Should you judge a song by its cover? Roger Trapp explains the esoteric appeal of sheet music
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Picture a typical Sunday night in households up and down the land. While the Sim City CD-Rom is loaded in the upstairs bedroom, siblings squabble over use of the multimedia PC. Downstairs their parents watch Sky News while simultaneously taping Cracker on terrestrial TV. In another room, a teenager wearing giant padded headphones is umbilically linked to the mini hi-fi playing a favourite CD. In the granny flat, an elderly woman talks on the phone to her sister hundreds of miles away.

What would that scene have been like 170 years ago? Less insular and fragmented, certainly, since it was around that time - in 1827 - that a new piece of technology completely transformed the character of family entertainment. That device was the upright piano, successor to the grand, compact enough to fit into the parlour of most homes. Sing-songs and recitals around the piano, uniting families across generations, became a household tradition that was to last a century or more.

It was this, more than anything, that sparked the Golden Age of sheet music. Our collectibles of the future might be early computer games, CD sleeve notes, old issues of the Radio Times or Wired magazine, but the family-entertainment legacy bequeathed by the Victorian and Edwardian eras is the songsheet.

The best examples were beautiful as well as practical. Between 1870 and 1890 in particular, engravers such as John Brandard and Alfred Concannen turned their talents to producing eye-catching covers for the music of the day. The prime aim was to lure amateur musicians into buying the equivalent of today's Top 20 tunes, but years later the artwork was so highly rated that collectors on both sides of the Atlantic would pay more attention to the covers than to the scores inside them.

This tradition of high-class, finely-drawn illustrations continued into the first years of this century, when another technological breakthrough - mechanised transport - again inspired artists and songsmiths. The sinking of the Titanic prompted the publication of many related songs in 1912, while ballooning and the first motor cars also acted as muses. Some collectors specialise in such themes; others opt for a particular genre of music. Opera scores attract prices of pounds 100 or more, while the much more popular music-hall songsheets cost just pounds 5-pounds 10. Often, enthusiasts will collect the work of a particular artist.

Until the 1970s the lively trade in sheet music concerned with transport and other themes continued, according to the London auction house Onslow's. Since then, one or two prominent collectors have died - and, while some US enthusiasts still visit Britain for sales and fairs, the market is not as dynamic as it used to be.

This is good news, of course, for the not-so-dedicated amateur. Timothy Meaker, proprietor of Archive Books and one of several London booksellers who trade in old sheet music as a sideline, says many items can be obtained for just a few pounds. Rare pieces, such as those dating from before 1800, will cost more, some fetching pounds 200-pounds 300. Colour-printed examples from the second half of the nineteenth century, when Brandard and Concannen were active, can be bought from antiquarian book dealers and specialist music shops for pounds 30-pounds 40.

For collectors less interested in artwork than in the music itself, there is another source. In a warehouse on an uninspiring industrial estate in south Essex, two veterans - John Whitehorn and Brian Court - run what is probably the largest archive of printed sheet music in the world. ExpressPrints is owned by Warner Brothers, a commercial enough operation, yet Whitehorn and Court seem to do the job largely for the love of it. The two are internationally renowned for their ability to track down an elusive ditty, even if callers can only hum the first few bars or provide the vaguest of clues. "Often they just know the first line or the chorus, or the film it's from," says John Whitehorn.

He has been with the company since it started 13 years, and was joined by Brian Court in 1989. Both men have long experience of the industry. Whitehorn, a keen jazz fan with close contacts with collectors around the world, started in the business 33 years ago, and over the course of his career has worked at the famous Bond Street shop Chappell and the Performing Rights Society, as well as the record company EMI. Court started in the stockroom at Francis Day & Hunter in 1952 and ran the sheet music department at the company's Charing Cross Road office for the 13 years before joining ExpressPrints.

Though works are indexed alphabetically and numerically, the service works well largely because much of the detailed knowledge of the archive's 250,000 titles - covering all styles of music, from Stanley Holloway monologues to the hits of the Rolling Stones and Queen - is in the heads of the two partners.

ExpressPrints can typically supply a request for music within 48 hours - a welcome alternative to the much slower British Library, where - as with books - everything is registered.

Occasionally customers will phone up and ask for a song with some sentimental significance which they barely remember (a photocopy costs pounds 1), but most of the 30 or so calls a day come from perfomers, both amateur and professional. "We get asked for many music hall numbers, from the turn of the century up to the 20s," says John Whitehorn. "Most parts of the country have a music hall society putting on shows. Alice in Wonderland is a perennial favourite," he explains, "but there are different settings, so you have to know which one."

Easier to deal with are the inquiries relating to popular novelties such as Arthur Askey's Bee Song and Rolf Harris's Jake The Peg, and ballads dating back to the archive's origins in the mid-nineteenth century. There is an argument, though, that the archive is only as good as the two experts running it. What will happen when the two of them retire? Stephen Clark, the head of publishing and copyright at IMP (ExpressPrint's parent company), certainly appreciates their expertise. He concedes, though, that the system is archaic and that much of the collection could be stored electronically.

Modernisation will not be a simple task. Converting 250,000 hard copies to electronically stored images that can be printed by laser is such a daunting task that the company is resigned to initially concentrating on the 3,000-5,000 titles requested most often. Modern chart singles, surprisingly, sell several hundred copies of sheet music - probably to bedroom guitar pickers rather than parlour pianists. George Michael's recent comeback record, for example, was one of the biggest-selling single sheets of recent years.

The figures, though, are nothing like those achieved in the 1930s and 1940s when sheet music sales were the barometer of an artist's success; a popular song then would sell more than a million single sheets. The coming of technology - particularly the arrival of vinyl in the late 1950s - changed all that, but a more recent high-tech development could transform the fortunes of IMP and compensate for the loss of Messrs Whitehorn and Court. It could even trigger the renaissance of the sort of home entertainment the Victorians knew and loved.

The Midifile is an electronic box that can be plugged into a keyboard to simulate a band's performance. The home musician can delete the part he or she wants to play and then, according to IMP's Stephen Clark, is forced to play in time with the rest of the "band".

The product has been available for three years but costs almost pounds 500. Now, the boxes are being built into electronic keyboards, so prices are expected to plummet. The equipment can also be linked to the multimedia systems now so common in homes, and IMP is anticipating a resurgence of interest in sheet music - albeit in a modern format. Compilations of songs by Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Elton John have already been prepared. Others are likely to follow.

! IMP can be contacted on 0181 550 0550; Archive Books 0171 402 8212; Onslow's Auctioneers 0171 371 0505; the Ephemera Society, Fitzroy Square, London W1.