How to Organize a Sheet Music Library

Tools & Tips

A sheet music library is an important part of any musician’s life. It is also one that has likely caused a number of organizational headaches over the years. Performers acquire music from many sources, like coaches, collaborators, or directors, and must devise their own methods to keep it all straight. While organizing a digital music library is an entirely virtual experience, organizing physical music can feel like a monumental task. In this article, we’ll establish the tools needed to organize a sheet music library, and share some helpful tips to keep in mind as you get started.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Tools of the Trade

To establish what tools are needed to organize your sheet music library, first evaluate what you have to organize. Music comes in many forms, from books, to published scores, to copies and home-printed editions. You may have scores that require special considerations: awkwardly-sized contemporary printings, delicate vintage editions, or pieces that cannot be hole punched or have staples removed. Using a combination of common organizational tools, you can devise strategies to safely store each of these.

Some of the most useful items for organizing music libraries include:

Three-ring Binders

Three-ring binders are a go-to in the industry for containing music. In addition to easily housing any score that’s smaller than letter size, these are also useful for storing scores that are long horizontally. Pianists, for example, commonly attach pages one after the other to form a long Franken-score. These can easily be folded in on themselves and stored within the safety of the binder covers.

Among Conservatory students and professionals, it is popular to store the bulk of repertoire in large binders at home. These musicians typically carry around a small ½-inch binder containing scores they are actively working on

Tip: In collaborative environments, it’s important to have a copy of all of your active scores for teachers, coaches, or players who are working with you. For this reason, many musicians prepare two or three identical copies of these small “active repertoire” binders.

Plastic Sheet Protectors

Used commonly in the Musical Theatre world, plastic sheet protectors can be a secret weapon for savvy score storers. While, in most settings, plastic sheets are not appropriate for scores that are actively in use, they are a great tool for keeping delicate or un-hole-punchable scores safely stowed in a three-ring binder. 

Hanging File Folders

If you have access to file drawers, hanging file folders are another option for unwieldy or delicate sheet music. This is another solution that avoids hole punching and can accommodate some uncommon sizes. This solution has an environmental upper hand on plastic sheet protectors in file folders are typically not made of plastic. On the downside, this is a less portable alternative to plastic sheet protectors in a three-ring binder.

Magazine Files

Magainze files are binder-shaped, open-topped boxes often used to store floppy magazines upright on shelves. For our purposes in the music organization world, these are ideal for scores that have similar qualities to the boxes’ intended contents. 

A perfect score for this storage method would be the choral edition of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, as printed by Boosey & Hawkes. The score is too thin to stand alone on a shelf (and has no text on the binding, which would make it hard to find on the shelf, anyway), but too thick to rest comfortably in a plastic sheet protector. Using a magazine file, confidently pop this score into a shelf, and know where to find it later on.

Shelf Space

Zooming out, you’ll also need some place to store your new storage systems! Set aside some clean shelf space away from humidity or hazards. Paper is notoriously easy to ruin, so make sure your shelves have clearance from any nearby radiators, water sources, or windows. If you are opting for some hanging file folders, set aside a portion of your file drawer for music.

Tips & Tricks on How to Organize a Sheet Music Library

Whatever materials you choose to store your music, keep it neat! Wrinkled papers are difficult to read from, difficult to copy, and frankly, embarrassing to hand to collaborators. If any score is ripped or missing information (say, the bottom staff), find a complete copy to file, instead.

As performing artists, we are often asked to transcend labels, but in the case of sheet music organization, they are actually useful. Label the outside of binders and magazine files for easy navigation. It’s also helpful to label pieces inside of a binder (stay tuned to this series for more on that!).

Remember as you file away your music that it’s often helpful to keep a clean copy on hand – that is, a score free of markings or changes. Throughout your musical journey , the markings you made for one performance may no longer serve you. You’ll also want a clean copy to distribute to collaborator. This enables them to take notes in their own style, and according to the specifications of the current performance.

Now, get organizing!

Now that you know the tools of the trade, and have a few helpful tips in mind, it’s time to get organizing! Remember to evaluate what you need to store, decide what to use, and then dive in.

Enjoyed these tips? Stay tuned! In our next installment of How to Organize a Sheet Music Library, we’ll introduce a number of organizational systems to help you get your music library fully operational.

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