An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

Graphic Art
Musical Art

The Printer's Craft

Early printing of music – typography and woodblock

Gutenberg invented moveable type in the West in 1450. However, early printed material that incorporated music had no way to easily print musical notation. Printers simply left spaces for the music to be added by hand. The problem with printing music was that the notes and the lines had to occupy the same space.


Woodblock cuts – the Bay Psalm Book

Bay Psalm Book, Psalm 23
Bay Psalm Book, 9th ed. (1698). Psalm 23.
Woodblock music with typeset text.


Woodcut blocks were in wide use by the end of the 15th century for non-liturgicalbooks, such as the mathematical treatises that also dealt with music theory. The text was printed with moveable type and the diagrams and music were provided by woodblock. The earliest example of this technique was probably a text dated Basle (Switzerland) 1485. Early woodblocks of music were often of poor quality because the cutting had to be absolutely precise and inks tended to blob at certain places, such as the junction of note and staff. Not many works were printed using this method after 1500, though a few were produced as late as the 19th century. Our exhibit includes an example of the first music to be printed in the British colonies of North America, the ninth edition of the Bay Psalm Book (Boston: Green and Allen, 1698). (Stanley Boorman, ‘Woodblock Printing’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 8/15/06),



Entirely typeset music – how it is done

Finally in the 1470s the Konstanz gradual printer solved the problem of notes and lines occupying the same space by making 2 passes – one for the lines, one for the notes. Incunabula such as these were produced by about 66 printers in 25 towns. Boorman describes below how musical type was created:

“There were three stages to the making of type. Firstly, the type-cutter cuts the required design – a letter, a note, a section of staff – on to the end of a piece of mild steel, cutting away the unwanted metal. The finished tool is then tempered hard and becomes a ‘punch’, which becomes the master copy of the symbol. The punch is then driven into a piece of copper to make a ‘strike’. The strike has to be cleaned, smoothed and squared up, when it becomes a ‘matrix’, a copy of the design, but recessed into the metal. This matrix is used to make each piece of type; placed in the bottom of a mould, into which molten type-metal is then poured, the matrix will produce a raised version of the symbol on the end of the solidifying metal. This metal, when cold, turned out of the mould and cleaned of waste metal or rough edges, forms a single piece of type. The matrix and mould can then be re-used to make more copies of the symbol, or a new matrix can be inserted in the mould, to start making type sorts for a new symbol.” (Stanley Boorman, ‘Printing from Type’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 8/15/06),

Southern Harmony. Wm. Walker, Compiler.
Typeset by E.W. Miller, Philadelphia, 1854

Notes were either lozenge-shaped or square.

Later innovations in music typography of the 18th century included the mosaic method of putting music notes with the lines together with lots of smaller bits to make a mosaic for a single impression. 19th century innovations included various 2-pass systems. Typography in our exhibit includes the famous American 19th-century Southern Harmony collection of shape-note tunes.



Selection of Irish Melodies
John Stevenson. Irish Melodies.
Freehand engraving by James Power, Dublin, 1808.


Intaglio engraving on copper plate was not done for music until 1536 or so. While intaglio printing created a nicer impression, it required a different press than typography, providing greater pressure and specialized treatment. Music was produced both by etching the copper plate with acid (removal of wax freehand allowed for that) or using special punches to engrave the copper plate. Eventually pewter was used instead of copper for the plates. The plates were inked and cleaned, with ink only left in the incised parts. The press pushed dampened paper hard against the plate and absorbed the ink from the etched or incised parts. Engraving gained popularity and engravers standardized the appearance of the musical form as we know it today in the early- to mid-19th century. Our examples include Henry Dawkins’s freehand engraving of James Lyons’s Urania (1761), Parisian violinist and engraver Charles-Nicholas Le Clerc’s (1736-1771) edition of 6 Vivaldi Sonatas, 6 other Vivaldi Sonatas engraved and printed by Michel-Charles Le Cène before 1743, more Vivaldi Sonatas engraved by Le Cène’s father-in-law, Estienne Roger in the 1690s, Viennese Tobias Haslinger’s engraving of piano works by Clara Wieck (Schumann) in the 1830s or 40s, one of the most famous collections of folk music, James and William Power’s Dublin engraving of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies (1808-34), C.F. Peters’ 1854 edition of Bach Inventions, and the famous Italian Giovanni Ricordi’s 1870s edition of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.

James Lyons.  Urania
Urania, a choice collection of psalm-tunes, anthems and Hymns.
James Lyons, comp. Freehand engraving by Henry Dawkins, 1761.
Clara Wieck Schumann.  Works for Piano
Clara Wieck Schumann. Variations de Concert. Freehand
engraving by Tobias Haslinger, Vienna, 1837.



Engraving in dispute with Lithography
Henri-Daniel Plattel (1803-1859). Copper-engraving
in dispute with Lithography. Lithograph by A. Fournier.

Lithography, the printing from limestone that has been acid-etched, came about in the late 18th century. Some techniques made for a stone with a raised surface for printing, as in typography; other techniques made for a relief surface for printing, as in engraving. The transfer process of lithography involved chemical ink and transferring images from paper to the stone by way of sponging nitric acid over the paper and passing the paper and the stone through a press. The image was left on the stone, bitten in, and then the stone could be used as normal. Photographic processes were also used, once photography became useful, to create images on sensitized or desensitized stone and from there etched. Examples of offset lithography in the exhibit are the English May-Day Revels by Novello, Salome's 12 Pi├Ęces Nouvelles pour Orgue printed by the Parisian Alphonse Leduc, and the major US publisher Oliver Ditson's edition of Balfe's The Bohemian Girl.

Salomé's 12 Pièces pour orgue.
Théodor Salomé. Douze pieces nouvelles pour orgue.
Offset lithography by Alphonse Leduc, Paris, 1894.
May-Day Revels, by West and Hawkins
John West and Hettie Hawkins. May-Day Revels: A Pastoral Cantata.
Offset Lithography by Novello, Ewer and Co., London, 1898.


Copyright © 2006 Old Dominion University Libraries
Diehn Composers Room

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