Printed Music

Does anyone know how music was printed on a press? Were staff pages preprinted with notes, words and such added at a later time?

I can’t imagine how you would compose a piece of music in a composing stick. You’d have to cut endless amounts of rule and pass the piece quite a fews times. There would be no room for error. If a cut was made were staff lines and words printed and notes drawn my hand? I have seen very old hymnals and everything is quite crisp and well printed so I don’t think that’s the case.

Forme, any ideas?

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The printing of music was, largely, a specialized field. It was, however, printed in conventional letterpress technique, ie.: type pieces; stereotype plate; engraving. Most large production hymn books, sheet music et al, were produced using the stereo process. Of course lithography (offset) was widely employed as well. Type has been employed to reproduce music since the very early days of printing. Consensus has it circa 1460. Although, to be sure, that era did not produce the finished work in one pass that you see in the 18th - 20th century work. Incunabula work was limited in size and often required three or more impressions to complete just the music; another impression was needed for the words. Most commonly, words - and symbols - were hand-added.
To determine by which method printed music was reproduced, look carefully at the lines. Regular breaks indicate type ; hair-lines between the words indicate machine-set type.
I’ve never type-set music, but did have a small collection of sorts. What they were, or represented, was beyond my ken. For me, music died when Sinatra passed.

Addendum: Rotogravue, although better suited to colour work, was also used, particularly on sheet music artistry of the ‘teens and twenties. However, the costs associated with the engraving usually confined the press run to hugely popular songs. And, no, one would not gear up for, say, Eminem or Madonna.

Thanks, Forme!

I am anxious to crack open a hymnal again and study it a little further.

I appreciate your response.

Music in letterpress was produced as specially cast music pieces and set in the composing stick.Copperplate printing was also used, the method consisted of scoring the plates with the lines and adding the notes with the aid of punches and a small hammer.
Attached 3 images: the first one shows some music cut by Fleischmann for the Enschedé foundry in 1760; the second shows music cut by Fournier and shown in his Manuel Typographique in 1764; the third Monotype matrices, originally developed for the above mentioned Enschedé foundry, but that were released for general use.

image: music_1.jpg


image: music_3.jpg


image: music_2.jpg


Music again.
The correct order of the images is: Fournier, Monotype, Fleischmann.

Brother Forme and Thomas,
Nice responses. Thank you. You are both historians and enrich our knowledge of the black art as it was practiced in the past. My student asked the sheet music question of me. Not knowing how it was done, I responded how it might have been done. (I had part of it right) I suggested that she inquire on this forum and would probably get a good response. I was right on that. Again, thank you.

Hi, Cupcakepress—
Theodore Lowe De Vinne, in “Modern Methods of Book
Composition”, one of the 4 volumes of his “The Practice of Typography” series gives an extensive description of typesetting music (pp. 207-225), as well as other index
entries for the layout of the typecase and imposing. Published in 1904 by The Century Co., of which I believe
he was a principal, (think Century Expanded, Appleton-Century-Crofts, The Century Magazine, Dictionary, etc.),
the book is probably a little hard to find, either by itself, or
in its set, but worth looking for. Interesting topic—good
luck with it.


Here is a lay of an old music typecase used in Russian print shops.

image: muusic.gif


you should also check out the letterpressalive site and scroll down to the list with TYPE CASES. Good stuff there collected by David Bolton.

image: cases.tiff


Sorry, this is a little late to the discussion, but here’s the way The Sacred Harp, a 19th Century shape-note hymnal was printed in it’s 1936 edition. The below image is next to the 1991 edition, but you get the idea…

Matt Hinton

image: Sacred Harp copper plate detail.jpg

Sacred Harp copper plate detail.jpg

image: Sacred Harp Copper plate with page.jpg

Sacred Harp Copper plate with page.jpg

Somehow I missed this thread…Wonderful info! I’ve always wondered if printing techniques varied a lot.

I did learn something interesting recently: When they hand-cast music sorts in the 16th century, they could use one matrix for many notes. By varying the mat’s vertical alignment in the hand mold, one could change the position of the note on the sort. The trick also worked for clefs and some other elements.

Fascinating stuff…though I suspect that one might run into problems hand-setting certain, more complex pieces like this:

image: Death Waltz.jpg

Death Waltz.jpg

That’s a crackup! I love the “Arranged by Accident” part. Maybe it should be “deranged” instead of “arranged.”


Matt, from looking at the 2 photos, I get the impression that the page was originally set using type and music and that the printer made a block of it, which was copper galvanized. You can clearly see the separate pieces of music and type there.

Thomas, that was my thinking as well. I haven’t printed that plate yet, as I don’t have a suitable base for it yet, but I will one of these days…