Buyer’s Guide – Printed Music Or Digital Downloads 

By Barry M Rivman

   Life is a series of tradeoffs—everything has an upside and a downside. The trick is to find something where the upsides outweigh the downsides significantly enough for you to take your chances. However, there are some things in life that have no downside—albeit very few, but they exist nonetheless. One such zero-downside item is printed music manuscript. And before you go all renewable green on us, paper can be recycled and trees can be responsibly replanted. The point is that printed sheet music has no downside to you, the musician/user.

Digital downsides

   The upside of digital sheet music appears to be the ability to download music instantly. Another advantage is the ability to preview the music before you purchase it. Sounds great, but when you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover that there may be far more thorn than rose petal in that garden.

   To begin with, the instant-gratification aspect of downloading only holds true if your computer is capable of reading the files and/or is compatible with the vendor’s reader/print software. Digital files can also be corrupt or merely formatted incorrectly, rendering them unusable. Warning: digital files can also be infected with viruses, spybots, or adbots, so make sure you purchase from a reputable dealer.)

   Another important issue to factor in regards ownership. Due to copyright law, you cannot store complete sheet music files on your computer (recall the RIAA lawsuits). This ties in to the ability to preview digital sheet music before purchase. Because of the aforementioned copyright law, you can only preview a single sample page. (Otherwise, the seller would be distributing the music for free and subject to lawsuit.) For you to access it, digital sheet music must be read from the vendor’s site or printed out.

  • Fits on any music stand or music rest anywhere
  • Always readable – no batteries to fail during performance
  • Retains value or may appreciate in value
  • Has sentimental value as collectors item
  • Requires no special reading devices
  • Lasts beyond your lifetime
  • Can become a decorative item
  • Does not require tech support or extensive FAQ
  • Returnable if not satisfied
  • Instant access to
  • Can preview music before purchase


In a perfect world . . .  

   Let’s say your digital downloading experience goes off without a hitch—all the technology is humming away—and your computer can read the files. How are you going to read them? If you’re lucky enough to have a grand piano at home, you could put a laptop with WiFi or Bluetooth on the piano, or perhaps an iPad (assuming the vendor’s software works with an iPad app). But if you’re using a digital piano, you’ll need a special stand to hold the electronic devices.

   There are also dedicated eBook-style devices that are designed to read digital files and sit on a special stand, which sell for around $500. While these readers can hold up to 50,000 pages of music, you have to convert your digital files to the reader’s proprietary file format—one at a time. And if you upgrade your OS to a version not supported by the manufacturer’s proprietary software, you can’t transfer downloaded files at all and your expensive music reader becomes useless.

Laptop Computer with iPod Headphones and Sheet Music

Read the fine print  

   Obviously the easiest way to read digital sheet music is to print it (hmm, printed music on paper—what a concept!). However, if you have printer issues and can’t print the file, you’re on your own. Not only have you paid for a download you can’t access, but also you’ll be spending time on tech-support calls and troubleshooting, rather than playing music. Another thing to consider is when you print out digital sheet music you’re paying hidden costs. Well, not so hidden really—you’re paying for printer ink and paper. And since the file stays resident on the vendor’s site, you don’t really own the sheet music; you’re merely renting. 

  Printed music fits on any music stand or music rest anywhere, and does not require hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of equipment to read. And when you think about it, if the only format you’re going to end up owning is paper anyway, why not eliminate the digital middleman and go directly for print? That way, you don’t have to deal with managing single sheets of paper, plus you get high-quality, professionally engraved music manuscript, not to mention cover art.

   Best of all, to read printed music, you don’t need to deal with system requirements, OS compatibility, battery life, WiFi or internet connections, tech support, or FAQs ranging from site access problems, to software compatibility issues, to print problems, and more.

  Technologically speaking, printed sheet music is backward compatible to ancient Mesopotamia and will remain state-of-the-art as long as humans have eyes. Quite simply, the sheet music you bought twenty years ago will still be usable twenty years from now. You can’t say that about any digital technology. For longevity and economy, printed music is a no-brainer.


It’s a well-known fact that not all transcriptions of popular music for piano are entirely accurate. So how can you tell if you’re buying a well-transcribed song sheet or book if you can’t read it beforehand? With downloads, you’re depending on customer reviews, which are not always accurate themselves.

   The question remains: have you wasted money buying an inaccurate transcription of a song on sheet music? With a digital download, the answer is yes, unequivocally, since once printed, it is not refundable. However, printed sheet music is returnable (restocking fees may apply). It’s also resalable and offers the possibility of a greater return, which brings us to our next topic: Sheet music as collector’s items.  

  • Overnight shipping is expensive if needed right away
  • Limited or no preview before online purchase 
  • Hard copy print outs cost extra money in printer ink and paper
  • Digital files can be corrupted and/or unreadable
  • Digital files can contain malware (viruses, spybots, adbots)
  • OS update can cause files to be unreadable
  • No replacement for files unreadable by your system
  • Non-returnable
  • No resale value
  • No sentimental value
  • Non-collectible
  • Reading requires laptop, iPad, or dedicated electronic reader
  • Files for electronic reader must be converted to proprietary files one at a time
  • Electronic reader software may not support latest OS
  • Electronic reader requires power – batteries may fail during performance


Art & Collectibles 

   Printed music has one advantage that digital downloads will never have: the ability to retain value or appreciate in value. The only thing that can be said of digital downloads in this regard, is that once the file reader becomes obsolete, your sheet music is worth nothing. A collection of PDF files will never make you a millionaire. On the other hand, printed music can. For example, André Meyer’s collection of music manuscript for sale at Sothebys, is valued at well over $1M. (So start collecting those classical scores now—your grandchildren will thank you.)

   Pop music sheets, on the other hand, will most likely not increase in value significantly enough to make you a millionaire, or even a thousandaire, but it’s affordable, which makes easy and fun to collect—and as such, still provides greater value than digital downloads. To appreciate in value, pop sheet music must be rare, in perfect condition, and preferably signed by the artist. The sheet music for The Wizard of Oz’ “Over The Rainbow" signed by Judy Garland is valued from $2,500 to $5000, but there are only four authenticated copies known to exist. Then again, you never know what a collector will pay for pop culture items—who knew comic books would ever be worth anything?

   There are also numerous societies dedicated to collecting printed music of all ages and genres, such as the New York Sheet Music Society, where you can find kindred spirits. As yet, there are no sites dedicated to vintage PDFs and MP3s and none likely in the near or far future. Nor are there likely to be any collectible first edition e-books either.

Collectible Sheet Music and New Sheet Music

Preservation of culture and its impact 

   We have written manuscript from the times of Beethoven and before, which is not only of historical value, but educational and cultural value as well. All western art music, not to mention our current music education system, is based on the work of a handful of composers who were kind enough to write their musical thoughts down on paper for posterity.

  Today, over two hundred years after Beethoven’s time, we can still read music written in his own hand. Two hundred years from now, do you think there’ll be a computer that will read today’s file formats? Imagine the state of music today if all of the great composers and pianists, regardless of musical genre, stored their work on digital formats, such as the 5-1/2" floppy disc. (It would be the same as Renn asking Stimpy to guard the history eraser button.)

And “Finale . . .”

   Despite the easy access of downloading music, it’s only tangible value rests in its ability to be printed on paper. Digital media devalues and renders disposable everything it touches (ask anyone in the record industry) and the technology required to access digital media is quite costly, requiring constant upgrade and replacement. Professionally printed music is easy to read, convenient to use, never requires tech support or power supplies, retains its value and usefulness, and most importantly, preserves and advances our musical history and culture.