Finding and using free sheet music

Looking for free sheet music on the web? Be careful — there are lots of web sites that offer sheet music for free ... but often it’s not copyright free. Just because you can download sheet music for free doesn’t mean the music is in the public domain.

This page lists resources for free sheet music that’s either in the public domain or free for certain uses. For each resource I tell you what you’ll find and let you know about any use restrictions.

Use restrictions? Yep. Some of these sites have both public domain and copyrighted sheet music — and some sites allow you to use the sheet music for personal or educational purposes only.

I hope you find the list helpful, and I’d also like to add ...

Don’t overlook libraries!

Libraries are a great place to find free sheet music, especially large city libraries and university libraries. For example, the Boston Public Library houses one of the finest music libraries in the world, with over 150,000 volumes. If sheet music is in the public domain and in good condition, photocopying is allowed. So ... check your local library.

Indiana University offers a helpful list of music libraries, sorted by location. You might be able to find a music library near you.

Sites that offer free sheet music

Without further ado, here’s the list ... happy searching!

African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

What’s there: More than 1000 pieces of African-American sheet music dating from 1850 through 1920. The collection includes Civil War and post-Civil War period music, as well as songs from the abolitionist movement. The original sheet music is owned by the John Hay Library, Brown University.

Using what you find: Most of the works in this collection are quite likely in the public domain. The terms state that Brown University Library isn’t aware of any US copyright or any other restrictions on the documents in this collection, so you’re probably all set. But listen ... if you intend to copy or use any of the material, you are responsible for determining its copyright status. Also, some of the sheet music covers include photographs of popular performers of the day — reproduction of those materials may be restricted by publicity and/or privacy rights.

California Sheet Music Project (UC Berkeley)

What’s there: Collection of 2000 pieces of sheet music published in California between 1852 and 1900, maintained by the Museum Informatics Project, UC Berkeley. The collection also includes related materials such as an 1972 San Francisco publisher’s catalog, programs, songsheets, advertisements, and photographs.

Using what you find: The sheet music in this collection is public domain sheet music. When I last visited the site (Sept. 2006) I found no noticeable terms of use.

Chopin Early Editions

What’s there: University of Chicago collection including over 400 first and early printed editions of musical compositions by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), all published before 1881. All of the scores in the collection have been digitized. You can search the collection or browse by title, uniform title, genre, or dedicatee.

Using what you find: All materials are in the public domain. The library requires that a credit line be included with each reproduction, however. It should read as follows: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. And if you intend to reproduce any of the scores in a commercial project, you must get permission and pay a use fee. Educational and scholarly use is free. (Looks like the public domain is becoming the “noncommercial use only” domain ...)

The Choral Public Domain Library

What’s there: Large site offering free sheet music (over 9000 scores at last count), with a special focus on choral music. You’ll find scores, texts and lyrics, translations, and information about composers. You can search by composer, title, genre, musical era, voicing, or language. (There’s an advanced search, too.) There are a variety of formats: PDF, MIDI, Lilypond, Finale, Sibelius, MusiXTex, and Scorch, for example.

Using what you find: All scores and text that reside on the CPDL’s server are licensed under a variant of the GPL-GNU license (an open-source license). What does that mean? It means you can copy, distribute (for free or fee), perform, record, and modify a score freely. But any distribution you make (even of your own modified version) must be licensed under the same conditions. And wait, there’s more ...

Not all the scores listed on this site reside on the CPDL server. Some of the scores are hosted on other web sites, where the CPDL license doesn’t apply. Those sites may have different copyright conditions. What to do? Always check the terms for any piece you want to use.

Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary: Hymn Tune Archive

What’s there: A database and indexed archive of public domain tunes for hymns, chants, and carols in electronic formats including MIDI files, printable sheet music, and editable electronic musical scores. It does not include hymn texts or lyrics.

Using what you find: The sheet music on this site is in the public domain. You may use it as you wish, with no restrictions.

The Cyber Hymnal

What’s there: Over 8,900 Christian hymns and gospel songs from many denominations. You’ll find lyrics, scores, MIDI files, pictures, history, and more.

Using what you find: The site offers public domain works (the majority) and works for which they have permission. If you don’t see a copyright notice on the music, it’s in the public domain. Permissions are shown on the individual hymn pages.

ezFolk Public Domain Music Library

What’s there: Fifteen books reprinted in their entirety, with (according to the site) many more books to come. Here’s a sample of what’s there now: a book of Stephen Foster melodies, traditional Kentucky folk songs, and an introduction to Hawaiian style ukulele.

Using what you find: These are all public domain books, published before 1923. You may use them however you wish.

Free Music Editions

What’s there: An archive of free music, with a particular focus on choir music for three parts. The collection consists mostly of works by the site owner, Christoph Dalitz, plus some pieces by old composers that he has arranged or transcribed. You may download the music or order printed and bound copies.

Using what you find: All editions from this site may be freely copied and used for public performances under terms of the Creative Commons license. Depending on the work, you’ll find either an attribution or an attribution-share-alike license. (If you don’t know what these are, check out the Creative Commons page for a brief explanation.)

Free Sheet Music Directory: Free-Scores.com

What’s there: Index to more than 1600 web sites that offer free sheet music. The site also claims to have more than 3000 downloadable public domain pieces (in PDF). You can subscribe to an RSS feed that lets you know what free sheet music has been added.

Using what you find: Much of the sheet music you’ll find through this site is in the public domain, but not all, and the copyright status of some works may be disputed. For example, Happy Birthday to You is offered as a public domain work ... but Warner Chappell Music Inc. claims copyright in it. (They claim it will be protected by copyright through 2030. That might not be correct, but it’s a detail you should know.)

Since this is a directory site, you’ll come across a number of different licenses (Creative Commons, Mutopia BSD, CPDL) plus all-rights-reserved copyright ... depending on which sites you click through to. So be sure to check the terms for any piece you want to use.

Historic American Sheet Music

What’s there: Collection of 19th and 20th century sheet music at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. There are more than 3000 digitized pieces here, all published in the United States between 1850 and 1920. You can browse by the content of the music, the illustrations in the pieces, the advertisements in the pieces, or titles grouped by decade. You can also search by title, composer, first line, refrain, and more.

Using what you find: All of these works are in the US public domain, since they were published before 1923. Even so, Duke makes it clear that if you wish “to perform, broadcast, or publish this material” you “must assume all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any claimants of literary property rights or copyrights. The music is intended for personal, research, or educational use only.” You can’t say they didn’t warn you.

Indiana University Sheet Music Collection

What’s there: Web site allowing you to search some of the holdings from approximately 150,000 pieces of sheet music at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Some of the sheet music has been digitized (it looks like the public domain works have been). You can search the collection, or browse by name (composer, lyricist, or arranger) or title.

Using what you find: Not all the sheet music is in the public domain, so be aware that if the publication date is after 1923 the material may still be copyrighted. As for the public domain works (which, as I mentioned, have been digitized), Indiana University restricts your use of these reproductions to noncommercial, personal, or research use only. The site terms state that all other use without permission is strictly prohibited. It's debatable whether terms that restrict the use of public domain materials are enforceable ... but that’s what the site says.

The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection

What’s there: Index of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music, focusing on popular American music from 1780 to 1960. All pieces of the collection are indexed (so you’ll get the catalog description), but not all have been digitized. For the ones that have been, the images are JPEGs and the quality is uneven. (Some page images are rather blurry.)

Using what you find: If the sheet music was published before 1923, it’s in the public domain. These works have been digitized — you’ll find images of the sheet music cover and each page of the music. (If a piece isn’t in the public domain, there’s no image.) There are no restrictions on the public domain works. You can download them and use them as you please ... which is exactly as it should be.

Musica Viva

What’s there: Large site offering free sheet music for many instruments. For copyright reasons the site has mostly classical and traditional music. Includes a Folkband section that has ensemble arrangements of Irish, English, Scottish and Norwegian traditional music. File formats are PDF, GIF, and ABC notation. A number of the PDF files only are available to site members only, though. (It costs $30 per year to join — by joining you can make the ad banners go away, too.)

Using what you find: Most of the music is in the public domain according to Norwegian copyright law (the site is hosted in Norway and run by a Norwegian citizen living in Norway). Norway, like the US, has a “life plus 70” copyright term. Not all the music on the site is public domain, though ...

The site owner offers his own compositions and arrangements here, too — these are copyrighted by him. There are a few compositions copyrighted by other people, also. As for the public domain works ... the site owner claims copyright in his editions of these works. Digitizing a public domain music score will not get you a copyright here in the US, but that’s not so in some other countries. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

So what can you do? Print the music for your own use. You can distribute it to your friends, your choir, your band, or whomever ... as long as you don’t charge for it, distribute paper copies only, and include the name (Musica Viva) and URL (http://www.musicaviva.com) of your source. You can redistribute the ABC files however you wish as long as you don’t charge for them and don’t modify them.

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music 1870-1885

What’s there: This Library of Congress collection consists of more than 47,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1870 to 1885. Quite a lot here: popular songs, piano music, sacred and secular choral music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and music for band and orchestra. Lots of information about the collection is included — you can find out what the greatest hits of 1870-75 were, if you’re so inclined. Image formats: GIFs and bitonal TIFFs.

Using what you find: The works in this collection are in the public domain. You’re asked to credit the source like so: Library of Congress, Music Division.

The Mutopia Project

What’s there: More than 700 pieces of sheet music, free to download, print, perform, and distribute. (And the number keeps going up all the time.) Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Scott Joplin, and more. You’ll also find some modern editions, arrangements, and new music. You can browse by composer, instrument, style, or collection. File formats: Postscript, PDF (in A4 and letter sizes), and Lilypond.

Using what you find: All music is either in the public domain, released under the MutopiaBSD license (an older share-alike license that’s being phased out), or released under the Creative Commons Attribution and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenses. (If you’d like a quick summary of these licenses, see the Creative Commons page.) If the piece you want to use is not public domain, be sure to read its license terms.

Nineteenth Century American Sheet Music (UNC Chapel Hill)

What’s there: Collection of 19th-century American sheet music made up of individual “binder’s collections” of vocal and instrumental sheet music belonging to young women of the period. (Works by Stephen Foster, for example.) More than 1600 pieces have been digitally scanned (images are GIFs and JPEGs). You can browse by title, composer, or series.

Using what you find: All of the works in this collection are in the public domain. There’s a notice on the site stating that the material here will be “accessible for class use and research in a variety of disciplines ...” — I’m not sure how much to read into this with regard to use restrictions. Other than this statement, I don’t see a word about rights and use restrictions.

Performing Arts in America 1875-1923 (New York Public Library)

What’s there: Searchable database of archival material held by the Performing Arts Library, including JPEG images of sheet music, including show tunes and popular music, jazz, and dance music. You’ll find works by Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake, and George M. Cohan, for example. To browse the sheet music, click “Browse Index” and then select music from the pulldown menu. You can also search by keyword, name, title, or subject.

Using what you find: Nowhere on this site did I see any mention that these works are in the public domain ... and even though they are, you’re restricted to personal and research use only. The New York Public Library warns that “any other use, including but not limited to commercial or scholarly publication, exhibition, online/web site, broadcast/film, home video, and promotional use without prior written permission of the Library is strictly prohibited. Granting or withholding of permission is determined by the Library on a case by case basis, and a usage fee is required.”

(This is part of a disturbing trend where the custodians of our culture are using license terms to place copyright-like restrictions on public domain works. Once a work's creative content has passed into the public domain, charging a fee for anything other than a copy is just plain wrong.)

Project Gutenberg Sheet Music Subproject

What’s there: Ongoing volunteer effort to digitize public domain sheet music. There aren’t tons of completed scores (yet) but ... like I said, the project is ongoing. The pieces there now are mostly chamber music by composers such as Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. You’ll find files in various formats: PDF, XML, Lilypond, Finale, Sibelius, and MIDI. (Not that all scores are available in all formats, mind you.)

Using what you find: The sheet music is in the US public domain. Other than a note to check your local laws if you’re outside the US, there are are no warnings or restrictions of any kind. How refreshing.

Public Domain Music List (PD Info)

What’s there: Alphabetical reference list of public domain songs, searchable by title. You can also browse alphabetically or by various groupings (Christian Hymns, Christmas Songs, and John Philip Sousa). Some of the sheet music is available in individual reprints or sheet music books for sale though the site.

Using what you find: As stated on the site, the list is intended only as an aid in researching public domain materials. Finding a song on the list isn’t conclusive evidence that the song is in the public domain. It’s important to remember (and the site reminds you) that even if a song is in the public domain, arrangements of the song may be protected by copyright. Make sure you use a copy of the sheet music that was published before 1923 or, if it’s a later copy, that it’s an exact copy of the original. For more information about how to deal with arrangements of public domain music, see the public domain music page.

Richard Robinson’s Tunebook

What’s there: Collection of traditional tunes (Scots, Irish, Scandinavian, English, French, Balkan, and more). The music is available in two formats: ABC notation and PNG images. You can browse by tune list (lists are organized by name, country, and type) or you can use a search form that has a number of options.

Using what you find: Mr. Robinson states that, as far as he knows, most of the tunes are in the public domain. Not all the tunes are, though — some are posted with permission of the copyright holder. Those files have copyright notices in them, and if you want to use them you’ll have to contact the holder. Also note that lack of copyright info on a tune doesn’t guarantee it’s in the public domain ... and while you may copy, distribute, and use information from the site freely, you may not sell it.

The Sheet Music Archive

What’s there: Site offering free downloadable classical piano sheet music. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Handel, Wagner ... you get the idea.

Using what you find: You're limited to two downloads per day and restricted to noncommercial use. The site owner claims copyright in the PDF “editions” of the sheet music found here. However, since these are exact copies of public domain works (they’re scans of sheet music published before 1923), it’s highly unlikely that the PDFs are eligible for copyright protection in the US, where the site's server is located. Digitizing a public domain work does not create a copyrightable derivative work. The US Copyright Office said as much when it decided that digitized typefaces are uncopyrightable. See Federal Register Volume 53, Number 189 (September 29, 1988).

UCLA Digital Archive of Popular American Music

What’s there: Large research collection covering the history of popular music in the United States from 1790 to the present. Includes music for the theater, motion pictures, radio and television, as well as general popular music. You’ll find works by Irving Berlin and George Gershwin here, for example. Search or browse by name, title, cover art subject, or date. File formats: sheet music covers are JPEGs, the sheet music itself is in PDF.

Using what you find: Not all the sheet music in this collection is in the public domain — and if it isn’t, you won’t get access to it. PDFs are available only for sheet music that’s in the public domain. (For works still in copyright, you’ll get the bibliographic record and a JPEG of the sheet music cover.) You may use the public domain sheet music as you like.

Werner Icking Music Archive

What’s there: Downloadable PDFs (mostly, some scores are in compressed Postscript format) of sheet music for noncommercial use. Modern works as well as public domain works by, for example, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy.

Using what you find: Here, the “free” in free sheet music means “free for noncommercial use.” You may download and print the sheet music, but you may not sell the files or printed copies. You’re also not allowed to distribute digital copies to other web archives without permission.

As for public performance, you’re warned that the “right to print the music does not automatically imply the right for public performance; that right is regulated by applicable copyright legislation. Such legislation holds that the copyright on the music itself remains in force until 70 years after the composer’s death.” One’s first thought is that surely this refers to the modern composers only (I mean, Bach died in 1750, you know?). But it would be nice if it were more clearly stated, because some of the arrangements will have their own copyrights. Speaking of which ...

While it’s likely that some arrangements of the public domain works here are copyrightable, it’s equally likely that some arrangements don’t merit their own copyright. The records for some pieces merely state that the piece was “edited by” someone. Did the edits rise to the level of copyrightability? Hard to say without investigating. For more info about the copyrightability of arrangements, see this page.


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