Music Students & Teachers

Treble Clef

Many composers, Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven among them, have no living descendants and therefore their works have been bequeathed to the world, and to you. Why then are poor college students required to purchase volume after volume of expensive music scores for the purpose of learning a few pieces each semester? Surely not for the enlightenment of reading the editors’ introductions and comments (explanations which can be found elsewhere for less cost).

Thanks to the Internet, archives of public domain music are increasingly readily available to music students, teachers, and performers for the mere cost of paper and ink (plus the use of a computer). Some benefits of using public domain music are as follows:

  1. It saves money. A ream of paper will cost you less than most music books and usually contains more pages. An ink cartridge is also cheaper than most music books (I nearly purchased a $70 book of sonatas once) and you can save more money by refilling the ink yourself.
  2. This resource allows you to try out pieces without purchasing beforehand music that might not suit you.
  3. Music teachers that regularly use public domain music do not need to stock up books for resale or send students and parents on quixotic quests for a particular edition.
  4. Public domain music is useful for the study of music literature as it is easily collected and organized and can be studied directly off the computer screen.
  5. These scores are often early editions (very quaint in appearance) and may be useful for comparisons in research and analytical papers.

The following are a few tips on printing and organizing public domain music:

  • Select “scale to fit page” in print settings before printing.
  • Print music one-sided so that the pages can be spread out on a piano. Even if you do not intend to play it yourself, you may need an accompanist at some future time.
  • Have one folder containing only pieces being currently studied for the purpose of taking to your lessons. Pieces being considered can temporarily reside here.
  • Organize printed music into categories by instrument, style, or composer. Secure these groupings of music into manila folders by the use of brads or threading yarn or string through punched holes. This method allows the music to be read, reorganized, or taken out and prevents the chaotic accumulation of papers on, around, and under, your piano.
  • If your music has been wrinkled and trampled from being badly kept, we can tell you from personal experience that it is possible to restore damaged printouts by ironing with a flat iron (no steam) on a firm surface such as a table covered with a sheet. Ironing through a sheet of blank paper will ensure that you do not get ink on your iron.

Note About Copyright & Public Domain Works
Not all free music listed on the Internet is legally in the public domain. Countries have different copyright laws which determine the date range from which a work enters into public domain. I believe the general rule for most countries (United States and Europe) is 70 years for works produced before 1978, but Canada only has a 50 year rule. There is no universal copyright law and local laws must be respected. Copyrights may be renewed by the owners be they companies or individuals. A musical work can simultaneously exist in editions that are in the public domain as well as editions that are copyrighted.

List of Sites for Public Domain Music

Instrumental Sheet Music

  • Sheet Music Fox
    An extensive collection of free classical sheet music for almost all types of instruments and ensembles including sonatas, concertos, symphonies, etc. Some of the larger collections (for composers such as Mozart) spill over into Sheet Music Archive.
  • Sheet Music Archive
    This site allows 2 free downloads a day, or unlimited downloads for a yearly subscription fee of $19.95 per year. But with many other free sites available, there really isn’t much need to pay for public domain music.
  • Piano Public Domain
    As the title suggests, this is a collection of public domain classical music for piano. This site has both free and non-free music. The link above will take you to the free music. Other music is available at a small charge.
  • Werner Icking Music Archive
    Free sheet music for various instruments by an extensive list of composers.
  • (Site in German)
    Click on “Komponisten” for the directory of free music sorted by composers, “Kammermusik” (Chamber Music) for ensemble pieces, which consist mainly of piano and violin duos, but there are also a few trios. “Klavier” means Piano, and “Geige” means Violin. Click on the title of the piece you want, then either “pdf” to print it or “mp3” to hear how the piece sounds.
  • Mutopia
    A collection of music in the public domain which has been typeset by a team of volunteers. Currently holds 1,264 works by well-known composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, etc.

Vocal Sheet Music

  • Art Song Central
    Still a fairly new but growing collection of art songs and arias for vocalists. Freely available to singers and teachers to print in PDF format.
  • Choral Public Domain Library
    An extensive collection of vocal music in various arrangements for small or large ensembles. As of this writing, this collection holds 9,081 score pages and 1,292 composer pages. An invaluable resource for singers and choirs.

For Scholars of Music

  • Digital Scores Collection (Harvard University)
    This is a library of digital photographs of original or old scores in the hand of the composers or copyists. This collection has been available to Harvard students and scholars around the world.
  • Sibley Music Library (University of Rochester)
    Scans of various works by a large list of composers.
  • VARIATIONS Prototype: Online Music Scores (Indiana University)
    A collection of scans of opera, song, choral, chamber, orchestral, solo instrumental and piano literature.

The above are just a few of the sites where public domain sheet music can be found. Another good place for music resources is your public library where you can check out books and scores of classical and contemporary music (including songbooks of contemporary artists and soundtracks of films). However, scores you check out from the library, especially, contemporary volumes, are not likely to be in the public domain, so be sure to abide by the copyright laws. The library is a good way for you to try out or learn new music you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

For more information and links for public domain sheet music, we recommend visiting the following websites:

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2 thoughts on “Public Domain Music: Music you already own!”

  1. Great Blog! Really enjoyed some of the comments, found them useful, informative and even sometimes a little funny!

  2. Yes, this is a shameless plug, but I’m an elementary school band director that has personally written out dozens of the most well known public domain melodies and arranged them for beginning concert band instruments. If you have trouble finding something that is at or near your level of ability in the links in the article above consider checking out too.

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