Nine Million Sources

Posted by cmotuz on February 09, 2012

In my last post I mentioned that I estimated that there were around nine million different sources of printed music in the world. How did I come up with that number?

Most of my information comes from RISM, the international organization which works with over 7000 libraries worldwide to try to document all of the written and printed music in the world, from Anthems and Allemandes to Zajal and Zarzuela. The RISM website makes its own estimate of the number of music prints in the world, with the usual disclaimer that even they, the world’s collectors of music, can only attempt to hit somewhere in the ballpark. RISM reckons:

  • about 1.8 million music manuscripts between 1600 and 1800

  • at least 2 million music manuscripts between 1800 and 1950

  • around 140 000 printed music books before 1800

  • around 4 million printed music books after 1800

This gives us a total of just under 8 million unique musical documents. Of course these are not all catalogued by RISM: they have, for instance, around 726 000 entries for manuscripts before 1800 and more than 78 000 single-composer prints by 7616 different composers in 2178 libraries. I’ve added another million to RISM’s number as an of manuscript sources after 1950. Before 1600 is also a gap, but as we’re counting surviving sources and not sources of all time, there aren’t so many. René-Jean Hesbert used around 800 sources of antiphonals in his Corpus antiphonalium office, around the same number of chant sources used by the monks of Solemnes when putting together the Liber Usualis. Surviving secular sources of monophony are much fewer, as secular music was often written down without music or passed on orally. In terms of polyphony, the Census Catalogue records 1649 entries for polyphony 1400-1550 (which can be adjusted with a thorough search through DIAMM but won’t change in order of magnitude), leaving us with 50 years to account for - but even if we had ten thousand from this time it’s still not a significant number.

I did add one million manuscripts after 1950, on the theory that almost everything that has been written down since then will have survived. Before computer notation software, most music, whether finally printed or not, was originally in manuscript form, and with 858 000 entries on Worldcat for music after 1950, 722 major composers born after 1900 on Wikipedia, and all the sketches ever made since rock n’ roll this number seems about right to me, leaving us with around 9 million sources. To be taken with a very large grain of salt of course! To quote RISM: “nobody can count such a huge amount” of music!