Sheet Music Organization

Edited: May 27, 2019, 12:10 PM · I am in the middle of cleaning house, and am trying to figure out how to organize my sheet music. Since I've worked as an orchestral librarian, I have my own system that I want to use but I need something to put them in. Regular (to Americans) file folders don't work for my orchestral pieces (orchestral parts are too large for them). Any ideas?

Replies (14)

May 27, 2019, 6:34 PM · I have found that music stays in better shape if it is stored flat ("horizontal storage"). I used a filing cabinet with file folders 50 years ago ("vertical storage"). When the filing cabinet became insufficient I tried vertical storage on shelves. Some of my music was inherited from my father who died 65 yeas ago and is over 100 years old; it survives "horizontal storage" without the aging stresses of "vertical storage."

What is practical depends on how much music you have to store. I now have about 20 cubic feet of music and my storage "system" only holds 18 cubic feet.

I keep my music in 18 stacks in a 6'high x 3'wide x 1' deep bookcase with 6 shelves (and a top that could be used as another shelf but that's too high for me these days and only holds some over-size stuff and I need a step ladder to get to it). Each stack has a label at the bottom. It is not sufficient for all the music I now have, but it was for a while after I bought that used bookcase at a thrift shop 20 years ago.

I don't have room for a better storage system that would allow faster retrieval of a specific piece of music, but at least I can search for music in one of 18 categories, which is better than searching through everything.

Edited: May 27, 2019, 8:09 PM · There have been other threads on this in the past. For example:

My system is super simple and it doesn't require any fancy-pants software. I created a spreadsheet (it's a Google sheet, great for sharing or accessing from my phone, but Excel will work too). In the first column I have whole numbers starting with 1. The other columns are composer(s), editor(s), name of the piece or volume, instrumentation (e.g., piano trio), and comments (keywords).

Take all your items one by one. First, write the next available number on the front cover with a Sharpie pen. Then fill in the rest of the columns for that volume. If anything has multiple parts, all the parts get the same index number. Then store them in numerical order even if they are otherwise basically random. That's it.

When you want to find a piece, you browse your Google sheet rather than your physical library -- it's completely searchable/sortable and you can find composers, instrumentation, keywords that you may have entered into the "comments" column, etc.

With my system it does not matter one whit that you have a book of studies in between a Mozart concerto and a volume of Haydn trios. The next volume I buy gets the next available number, period.

May 28, 2019, 6:19 AM · I second Andrew's suggestion: Store the music horizontally. When I was young sheet music stores stored their music horizontally on shelves in stacks of up to about a foot high with a cardboard cover on top. On the cardboard a description of the content of the stack (done with a marker), e.g. "string quartets E - F".

At home I do it without the cardboard; I have only 4 stacks and remember what is in there.

This requires zero silicon which I find attractive. I don't want to log on or off any time I need a book or want to put it away.

Edited: May 28, 2019, 10:51 AM · IKEA's got a lot of storage boxes around the size of an orchestral part - TJENA's 9 3/4x 13 3/4, SMARASSEL is 10 3/4 x 13 3/4
Edited: May 29, 2019, 8:26 PM · You don't have to "log on or off every time" with my system either. Unless you are buying/selling/trading music all the time, once you have finished creating your spreadsheet catalog you can sort it by your most preferred means of searching (often this will be by composer) and then print it out and keep it near where your music is stored. But I bet you will find that making three or four taps on your phone is not a challenging task especially if you set a bookmark for your Google sheet in your browser.

Also you don't need to access the database at all to put music away since it's organized in numerical order.

May 30, 2019, 8:24 AM · I use draughtsman's folders to prevent over-sized orchestral parts from getting dog-eared.
May 30, 2019, 8:51 AM · For you folks taking a lay-flat approach, do you have a specific cabinet to recommend? I desperately need to get my music collection under control.
June 1, 2019, 10:02 AM · I have had mine for a long time. It came as a gift from my mother. She had found somewhere an old cabinet (I mean old!) and had it restored by a carpenter for me as a music cabinet when I moved out at home. It is going to fall victim to an upcoming move now.

Lydia, many cabinets with shelves will do. The shelves should be spaced approx. a foot apart and I prefer it when they are deep enough to accommodate the music upright, i.e. the short side of the page along the front edge.

Edited: June 1, 2019, 10:29 PM · Lydia how about something like this, perhaps you can order extra shelves for it.

If you want something wall-mounted and you don't need to protect the front (i.e., from dust) then a "mail-sorting" cabinet would seem quite serviceable so long as the slots are not designed to hold 8.5x11 paper too closely.

Or go to Wayfair and type in "wood cubby" -- zillions of choices there.

June 2, 2019, 2:19 AM · Use „ architects file cabinet“ for a search. Would those be a solution for the lay-flat approach?
June 2, 2019, 5:17 AM · I understand that frail music may store better flat but most of mine is pretty hardy and I find its much easier to look through vertical music than to dig through a horizontal pile. I have an Ikea open multi-box unit. In that I put clear plastic 'desk file holders' (Staples) - but the kind without a front or a top - so that any music size will fit. These are about 4 inches wide so they serve to both organize and to ensure that the music does not flop over. I'd share a picture of the holder but can not find one online (almost all of these have a stupid short front or top panel that stops you putting oversize paper in)!

Other than that my music is in general catagories (solo, chamber etc) and then by composer. The problem of cross-indexing physical objects goes back forever, it was a nightmare at work with journal articles which numbered into the thousands.

Edited: June 2, 2019, 12:43 PM · The journal article problem is what originally inspired me to enumerate my music. After completing my whole dissertation using the "footnotes" feature of Word Perfect, my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) introduced me to MS-DOS software called "Papyrus" that was one of the best fully searchable journal article database of its time. It's hallmark feature was that every new article got the next index number! You entered all the other data (author, journal, keywords for searching later), and stored the physical copy in a huge file cabinet by number, usually in pendaflex folders 10 at a time. That was fine in the days before the proliferation of journals and "information" became truly obscene. More recently we have software like EndNote and Mendeley which are able to extract PDF articles directly from journal databases and store them in searchable full-text with all the reference information ready to drop into fully automated bibliographies. What we need is for the fledgling music databases (such as MobileSheets, which has PC companion software) to interface with IMSLP just as smoothly as EndNote interfaces with SciFinder. In 20 years or fewer, when you go to your violin lesson you will clip your tablet to a stand in your teacher's studio, and as you play your teacher will be marking your part on their own tablet and transferring the markings to you with a couple of pen clicks. Suzuki will go paperless.
June 3, 2019, 10:44 AM · I do not have a big collection, but I do a combo of lay flat and upright (as my bookcase allows). For now, I have my lay flat items in the wire mesh magazine holders and have them laying on their side with pieces of foam core between them to keep them level. It is a really not great approach because getting items out of said holders requires a lot of taking apart. I'm looking into what the scrap-bookers do with their assorted papers, or as Paul suggested: the mail sorting shelves/cabinets, as I think this would be a fine way to keep my meager collection of music.

I do not think flat files are the answer here (in a former life I was a printmaker, and flat files are used extensively). They take up a ton of room for the amount of "storage" they provide. In my opinion, as someone who has two flat files at home, they are really meant for the protection of fine/delicate items and not practical for every-day storage or use.

I would think that a legal-size filing cabinet with hanging folders would be the best way to store masses of sheet music. Even better are the tall legal size cabinets with three drawers and one top "shelf" that pulls out for unusually sized items.

I hope to never have to go paperless, I prefer reading off paper!

June 3, 2019, 11:36 AM · I currently have Billy shelves with my music stored vertically. I tried hanging file folders as well, but the cabinet was cheap and crappy and that didn't work out very well.

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