Digitally Printed Sheet Music

Digital sheet music as is currently being sold by several sheet music publishers and vendors is at its core a great idea.  Unfortunately, the biggest publishers are all missing the boat and implementing it in a way that provides absolutely no added value for the added costs to the consumer.  While the digital versions of books and such add value to the title by offering easy portability and flexibility for the reader this is not the case with most commercially available digital sheet music.  But this is only the start of why music publishers are missing the boat and doing both themselves and their customers a disservice.  Read on to find out more.


Before we begin it should be acknowledged that not all vendors sell digital sheet music the same way and that some are much more flexible than others.  Other noted music educators such as James Frankel agree with this basic statement (see also Frankel’s- The Future Of Band Music Publishing).  At the same time one must concede that there are certain specific cases where access to digital sheet music might be very helpful.  As an example, if a teacher is taking a group to contest and winds up one copy short on a piece in order to be copyright legal then buying a copy from the publisher’s website and printing it instantly would be very handy.  For the vast majority of people however, they are looking for something completely different when they think of the term digital sheet music.  

The Mobile Consumption and Annotation Of Sheet Music

In today’s mobile society if a person is considering buying digital sheet music they likely are intending to use it on their iPad or Android tablet.  Since we are creatures of habit we want to make using that sheet music as easy as possible which means loading it into our favorite sheet music app like ForScore, Chromatik, or even into a multi use app like APS Music Master Pro.  Many of the small, private publishing houses are getting it right and offering their music as PDF downloads that can then be imported into any reader app allowing you to annotate and adjust things but this is not the case with most of the big publishers.

In general with digital sheet music purchases from Alfred Publishing and through major music retailers like JW Pepper you are permitted to print one copy of the music one time only up to the number of legal reproductions in the set.  You can view the music online in a web browser window or through their own music notation software app but you cannot import that music into any other apps unless you illegally scan that printout back into your tablet.  This is a significant limitation and is also perhaps the biggest roadblock to allowing digital sheet music to actually take hold and prosper the way ebook publishing and DRM free MP3 sales and distribution has for other publishing genres.  If this was the only downside to buying sheet music in digital format it might be enough in and of itself.  Unfortunately though there are other issues as well.

No Returns Allowed On Digital Sheet Music Purchases

Another negative of buying digital sheet music is that you can’t return it.  With normal printed music purchased through a store you can return it if you discover that it isn’t going to work out or in some cases you can order the music “on approval” to let you take a closer look at the piece before buying.  With digital sheet music once you buy it usually there are no refunds.  To add insult to injury, if during the printing process something goes wrong and the printed copy is unusable you are out of luck.  You may have to buy another copy or in some cases go through a lengthy process where you have to package up the damaged prints and send them to the vendor to receive credit. 

The Added Costs of Digital Sheet Music

Then of course there is what many consider to be the biggest ripoff of the digital sheet music world. In most cases the digital version of a song costs the same amount as one that you would buy from your local retailer but you, the end user, have to then pay more money to print it.  Printing it yourself also means printing on smaller, letter sized paper that is probably not archival quality. There is also the issue of having to print the full score on single sheet paper rather than being neatly bound on folded 11x17 or larger paper. Multi page pieces of sheet music will have to be bound together in some fashion, and as everyone knows most printed sheet music comes on much thicker, higher quality paper than we have easy access to at home or school. 

What this all adds up to is that if you spend $70 on a set of ensemble music for a band you may wind up paying an additional $5-$10 to print it.    Some might counter that there is the additional cost of shipping if you buy the pre-printed version but most stores do not charge a shipping fee if you go pick it up or have it delivered to a school by the store’s representative.

Why Buying Digital Sheet Music Is Usually A Bad Investment

All these issues aside please remember that there are a few publishing houses and distributors out there that are getting it right and selling music in ways that are beneficial both to the composer and to the end buyer.  If you want to reward those good companies for their efforts take a look at small companies and self publishers such as and the Wind Repertory Project.  There are also a growing number of open minded PDF based distributors with flexible licensing agreements such as and  As a side bit of research if you are interested in the intricacies of the music publishing business and why supporting small distributors such as these are important take a look at this article by noted band computer John Mackey detailing his frustration with the industry and the way it has come to operate.  

The general idea that this article has been attempting to iterate is that buying digital sheet music from a major publisher or online vendor is usually not in the buyer’s best interests.  It might make sense if you are in a hurry or for specific instances where printing the music immediately is necessary but in general digital sheet music from major publishers or distributors like Alfred, JW Pepper, Sheet Music Plus, and others fails to deliver what the modern, wired public really wants, namely portability and convenience.  Until those companies begin to offer digital sheet music in a format that makes sense to the way people really want to use it it is not likely that it will see wide-spread adoption or acceptance in the music education community.

What do you think?  Have you purchased digital sheet music through an online vendor?  Do you think it is worth it?  Not worth it?  What do you really want from publishers when it comes to buying digital sheet music?  Leave your comments below!

Note:  The articles on this site may contain referral links to sites such as Amazon and other online retailers.  The small amount of income received from these links has helped keep up and running for over ten years now.  Thank you for your support!