Read this before you buy piano sheet music online!

by Elke Galvin October 11, 2022 • 9 minute read
Piano sheet music is widely available on the web, but there are huge differences in quality. Here's what to watch out for to make sure you'll enjoy your piano sheet music.
sheet music with notes
Here, you will learn about the quality of digital sheet music, legal requirements so you don't purchase something that could get you into trouble, and everything that can help you enjoy your sheet music - and your piano practice - more.
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What to look for - and what to avoid

Looking for sheet music can sometimes leave you exhausted because of the sheer volume of files out there - and as in life itself, you'll find the good, the bad, and the ugly. Concerning sheet music, that can translate to: Clearly depicted and nicely arranged, vs. illegal and not copyrighted, or a bad or illegible arrangement. Here are our top tips on how to spot a good, reliable source:

someone holding a phone with sheet music and playing the piano with the other hand

Look for: Cooperation with reputable publishers

Reputable music publishers like the Universal Music Group, Faber Music, Alfred Music, Schott, or Bärenreiter - to name but a few - guarantee high quality when it comes to their sheet music. They consider carefully which platforms they choose to sell their music scores. A site that sells original arrangements by these (and similar) publishing houses will state so clearly on its website. Often, these are the exact arrangements you can also buy as paper editions in your trusted music store.

Avoid: Not knowing the source of the arrangement

While much of Classical music can be found for free somewhere on the web, a lot of issues can arise (see below for more detail). To quote J.K. Rowling:

Never trust anything (...) if you can't see where it keeps its brain

You really need to know who made and uploaded the arrangement you consider using. Yes, as a rule of thumb music that was composed 70 (or in some cases 100) years ago should theoretically be free for general use, but not always - and you could get into serious trouble with a publisher if you don't make sure everything you use is cleared legally. And then, of course, there is always the question of PDF legibility and arranging/annotation quality.

Look for: Recommendations from other players and bloggers

There are people out there whose job it is to find great sheet music for piano players and tell you about it - so you don't have to waste your time doing all the research from scratch. It is a sign of quality if piano players or piano bloggers write about a piano sheet music provider.

Avoid: The unknown sheet music lurker

If none of the professional piano bloggers know about the source you have just discovered, chances are, there's something weird going on with it. Yes, in theory it could just be brand-new, and the next big thing in sheet music, but most likely there's probably a reason why nobody sings its praises.

Look for: Something that tells you how hard an arrangement is

It is not unusual for some sheet music editions to differ from the original piece. They might be transposed - changed in tune - or simplified. If you want to make sure that you'll be able to play the arrangement, choose a provider who lets you see the difficulty levels of his arrangements before the purchase.

Avoid: No idea what you're getting

As written above, you can find different arrangements from the "original". There are some out there that are easy and sound great. There are some out there that are a challenge. And there are some out there - usually free, and arranged by who-knows-whom - that are simply unplayable or sound nothing like what you wanted. Make sure you're not getting one of those.

Look for: Transparency concerning costs

There are various ways to purchase sheet music on the internet: Order online and get it sent to you, download single purchases, or subscribe and stream your scores. Serious providers will give you a clear overview of pricing and possible additional costs (printouts, shipping, etc.), so you're able to compare your options.

Avoid: You have no idea how much it will (really) cost you

If you've been around in the 1990s you might still remember the legal battle surrounding the mp3-sharing that took place before Spotify and Apple Music allowed us to stream music legally. Lots of people were very surprised to be found out and receive fines - after all, they just wanted to listen to music and meant no harm. Well, a harmless download of sheet music for free from some obscure source can become extremely expensive, too, if you violate any copyright issues that you did not know about. So make sure everything you acquire meets the legal requirements. Also, keep in mind that multiple single purchases of arrangements could add up quickly, and - depending on your demands - a subscription with a flat rate could be cheaper in the long run.

a piano with sheet music on top

Be aware of your buying options - and their disadvantages!

Buying sheet music online gives you options - make sure they meet your needs. Say, you want a special arrangement. You know the song, the artist, and the publisher. Do you

  • want it delivered to your door?
  • want it right this very moment?
  • want it on your hard drive?
  • want to take it with you wherever you are?
  • want your grandchildren to inherit that particular sheet music score?

Order online, get it delivered to your doorstep

The great thing about ordering actual paper editions is you can wrap it and send it to someone as a gift, you can physically lend it to your best piano-playing friend, and your grandchildren can inherit your sheet music collection.

The not-so-great thing is that you'll have to wait to have it delivered to your doorstep. And if you're not home when it is delivered, you'll have to pick it up somewhere - you know what we're talking about. Another disadvantage is that you often have to buy the whole fat edition with 17 other pieces that you don't want to play in order to play the one that you DO want to play. And of course you'll have to have the shelf space to store your sheet music, and the muscle power to move it if you move house, or travel with it.

Purchase online and download immediately

This is what we're used to, and what we love doing: Find, buy, and purchase immediately. From hitting the page to downloading, we like to waste as little time as possible. Yes, it's fabulous to find a new piece, buy it, and get your fingers on it within minutes - in the middle of the night, should fancy hit you. But watch the costs - they can add up quickly.

Subscribe and access thousands of glorious pieces you love

You have decided on a sheet music "feeding place" of your choice. There was a trial period which helped you make sure that the provider you chose had enough interesting sheet music to keep you happy. And now you can access the sheet music you enjoy anytime you want in your personal library, store and organize your repertoire, and upload your own sheet music to play it with autoscroll. You discover new sheet music you like because it's literally at your fingertips, for no additional costs. You print out the pieces you like best, for keeps!

The downside: Commitment to a provider. So do make sure yours has a huge selection of pieces for your skill level.

someone playing piano using a tablet

But ... why pay at all?

Composing, setting, arranging, and copying sheet music is an elaborate process that digital publications have to undergo just like print publications before you are able to play them. Composers, arrangers, and music publishers that are involved in the publication process have a vested interest in receiving fair pay for their job - it is their way of earning a living.

Opposed to that there is a movement that wants the public to have access to the cultural property "sheet music". It is the law (in the EU, but similar laws apply all over the world) that the rightful interests of composers and publishers expire after the composer has been deceased for a certain amount of years - most often, 70 years. Then the composition enters the public domain.

There are special situations that can be problematic from a legal point of view. If the composer is deceased for more than 70 years but a music publisher still owns the rights to the published arrangement, free copies downloaded from the web can be illegal. Free sheet music platforms usually state that they do not take any legal responsibility for any uploaded PDFs. They just appeal to uploaders to make sure they have the right to publish the material they upload and make it accessible. Fact: If you want to be on the safe side, buy your sheet music.

someone playing a piano

Summing it all up: Your step-by-step questionnaire

  1. Determine what basics you are looking for. Decide whether you are looking for
    1. one particular arrangement,
    2. a particular genre
    3. a bundle, collection, or book (movie soundtrack, album by an artist,...)
    4. or sheet music in general?
  2. Determine what YOU specifically need. Are you a beginner? Do you want a simplified or special edition? Do you have difficulty reading sheet music and need video/audio examples of how it is supposed to sound? Would you like sheet music combined with a tutorial?
  3. WHEN do you need it? Would you like to play immediately? Or do you need the piece for lesson tomorrow? Next week? Or do you need a continuous supply of sheet music?
  4. How would you like to receive your sheet music? Would you want to acquire it digitally to play on your tablet? Would you like to print it (make sure your service allows printing!)? Would you like to hold it in your hand?
  5. What is your budget? How much are you willing to pay for sheet music right now, and in the foreseeable future?
  6. Choose a trustworthy sheet music supplier. Make sure they cooperate with renowned publishers and they guarantee that the sheet music they sell is officially licensed. If necessary, read a few reviews. Also make sure your supplier carries enough sheet music you need (some cater for a variety of instruments, which may limit your choice when it comes to piano literature).
  7. What extra features would make your life easier? Would you like to be able to add your fingerings and comments directly to your digital files? Would you like to be able to electronically organize your sheet music in one spot? Would you like a digital metronome or autoscroll feature to make playing easier?
a woman and a child sitting in front of a piano

Elke Galvin
Elke Galvin is a British-Austrian singer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. She has worked both as a musician and journalist for over 25 years. Not only is she an acclaimed songwriter, she loves to write about music, too! Making music theory easy to understand is her passion, as is writing about music styles, music and the brain, and how to have fun learning and playing music.

Frequently asked questions

  • When does a sheet music subscription make sense for me? When is a single purchase better?
    Single purchases of individual pieces of sheet music can become expensive quite quickly. If you like to play a lot, and want to make sure that every sheet music you use is legally accessible, and of high quality, a sheet music subscription service pays off quickly. If you hardly play new songs a subscription might not be worth your while. It is probably better to buy individual pieces in that case. But watch out and compare - a subscription might save you money starting with as little as 2-3 pieces you play per month.
  • Why are some arrangements available for free, while others have to be bought and paid for?
    Contemporary compositions (Movie Soundtracks, New Age, Rock, Pop, Jazz,...) are protected by law. You can only lawfully own a copy of them if you pay for it. This usually gives you the added benefit of having excellent sheet music quality, optimized for digital use (no hard-to-read scans of yellowing old book pages!). And fair remuneration for contemporary composers ensures they can keep writing music professionally. Once a composer has been deceased for more than 70 years, his or her music enters the public domain and can be used for free. However, publishing houses can still hold legal rights to certain editions - so if you want to be on the safe side, pay for your arrangements.
  • What do I have to keep in mind when buying sheet music via the internet?
    The most important thing is that you know what you want and look for exactly that. One and the same song can be available in a piano solo version, in a version for vocals & piano accompaniment, or in a chord & lyrics lead sheet arrangement. Also, one and the same song can be available in various difficulty levels. Depending on what you want, pay attention to labels like "original" or "for beginners". OR use a sheet music service that clearly labels the skill level and arrangement style.

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