Who else, who less, knows her. Those five horizontal lines with their symbols, their expressions and, to some extent, their mystery. Yes, mystery, because the score is associated with those who understand it, who can read and write it, a kind of initiate in the rite of serious music. But is there so much?

We are going to investigate the score a bit, its different incarnations and uses, its mythical difficulty and its past, present and future.

What is a sheet music?

To give a quick definition, we can say that a score is a handwritten or printed representation on some medium, which shows the essential information of a musical composition and, often, indicates how it should be interpreted.

To achieve this, it uses a kind of language that includes a series of musical signs and some rules of use that is usually called a notation system.

In an orchestral or band context, the word score is used exclusively for the document handled by the director or director, while the scores of each musician are usually called part or particella , with the musical information of the piece exclusively for that instrument or some related, which can even be executed by the same interpreter.

Origin and evolution of scores

The very word « score» already gives us a clue about the purpose and usefulness of a document of this type. Its meaning in Italian, “set of parts “, already makes it clear that its purpose is to gather what each instrument will play.

In the context of so-called “classical music” the score is usually in front of the musicians when they play but, in Jazz, for example, music with a strong presence of instrumental improvisation, the score is often called a  “lead sheet ” . , is used as a guide, with general or basic indications about the melody, chord changes or arrangements, among others.

With the passage of time, it has come to be used with other different and particular meanings.

In short, since the attempts to fix some type of musical notation are very old, both the signs and a large part of the rules, as well as the way in which these documents have been produced, have changed, depending on the place and the available techniques, to throughout the centuries.

Manuscripts, printing, machines and screens

The history of sheet music is, to a large extent, the history of the supports where music is written and read.

Until the fifteenth century, approximately, the scores were created by hand, and were, therefore, unique pieces, rare and, furthermore, delicate. For centuries, parchments were used and each manuscript was kept, many times, together with others in large books as a compilation.

With the invention of the printing press, in the 15th century, attempts began to adapt this new technology and the machines that made it possible, to the peculiarities of signs and musical spellings.

Despite the innovations, hundreds of years still passed in which these prints had to be completed by hand with details that the machinery was not capable of faithfully reproducing.

Little by little, it was possible to print the lines of the staves more clearly and the precision of the prints was improved, in a process that lasted centuries, with the aim of making the result increasingly neat and legible.

The printing age made it possible for many more musical copies to circulate around the world and also gave rise to a new business: the sale of musical scores.

Music publishers, copyrights and music collecting entities formed the legal and commercial framework for this new industry.

In the 20th century, some typewriters for musical scores appeared, although their operation was rather complex, so they did not have a great impact.

With the appearance and development of digital technology, the scores had a new channel and format to be written, read and distributed.

Computer programs specialized in musical notation, made it possible to write, manipulate, read, save and share scores with an agility and ease never seen before.

These files allow you to change instruments, transpose them and also transform them into digital information, through the musical data protocol MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

Both digital sheet music editors and DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) have been expanding the possibilities of creating and transforming those written signs into real music.

Virtual sheet music, moreover, also called  digital sheet music , also made it possible for licensed publishers to trade copyright through e-commerce and online transactions.

In short, a new revolution and an almost universal access for those ancient manuscripts created by hand on parchments.

Elements and structure of the score

If we try to make a list of the elements that are usually included in a score, we could get something like this:

  • Pentagram: five horizontal lines and four spaces between them, as a base and reference to locate the musical symbols.
  • Musical signs: those that are written “inside” or the staff.
    • Notes: The pitch of the musical sounds
    • Figures: The duration of musical sounds
    • Signatures: Indications of tonality
    • Alterations: The punctual variations of the notes, with respect to the key signature
    • Articulations: The indications about the interpretation of the notes of the musical piece.
  • Tempo: The indication about the speed of interpretation of the music, with respect to a reference figure.
  • Dynamics: The indications about the variations of intensity in fragments of the musical pieces.
  • Style: The indications that inform the tradition or musical genre of which their interpretative characteristics must be followed.
  • Other expressive signs: Any other symbol or indication about how a musical work or any part of it should be interpreted.

Types of scores

But when we talk about scores, we are really referring to a varied set of musical documents, each specialized for a specific use and purpose.

Let’s look at some types of sheet music:

  • Full score: Score with all the instruments and indications of a musical beginning handled by the conductor or conductor or main musical conductor.
  • Study score: Full score of smaller size, intended for study and not for use in a performance.
  • Piano score: Sometimes called piano reduction, it consists of a score with transcriptions or adaptations of musical works so that they can be performed on the piano, in different situations.
  • Vocal score: It is the reduction of a complex vocal work, for example, an opera, a musical or a cantata, showing the vocal parts (soloist and choral) on their staves and the non-vocal parts in a piano reduction.
  • Solo score : In the orchestral context, called ” particell a”, it is a score in which only the part that must be performed by a single musician and his instrument, or a group of interpreters who play or sing exactly what is written appears independently. same within a work with more parts.
  • Shortened score: Consists of a reduction of works for multiple instruments to only a few staves. In the composition, often, some type of abbreviated score is written, to later proceed to complete the full orchestration.
  • Lead sheet: This type of sheet music shows only the melody, the lyrics and the harmony, often with chord symbols placed above the staff and with the lyrics below. In popular music, it is used to show the essential elements of the song without specifying how the complete musical arrangement or the exact interpretation of the song should be.


In short, scores have played a decisive role in the conservation and transmission of many ancient music that, only through oral transmission, probably would not have reached our days or would have done so in a more fragmentary and imprecise way.

In addition, knowing these signs and being able to write and read music with this system is a help for students, fans and music professionals. A reference, a guide and a travel companion in the many musical adventures that human beings have been and are capable of creating.

Although they are not necessary to create, play music or sing, they have had and still have a place in the daily lives of performers from all over the world.

The scores, sometimes feared, others unknown, but valuable as an ancient gem, with which we can take giant steps and go much further than repetition and memory allow us.

Therefore, let’s thank each and everyone who made them possible and perfected them, since much of the music we listen to today is simply due to its existence.