The impact of printing on the dissemination of music.

The printing of (mostly) liturgical text and books of music for chant were produced as early (in the West) as early as 1473 using the woodblock method by which the content is carved or abraded in relief from a flat block of wood so as to leave a gap or space where the white of the page is to be left clear. The block is then inked with a roller or cloth and pressed firmly against the paper. Although this method allows many copies of a single text to be produced with relative ease once the block has been completed, it’s still an extremely labour-intensive and highly skilled task, taking into consideration the fact that all the content has to be produced as a mirror image of the required end product and one mistake (unless skilfully manipulated) would require the whole block to be recreated from scratch. Before this time all copies of a document were required to be made by hand, letter by letter and note by note.

This new technique was superseded (although the woodblock method stayed in use in some areas) in the early 1450s when Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of printing using moveable type and produced his famous bible. This method had been in use in the East for at least the previous 400 years but the technology hadn’t made its way back to Europe with the Occidental explorers of the time.

It’s worth noting that plate printing continued to be used well into the nineteenth century. Beethoven complains of the errors in copperplate engraved prints of his work as late as 1811 (See (1) below).

This development greatly smoothed the path for the Venetian Ottaviano Petrucci when he took the concept of moveable type and used it to produce an anthology of chanson by French and Flemish composers, the “Harmonice Musices Odhecaton” (also known as “the Odhecaton”) in 1501. This move by Perucci was important as the content of the Odhecaton were secular polyphonic chanson. The printing of plainchant was previously possible but making many musical parts available was a technological leap. It was a success and the technique was copied across Europe, lowering the cost of printed music and allowing the exchange of ideas across a greatly expanded audience.

The impact of moveable type on the Reformation is well known but the wider impact throughout many other features of  Renaissance Europe is astonishing. The ability to cheaply produce documents which share ideas unbound by the need of a skilled workforce to produce the woodblock (which was generally managed by the church or nobility) fuelled the onset of the knowledge-based society which we still enjoy today.

So it was with Petrucci and his music. The new printers produced music of all sorts and it spread rapidly throughout the known world, allowing musicians access to compositions that had previously had only local exposure.

A second advantage of this printing method was one of accuracy. When documents were copied by hand (before woodblock printing) errors inevitably crept in and as the document is copied further, the errors are compounded. Moveable type for music eradicated this issue at a stroke. Although a second method of printing with moveable type with a single impression (staff, notes and text in a single pressing) had been developed by John Rastell in England the quality of the print wasn’t as good as that produced in Petrucci’s triple impression method.

This situation regarding the circulation of musical ideas persisted until 1877 when Thomas Edison recorded “Mary had a little lamb” on his newly invented phonograph and, most importantly, played it back using the same device. We could now take a recording of a sound and keep it, playing it back at will.

Further development of the technique picked up quickly, driven by a number of people and it wasn’t long before Emile Berliner, a German-American engineer took the Edison technology and in 1896-7 moved it to a flat disc of a shellac based compound, greatly improving fidelity, simplifying production and lowering costs. Along with advances in recording technology, we were now able to record, copy, mass-produce and sell a recording of a piece of music. This technique, though greatly revised and refined, was the primary method of sharing music until the digital age of music (beginning in the 1980s) and the advent of the CD.

The CD has too many advantages over the record (by now made primarily of vinyl) and as production costs of digital media decreased the comparative production costs of vinyl increased (the economies of scale being what they are) and the digital Compact Disk with its enhanced frequency reproduction capability, sturdiness and much reduced size and weight became the new front runner for the dissemination of recorded music. This was a double-edged sword for the music industry as along with the CD, another new piece of consumer technology, the personal computer came into mainstream use, along with the Gutenberg press of the digital age, the Internet.

In 1999, three American computer programmers (Fanning, Fanning, Parker) developed and distributed a free piece of software, Napster, which allowed the peer-to-peer sharing of digital files. Six years previously, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany had developed a new (improved) way of encoding digital audio. The MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, commonly known as MP3. Upon general release by Fraunhofer (it had been reverse-engineered and published on the Internet without their permission), the encoding software allowed owners of personal computers to “rip” (copy to a digital file) the contents of their CDs.

This was the beginning of the end for the by now massive music recording industry. Having rested on their laurels they were in no position to keep up when Napster and (before long) other sites like them started sharing ripped MP3s of all their back catalogue. It was no longer necessary for fans of music to buy a CD. They could download a copy in a matter of minutes for free.

This is where we currently stand with music publishing. Having been propelled from Petrucci in the sixteenth century as a business idea to iTunes in the twenty first, the success of the recorded music industry has become its own downfall as it became ever more bloated and hubristic. Music is now being produced in home studios around the world and shared legally via websites like SoundCloud and Spotify and everybody is reaping the benefits. Everybody except the record company executives.

Thank you Fraunhofer


(1) – Lockwood, L. (2003). Beethoven, The music and the life. New York, London: W. W. Norton. 92.