A chorus that uses, for rehearsal and performance, the 5-century-old technology of printed music scores, will encounter pain points. Printed scores are expensive and difficult to stock and manage. Singers can find it hard to understand where in a score a director is, especially when members use different editions. Scores have mistakes to correct, details to tailor for a specific for performance, which are hard to communicate to each singer. And more. The coming public-domain digital music scores offer help for some of these pain points. Yet the printed scores have strengths, built by 5 centuries of music practice, which digital music scores will be hard put to match.

I have been an amateur singer for most of my life, in choirs, large choruses, and community opera companies. Almost all the performance was from music scores (whether read or memorised). My passion for public-domain digital music scores stems in part from this experience.

The first pain point of scores is that they are expensive inventory. A 100 member chorus must procure enough copies of each score for every singer to have one, plus the director, plus the accompanist or band. Usually these scores are commercial products of publishers, and the chorus must buy from a retailer, or rent from another chorus. Because the scores are low-volume products (compared to mass-market paperbacks), their price is far above the cost of paper and ink; it includes the publisher’s own substantial inventory and distribution costs, plus a profit margin. Choruses have been known to photocopy scores, even those under copyright. But copies cost money too, and cost time to do the job. On top of the acquisition cost, typically a chorus needs a librarian who manages this inventory. The librarian needs to hand out scores at the start of rehearsal for a work, collect them after the performance, clean out annotations, and track them. The chorus also needs storage space for box after box of music scores. Even volunteer labour and space have a cost, whether or not it is in cash.

One response to the difficulty and expense of procuring enough scores is to scrounge from multiple sources: renting a few here, buying on discount there. A chorus can also encourage members to buy their own copy of the score, or use one they already have. Which leads to a second problem: differences between editions, causing confusion in rehearsal when reconciling them. Consider something as simple as knowing where in the score to turn to during a rehearsal.  Different editions frequently have different page breaks.

During rehearsals for certain operas, where some of the musicians used a Ricordi edition, and some a Schirmer, it was common to hear a stumble like: “Let’s start on page 43 in Schirmer.” “What page is that in Ricordi?” “I don’t have Ricordi.” “I think it’s Ricordi page 50.” “No, page 49, at the bottom.”

Measure numbers and rehearsal marks are a help, but  many common editions lack them. Every time a director calls out instructions based on a location in their score, and then has to fumble to convert to a location in the singers’ scores, or has a singer misunderstand for lack of a conversion, the efficiency of the rehearsal drops.  But presently the only way to achieve consistency is to buy everyone in the group a copy of the same edition, which can be expensive.

Sometimes different editions of the same musical work have exactly the same notes, but more often, they differ. Some notes may be wrong in a cheaper edition, but corrected in a later, more authoritative edition. Discovering these errors is generally a matter of trial and error. People discover the clashing notes they sing aren’t mistakes by the singer, but conflicts in the scores. Communicating these differences to the directory, then communicating back to all singers which notes to use, is a tedious process.

Then there are performance adaptations. A director may cut some measures, some repeats, some movements. Or she may reassign parts within the chorus, for instance enlisting the altos or the baritones to reinforce the tenors. Or she may instruct the singers to modify note durations, as a way of improving the musical effect: rewriting a half-note as a dotted-quarter plus an eighth rest might be just what is needed to get a final consonant out uniformly, and give time for a breath before the next phrase.  Then there are performance annotations: take a breath here, don’t interrupt the phrase there, get gradually louder on these four measures. All need to be communicated from director to singers. Typically this is by dictation during the course of rehearsal. This gives not only the difficulty of specifying the location of the change, but also the likelihood that not everyone will write down the change correctly.

The lyrics or libretto of a work provide an additional challenge. If it is a language the singer does not know, then the singer has the challenge of finding a path to understanding the words well enough to convey their meaning. This usually means at least two translations: a fluent translation, which contains the essence of the words’ meaning, plus a literal translation, which shows the singer which part of that meaning is being conveyed during each note. On top of this, even for languages the singer knows, the director may have instructions on which vowel sound to use (“Lord” can be sung “oh-er” or “ah” or “aw”), or where to place a touchy consonant.  All of these need to get communicated to the singers, and recorded in the singers’ scores.

Then the singer has the task of learning their part: what notes to sing, and practicing until they do it well. For some singers and some choruses, this is drilled by the director during rehearsal time. For singers working on their own, not all will be able to read music notation well, and not all will be able to play the piano well. For such singers, the music score is a silent and not very helpful partner.

But printed musical scores are also a sophisticated technology. They embody five centuries of experience and wisdom about music performance, which give them advantages as tools for making music.

The printed page, in book form, is a familiar medium. Choruses do not have to spend much effort explaining to a new singer how to use a printed score. It operates reliably. It does not fail to boot up, its battery does not wear out. Yes, pages may tear and bindings may split, after years of use, but this is a known failure mode, with easy workarounds. A volunteer librarian can easily figure out how to distribute, collect, and track the inventory.

Scores are usually laid out for effective use in performance. The note size is large enough to be visible, but still compact. The page size allows a reasonable duration of music between page turns. Skilled music engravers make subtle layout choices which make the score easier to read. (For more on these subtle layout choices, see Elaine Gould’s fascinating book, Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation.)

The printed page, and the pencil and eraser in the singer’s hand, provide a fast and efficient way to annotate the score. It may be tough to communicate to which measure an instruction applies, but once that is clear, the singer can often indicate the instruction with a quick pencil mark. The next rehearsal, that mark is still there to be read.

This discussion could go on into related areas: the special concerns regarding sing-along concerts, or the music score pain points for a symphony orchestra. But those are topics for another day.

Of course these are all relevant because I believe public-domain digital music scores, in a revisable, reusable form, have great promise to address these pain points. Conversely, digital music scores have challenges to matching the strengths of the printed music score. That also is a topic for another day.

[Update, August 2015: copy-editing.]