In an era before the phonograph first transfixed listeners, sales of sheet music defined the popular hits of the day.
Now notated music is enjoying a revival as a fashion for piano-led anthems has encouraged amateur musicians to discover their inner Adele by playing along with their iPad.
It’s no longer enough to replicate the vocal style of today’s hit-makers on The X Factor. With guitar and piano tutorials freely available on YouTube, aspiring performers want to sing and play along with hit songs.
The most successful songs in recent years have been based around emotive female vocals and strong keyboard-led melodies which appear deceptively simple for part-time pianists to emulate.
Download sales of sheet music are soaring as musicians learn to play along with Adele’s "Skyfall" and Emeli Sandé’s "Read All About It Part III".
Nine of the top ten best-selling sheet music songs of 2013 so far are by solo female singers including Pink, Birdy and Christina Perri, whose Twilight soundtrack song A Thousand Years has prompted countless amateur YouTube cover versions.
The sheet music industry, which had been facing potentially terminal decline, as music-lovers shared lyrics and chord notations over the web for free, has now seized upon the renewed desire to “play in a day” current hits.
Musicnotes, the world's largest internet-based sheet music retailer and publisher, has sold more than 17 million downloads to 4 million customers worldwide, recording “double digit growth” for 2013.
Sheet Music Direct, another digital publisher with a catalogue that includes Adele, Katy Perry and Coldplay songs, today released a new iPad app, which allows musicians to download the basic score of a song for just 69p.
The iPad app is designed to combat unlicensed sheet music copies placed on the web by giving struggling musicians greater flexibility.
With a swipe of the iPad a song accompaniment’s tempo can be sped up or slowed down. The key can be transposed to help karaoke warblers who can’t cope with the original’s range.
Players can download an instant “set list” of their favourite songs.
There is no shortage of long-haired “how to play Stairway To Heaven” video tutors on YouTube but the app offers the sacrilegious alternative of flipping Led Zeppelin’s anthem from guitar to piano.
“Like the recorded music industry, sheet music has had to make a difficult transition from physical to digital,” said Alec Saiko, Sheet Music Direct’s marketing manager. “Digital is now about 15% of our sales and what is driving the surge in demand is artists producing piano-led hits.”
Mr Saiko added: “It’s often British artists leading the way, from Coldplay to Emeli Sandé to Adele. We sold around 6,000 score downloads of "Skyfall". The overwhelming majority of the 2013 best-sellers have strong piano lines.”
The sheet music cause was boosted last year by Beck, who released Song Reader, an album which consisted entirely of 20 pieces of sheet music. With no recorded guide, the songs only “came to life” when they were performed and the singer encouraged his audience to interpret them using their own instrumentation and tempos.
Beck’s release harked back to the late 19th century, when the piano in the parlour resounded to the latest popular songs emerging from Tin Pan Alley, distributed via sheet music copies which sold in millions. The rise of the phonograph and radio brought sheet music’s golden era to an end, although the published format still provided the UK’s weekly hit parade until 1952.
The market research company IBISWorld warned that the sheet music industry still faced challenges from education cuts, reducing schools’ investment in musical scores for pupils, “karaoke on YouTube” and pirated versions of sheet music on the internet.
Consumers can shop around for the cheapest sheet music, reducing revenue, and as a result, “the number of companies in the industry is forecast to drop over the next five years by 2016,” IBISWorld predicts.
Digital sheet music however promises to revolutionise life for orchestras, liberating musicians from the requirement to carry around sheaves of paper music. Mr Saiko said: “The iPad means musicians have access to everything ever composed, all the time. That noise you hear when the musicians all turn the page of their score will become obsolete. There is a pedal you can tap which digitally turns the pages.”
Instant downloads helped David Osborne, “pianist to the Presidents”, who has played at the White House on 30 occasions, keep his distinguished audience happy. He said: “Requests were made at a White House party for some Stevie Wonder tunes so I pulled out my iPad, summoned Musicnotes.com and bought sheet music for 'Overjoyed' and 'Ribbon in the Sky'.”
Chilly Gonzales, the pianist, producer and songwriter, said: “My Solo Piano II song 'White Keys' looks great in the Sheet Music Direct for iPad app - the versatility enables pianists from beginners to experts to dissect the song from all of its angles and truly ‘know’ it.”
Top Ten best-selling sheet music scores 2013:
Emeli Sandé: Read All About It, Part III
Bruno Mars: When I Was Your Man
Christina Perri: A Thousand Years
Pink: Just Give Me A Reason
Birdy: People Help The People
Adele: Someone Like You
Emeli Sandé: Clown
Birdy: Skinny Love