Publishing new sounds

Aged paper going brown, with sheet music hand written on it

Vintage sheet music ©

Some people can look at a piece of printed music and hear what it will sound like when it is played. Some can even read the printed score of a piece of music for orchestra and hear the music in their heads. But while some of us can recognise a familiar piece in its printed form, most of us can't hear a new sound unless it is performed for us.

When popular music first became a big business, in the second half of the 19th century - and before the arrival of record companies - its success was based on the many new songs being written by songwriters and sold as printed sheet music by music publishers. In order to make the public aware of these new songs and to increase their sheet music sales the publishers recognised that they had to get popular singers to perform them in the many music hall and vaudeville shows of the day. Having heard the new song, the reasoning went, the public would want to buy the music and hear it performed again (or perform it themselves), at home.

Often, persuading a singer to perform a new song became the specialised activity of someone known in the business as a song plugger. This turned out to be a hugely successful formula. When historians speak of a song such as 'After the Ball', by Charles K Harris (1892) as selling a million copies, the million is being measured in copies of the sheet music, each one enabling the sound it contained (in the coded form of music notation) to be heard in the home - long after it had ceased to be new.

During the 20th century, the part played by music publishers in enabling us to hear new sounds changed quite radically, as far as popular music was concerned. The previous system did not disappear, but it did have to adapt to a new environment. In most areas of popular music, publishers were no longer at the leading edge in purveying new sounds (although they normally owned their copyright - but that's another subject). Instead they acted as a kind of back-up resource to help performers recreate sounds that were no longer new. The main reason for the change was the spread of sound recording and the growth of record companies. Buying a new record was, in effect, buying the new sound itself, because you were also buying its performance. You no longer needed the object of printed music or the ability to be able to sing or play to help you hear the sound.

But publishers faced another difficulty, one they did not always acknowledge: the music notation on which they depended could not capture the sound on the records. If, as a youngster in the 1950s you had heard the latest new sound (let's say a record by Elvis Presley or Tommy Steele) and wanted to reproduce a performance yourself, you might well go out and buy the sheet music. It would give you the basic materials - the melody, simple accompaniment (usually for piano), chord changes for guitar - but there was no way that music could tell you how to sound like Presley or Steele. For that you had to listen again - and again - to the record. As the sound on popular records grew more elaborate, often involving the sophisticated use of studio techniques, the gap between a record and sheet music was often so large that no attempt was made to bridge it, and if sheet music was published it was in a stripped down version.

Despite these limitations popular sheet music continued to sell well for a large part of the 20th century and still sells today (though compilations of familiar songs are the best sellers). In the many types of popular music where songs are still dominant, a musician who hears a new sound and wants to recreate it can turn to the printed music as a starting point. More often, however, musicians rely on their ears - repeated listening to a recording, and playing 'by ear' - to achieve this purpose.