Relationship Between The Printing Press And Music

When thinking about the invention of the printing press an immediate response is to think about the impact that turning point in history had on literature. Often the musical significance of this incredible invention is overlooked.This article will outline the early history of the printing press. Almost as soon as the printing press was developed, type designs were introduced. Type designs were created and linked to printing in different countries.

Even today, it is possible to see the effects that the printing press has on modern living. With having written words it was possible to be expressive through writing. Printed word established the relationship between art and printing. Decorative printing was a step in developing art in printing. To understand the link between printing and music it is important to know the difference between literature printing and musical notation. One obvious difference is that music texts are for performance. Another significant difference is that music texts are deciphered twice: first, by the performer and then by the listener.

The printing of music creates a direct connection between the composer and the performer. It is essential that the printing of music is as accurate as possible as this will be the only communication between the creation and reproduction.

Before the printing press original manuscripts, or hand written copies, were used to perform from. The printing press changed the size of pieces from the original manuscripts. Reading off of a smaller score puts constrictions to the performance of the work.

Published music was invented before the invention of the printing press. Early published music was reproduced by engraving on plates. This process was time consuming and very difficult.

Despite the fact that the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, the first copyright law was not in place until the early eighteenth century. The purpose of having a copyright varies throughout the world. When copyright was first established it was used as a noun, literally meaning having the right in the copy. Having the right copy refers to giving credit to the individual who created the original idea. The shift today is the use of copyright as a verb  the right to copy.

The printing press put many constraints on music. One constraint was the interpretation of music was limited. As the performance text grew further away from the composers original manuscript, the musical interpretation grew further away as well. Also, as mentioned earlier, there was a size difference in the paper produced from the printing press and original manuscripts. This size different changes the way the performer visually reads a piece.

With music being reproduced by printing presses and publishing houses, the need for a music editor arose. There are many disadvantages to have an editor working with music scores. A large problem musicians face is working with scores that have been over edited. Another related problem is the fact that many editors have not done significant research before they add material to the score.

With the rise of publishers, numerous editions are created, printing the same material. It is possible to buy two different editions of a piece with a discrepancy in something even as basic as having the correct notes. Some editions are not as researched as others, creating interpretations that may not be close to the composers original intention.


Printing previous to 1500 was referred to as the incunabula period. Incunabulum is derived from Latin which means cradle, therefore symbolizing the beginning of the art of printing. By the eighteenth century the term was applied to all books printed before 1500. In the nineteenth century, incunabulum meant any individual item that emanated from the printing presses of the fifteenth century.
Johann Gutenberg
Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg began working with the invention of the printing press around 1440. He began working on this when he was a political exile at Strasbourg. Many people mistake Gutenbergs invention with the invention of published books. This belief is reinforced by the inevitable association of Gutenbergs name with the 42-line Bible. Gutenberg should receive credit for the invention of the method of producing punches and matrices to be used with a mold for metal types of identical height. Thereby it was possible to produce a type having a uniform rectangular body. The individual letters so cast could be placed by the compositor in proper juxtaposition to one another in free combination. They were interchangeable, hence the term movable metal types.

This printing press was large and very difficult to operate. The awkward machine made presswork toilsome; and it was incapable of printing a full sheet of paper at one pull. Despite this fact it still increased the number of literate people in the world.

Gutenberg quit working on the printing press for two main reasons. The first is that his source of funding was taken away. Gutenberg had a patron who in 1455 foreclosed on him and gave most of the presses and types to his soon to be son-in-law Schffer of Gernsheim. The second reason the Gutenberg gave up working on the printing press was due to physical reasons. Gutenberg became blind after 1460 and abandoned any further pursuit of his invention.

Gutenberg died in 1468 and his epitaph reads to the immortal memory of Johannes Gensfleisch, the inventor of the art of printing, who has deserved well of every nation and language. His invention influenced the rest of the world for many centuries after his death. After the early invention of the printing press it reached a state of technical efficiency not materially surpassed until well into the nineteenth century.

Consolidation Era

After the invention of the printing press, from around 1550 until 1800, the consolidation era was established. As mentioned earlier, no technical advancements were made to the printing press during this time. Neither were there any new inventions, regarding the printing press, made during this time. The consolidation era, as the name suggests, stabilized the printing industry.

During this time the working middle class people had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Before this it was reserved as a privilege for the wealthy to be literate. Because more people were now reading it was necessary to provide information to people for them to read. The general publics desire for quick information and for regular entertainment brought into existence the periodical press.

The first public library was developed during the consolidation era. Before libraries existed with manuscripts but were for private use only, owned by various people like Julius Caesar.

Censorship of printed word was established in the consolidation era. It was the responsibility of the lay and the church to censor the publications. Printers and publishers did not always appreciate censorship and would use the smallest possible size, the largest possible types, and every other device which a century-old fight against censorship had taught them.

Nineteenth Century Printing

In the nineteenth century the technique of printing gradually changed. There was a hesitation from the public to advance further in the printing press in order to avoid mechanization. By the late nineteenth century, the concept of mechanization [began] to make an impact on letter-founding, type-composition, and bookbinding, and not until the late 1880s did the combined casting and composing machine become a commercial reality.
The nineteenth century brought about technical progress in the printing press. This was the century that began the slow process of turning printing from a trade into an industry.

The strict regulations for censorship had been lifted during this century. Censorship was now based on voluntary [agreements] of the parties concerned and not on compulsory measures of the authorities.
It was during this century that governments used the press for large scale, direct, and incessant appeals and orders to the masses. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic France governments were first to use press this way.
Type Design

After the death of Gutenberg in 1468, the printing press had spread throughout many different countries. By the middle of the sixteenth century every nation developed a certain type design. Type design throughout history has always had a deeper, more political meaning than it appears at first. When Roman and Italic types were invented they
represented the humanism in people. The type design of Germany, Russia, and Turkey represented the resistance to humanism. The importance of type design can be noted by the recent transition to the Latin alphabet by the Germans and Turks is a major step towards the unity of world civilization; just as the refusal of post-Lenin Russia to abandon the Cyrillic letter  nay, its progressive imposition on the Soviet colonials  is a significant omen of the deep cleavage between East and West.


After discussing type design it is possible to see the relationship between art and printing. With the beginning of printed books there was a high level of technical achievements but this was combined with great beauty of design, that the printing of music began. Visual effects of printed music are vital to the overall effect the music will have on the performer and audience. Engraving of music connected the visual aspect of music to the notating process. This process of engraving naturally led to a great increase in the use of pictorial title pages and decorated borders. Illustrations were sometimes used, even as far as to having comic pictures between staves and in the margins of the music.

Difference Between Printing and Music

There is a large difference between printing music and printing solely verbal text. A quote from Kings Four Hundred Years of Music Printing summarizes the difference between literature and musical notation:
the letters forming a word represent a concept to be conveyed by the eye to the brain, in music the note, whether accompanied by a text or not, is primarily an instruction to bring into action lungs or fingers, or both combined, in order to produce a sound at a certain pitch and of a certain duration.

The difficulty with musical notation is that the symbols need to be made as clearly and precise as possible.
There are two aspects of musical notation: horizontality and verticality. Horizontality refers to the horizontal aspects of music notation. One point in horizontality is the relationship between each note. This includes the intervallic relationship from note to note. Another aspect of horizontality is the changes in spacing between one note or group of notes and the next, as required by changes in time-values.

The vertical aspect of musical notation sets it completely apart from verbal text, as the concept of writing two words at the same time is not practical. The vertical part of musical notation is having the two or more notes in the same alignment on the stave. This vertical arrangement is important in vocal works as a precise vertical relationship has also to be established between the notes on the stave and the syllables of the underlying text.

If the printed musical score is altered in any way the horizontality and verticality could potential have a different meaning to the reader. This could in turn alter the performance and bring the work further away from the composers original idea.

Another main difference between music texts and literature is the fact that musical texts are performance texts. Musical texts presume a musical performance, with the result that music as manifest in print leads a dual life as text and performance. Understanding that in earlier times music reached people mainly by performances it is important to note that any history of the musical cultures of print must engage performative issues.

Deciphering music as a performative text adds certain angles that are not present in literature. It is important to note that performance and print both shape the way music conveys its meaning; yet while historians of music have long been cognizant of the former  that performers interpret and mold the meaning of the texts they realize  they have rarely theorized the implications of print in similar terms. Often performers will trust what is written on the page instead of looking for the true intention of the composer. The effect that printed music has on performance is so great that it [stands] alongside performance in the triangle if [forms] with composers and audiences.

Musical texts are deciphered twice which does not occur often in literature. Musical text meanings unfold twice as they are read both by musicians and then by audiences. In the first instance, the black signs cast across the pages of musical scores give musicians instructions for how to perform a given piece; the notes help musicians to produce a reading of a piece, public or private, whether with instruments, voice, or both. The only link that the audience has to the music is what the performer portrays and the only thing that the performer can give the audience is what he takes from the musical score.

Due to the fact that reading music produces an audible sound, it is understood that this type of reading is not transparent, like most literature texts. Interpretation of musical scores creates variant readings with each performance, impressing their individual marks upon the works they play. Because of this fact it is argued that musicians approximate texts. The appearance of the musical text is essential for a successful interpretation as it can [disrupt] the linear continuum between composer and audience in the same way that musical performances do. Print complicates and expands this middle ground by multiplying the material forms of texts and thereby multiplying their meanings.

It is possible to compare the performance of musical scores to reading a book to someone that is illiterate. The musicians mediate what for many listeners is an illegible text, pages of hieroglyphs that require special literacy: the score. Notation alone sets music apart from literature.

Like someone telling a story, the performance of a musical text becomes available to an audience of listeners who in turn read the music they hear, responding to it, making sense of it, multiplying its meanings.

Another difficulty facing printing of musical scores is the distance that the text is kept from the performer. In a performance music is usually placed further away from the eye than is the text of a book when being read, the factors of distance and proportion produce special problems of design. The musical text needs to be extra clear because of the distance kept from the performer.


The concept of representing music by notation is accredited to the Greeks since musical notation is as old as the alphabet, for that is as far as our knowledge goes; and the Greeks were the earliest to make use of this principle. By Pope Gregorys time, around the middle of the sixth century, it was important to write down music as it was realized that unless sounds are retained in the memory, they perish, because they cannot be written.

The time right after the invention of the printing press printed music became more popular. By 1465 printing began to supersede manuscript music. Despite the increase in using the printing press music printing remained very far behind the progress made in other branches of typography.

The first record of printed music dates back to 1473. This document only contains five notes of music. Even with the little amount of musical notation in this work it actually [formed] the foundation of music printing. The first book of printed music was made around this same time. It is a Gradual that lacks both a date and a printers name, but the type used to print the text is identical with that of the Constance Breviary one copy of which was lubricated in 1473. Another clue as to the date of this book is the fact that the press that was used to publish this book had a short life span.

The first printed music with an actual date is a Missal from Rome that was dated October 12, 1476. This music was printed in Roman notation, with initials in red or blue, and touches of yellow in the capitals, all added by hand.

Even though the printing press had been invented it was common in this time period to add details by hand. This would include adding colors or extra details that the printing press was not capable of doing. Sometimes the music staves would be blank and the notes would be added by hand.

By around 1690 improvements were being made to the design of printed music. John Heptinstall came up with the system of joining together the hooks of the quavers and semiquavers. Quavers and semiquavers refer to eighth and sixteenth notes that before this time had been written with separate flags. Hepinstall also introduced a further improvement, that of making the heads of the notes round instead of lozenge-shaped.

Even with these improvements in the seventeenth century there were still weaknesses in the printing of music. The weakness of movable type with musical notation lay in its clumsiness and lack of flexibility when used for printing chords and florid music.

The year 1683 marked the beginning of sheet music. This is quite different from sheet music as we know it today, as this was created by using metal sheets to engrave the music onto. Thomas Cross was practically the inventor of sheet music and after copying Purcells Sonatas of III parts signed his name on the bottom.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the variety of music expanded to include more concerti and symphonies, requiring more instruments and printed parts. This increase in parts meant that a large quantity of separate parts required had to be supplied in multiple copies more quickly than was usually possible by the use of movable type or by the employment of handcopyists.

The beginning of the eighteenth century marked the decline of music printed from type. The reason for this decrease
was that musical composition had become more elaborate and the old movable type was found inadequate to represent it. Copperplate engraving, which was then flourishing and largely used, was, therefore, naturally adopted. This method was, however, found expensive, so that it became in a measure superseded by the method of punching the notes on pewter plates.

Another important milestone in the eighteenth century was the printing of the first music book, in the United States, from movable type. This book was Fnff schne Geistliche Lieder, published in Germantown, Pennsylvania. It was published by Christoph Saur who was also responsible for designing the type.

At the end of the eighteenth century and the turn of the nineteenth century lithography was adopted as a primary source of printing music. Lithography involves [writing] on [a] stone with greasy ink, and then [coating] the surgace with a mixture of water, acid and gum Arabic. Finally [inking] the whole, and the ink was absorbed solely by the writing. Thus an impression was left which could be taken directly from the surface of the stone.

By the nineteenth century printing using lithography was not as common. This process was being switched from printing on stones to printing on metal plates [making] printing easier and quicker. This process produced many large works in the eighteenth century including eight full scores of Rossini operas and the seven-volume Raccolta di musica sacra.
Later in the nineteenth century lithographic stones were replaced by plates made of zinc and aluminum which increased the speed of production. More advances in printing have developed due to the invention of photographic techniques and other mechanical devices. It is possible with these machines to produce elaborate scores. However, despite the potential these new machines have the once tasteful and diversified art of music printing has generally reached a level of uniformity more widespread than at any time in its history. Failing a revolution in design or technique, the printed note now seems to have lost its former capacity to rival the range of processes and founts of type which were  and still are  available for the printing of books.


The invention of the printing press indirectly puts constraints on the performance of music. Constraints include things such as limited music interpretation, over editing and having numerous editions of the same piece of music.

In the Renaissance, when the printing press was first put to use, composers were worried about the effect that the printing press would have on their compositions. They thought that print represented a loss of control and compared their printed works to children sent out alone into the world.

With a standardized look modern printing has, printed music detracts from the art of the original manuscript. The desire of musical scores is to create a work that is as close to the composers original idea. Editions that have manuscript sources, , [promise] a version of the text that [seems] closer to the authors original or final intentions.

Many problems occur with the editors of music. It has been found that the variants introduced by earlier editors, the errors of compilers and typesetters, and the abbreviations used in early printed books all [stand] in the way of recovering the authors authentic text. In many editions something as basic as correct notes are not consistent which creates the need to identify the errors and correct them.

The invention of the printing press had a significant effect on history from that point and after. Type designs were created by various countries where the printing press had quickly spread to many countries.

Art is connected with printing in many ways. The printing press was another way for people to express their creativity. This could be done with adding color or other hand written details.

The link between music and printing is essential to understand before one can see the impact that the invention of the printing press had on music. The differences between literature and musical notation are significant. Musical texts are performance texts and are deciphered twice.

The history of printed music dates earlier than the invention of the printing press. The early forms of printing music ranged from engraving onto copper plates to carving pieces of wood.

Printed music adds many constraints on the performance of music. The musical interpretation can suffer from reading off of various scores. Also, it is easy for editors to make mistakes, which in turn causes confusion for the performer. Related to this, with many editions it is difficult for the performer to know which edition is the most accurate.

The printing of books is not what makes Gutenbergs invention so significant in history. The important thing to note about the printing press is its ability to produce a large amount of identical copies. This principle, with the help of technology, has made it possible to produce millions of identical newspapers within a few hours. It is this principle that has made Gutenbergs invention a turning point in the history of civilization.