I’m an amateur opera and symphonic chorus singer. Most of the classical music and opera I perform is old. Not just pre-iPhone old, but usually well over a hundred years old. These works have outlived even the outrageously long copyright terms imposed on our culture by greedy commercial interests. They are clearly in the public domain; they have returned to the shared culture from which they grew.

But when I want to learn a new work, like Verdi’s opera Macbeth or Mozart’s Requiem, why do I find myself paying $24-$40 for a music score which probably cost $5 to print? Why does the book contain stern warnings not to photocopy the contents, even it is little more than a facsimile of a previous edition, which itself is in public domain?  It is because these music score products still cling to a pre-internet business model, based on selling “molecules” (the physical artifact of the book) for a price based on the value of the “bits” (the information or arrangement of notes we call the musical composition, plus the value of the editing, plus the value of the typesetting), and the costs of distributing and warehousing those molecules.

This shouldn’t be. The music itself — the bits, the abstract genius which is Beethoven’s or Mahler’s, not the later editorial changes, or the molecules on which the bits are printed — is in the public domain, so its cost is zero. Volunteers are willing to scan or transcribe old musical scores for free. So a digital file with a score ought to be accessible for the marginal cost of storage, duplication and delivery.  And in an era of cheap disks and high-speed internet, that marginal cost is zero.

Many classical music and opera scores are indeed available, free for the downloading. Below are links to some useful sites for the classical or opera musician to find them. But there’s more. In the digital world, scores should get better, too: more correct, easier to use, more customised. If a fraction of every chorus and orchestra pitched in to ratchet forward the quality of the free scores for music they perform, we could make a huge difference.

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