Copyright, licensing, and permissions - Part 3: Rehearsing music

When your group decides to perform a piece of music there will be copyright laws, permissions and licenses to be aware of. Part 3 of our guidance looks at how that applies to rehearsing music and making photocopies. 

There are three different copyrights to be aware of for a piece of music.

  1. Musical: the copyright of the actual music (notes in a certain order). In the UK a piece of music stays in copyright for 70 years after the death of the creator.
  2.  Literary: the copyright of the lyrics or libretto. The same 70-year rule applies to the lyricist.
  3. Typographical: the copyright of the published sheet music edition. Typographical copyright lasts for 25 years after the first publication of an edition.

If you are not sure who owns the copyright you can contact the Music Publishers Association

For more information see Part one: What is Copyright?


  • Public domain music
  • Copying music
  • Study tracks and recording rehearsals
  • Printing lyrics
  • Arrangements and adjustments

Public domain music

In the UK music is considered “out of copyright” 70 years after the death of the creators. This includes the composer, librettist/lyricist, and arranger. 

However, if the music is out of copyright that doesn’t necessarily mean you can copy the sheet music.  The typographical copyright on an edition lasts for 25 years in the UK. For example, the music copyright for Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor is out of copyright and can be performed without incurring any royalty fees but the orchestral set of the symphony published by Bärenreiter in 2008 is in copyright (and will be until 2033): 

  • So although the music itself might be out of copyright if the edition is in copyright you  cannot copy it – although there are some exceptions (see below)  
  • Of course, if the music and lyrics are out of copyright (70-year rule) and the edition is out of copyright (25-year rule) you can copy it. 

Copying music

If the music you need is in copyright then the Golden Rules are:

  • You should obtain sheet music from a legitimate source 
  • You should not reproduce music in copyright to avoid purchasing it.

Making copies of copyrighted sheet music is restricted; however, there are a number of circumstances in which it is considered legitimate. These circumstances are set out in full in the Music Publishers Association’s Code of Fair Practice. Briefly, some situations in which you can make copies are:

When you can copy music

In an emergency 

If music you need for a concert or event is lost or damaged when it is too late to replace it either by purchase or hire then a copy can be made. The copy should be marked ‘Emergency copy. Destroy after use.’ If the original music was hired or borrowed, the emergency copy should be sent back to the library or publisher with the rest of the set.

If there are performance difficulties

If there is a difficult page turn that is obstructing performance then making a copy of the one relevant page is allowable. The copy made must be returned with the other hired material after the performance.

To facilitate a musician with reading impairments

If your group includes musicians with any kind of cognitive impairment or condition which diminishes their ability to read music or text as conventionally printed, you may make it available to them in a format which enables them to more easily read and participate. Each copy must be marked with ‘Copy made with permission’.

Study and research

Students and teachers, whether in an educational establishment or not, may make copies of short excerpts of musical works for study use only. Copying whole works or movements is forbidden under this permission.

Orchestral and band parts

If you have bought a full set of parts and you need more than is included in the set for your group, you may copy up to an extra quarter set if the publisher has stated that parts are not sold individually. A quarter set is defined as one quarter of the number of parts included in the original set. Each copy made should be marked ‘copy made with permission.’

Retaining markings

If you’ve hired a work and are likely to play it again in the future then a single copy of each of the scored string parts may be made in order to retain a record of the bowing and fingering marks used by your group. Each copy should be marked ‘copy made to record markings only’ and must not be used for reproduction or performance.

With permission from the publisher

If you want to make copies for any reason not covered by the code of fair practice the publisher may well grant you permission to do so. You need to contact the publisher directly – an internet search of the publishers name and ‘permissions’ will normally help get your started.  There could be a fee and conditions attached (e.g. limited to a certain performance, marking and destroying copies).

Copying music - some common scenarios

You’ve bought a full set of parts and want to make copies so the originals don’t get damaged, you’ll use the originals in the concert
  • Making copies to prevent damage is not a permitted exception under the MPA Code of Fair Practice. However in some circumstances you can make copies if damage occurs (see In an emergency above). We know some groups to make copies to prevent damage – the key thing to do here is to apply the golden rule: are you doing it to avoid hire/purchase? If yes, you shouldn’t be doing it. 
  • Example: you hire 60 parts and make a copy of each, so you have 120 in total:
    •  If 70 are being used at any given time you are copying to avoid purchasing of the extra 10 being used.
    • If you have the original 60 locked in your rehearsal venue to protect them, and the 60 copies are given out to members to take home and use, and a maximum of 60 are being used at any one time then you could argue you are not doing it to avoid hire/purchase. If you did decide this you should keep control of your use of originals and copies, mark copies as being for rehearsal only, use originals in performance and destroy copies after the final performance.
People share the music at rehearsal, you want to make copies so everyone can have their own copy to practice from between rehearsals.

This isn’t permitted by the MPA Code of Fair Practice and would not pass the golden rule test (are you doing it to avoid hire/purchase?) If you have hired 30 copies with the intention of people sharing in rehearsals then make copies so everyone can practice at home then you would potentially have 60 being used at any given time - so would be copying to avoid hire/purchase.

However, if extra parts are needed and are not available to buy or hire individually, you can copy up to an extra quarter set (see Orchestral and band parts above.)

You bought a full set of parts but a ‘full set’ isn’t big enough for your group. You make additional parts so that you have enough for your group

If the parts are not available to hire or buy individually then you may make copies but only up to a quarter of the original set. If you need more than that then you’ll need either the permission of the publisher (which may involve a fee) or to hire or buy another set.

If you need further guidance about copying music we are happy to advise on specific situations – please contact us.

Study tracks and recording rehearsals

You will need a licence to give away or sell recorded study aids or recordings of your rehearsals if they include any music in copyright. For more information on recording copyrighted music, see Part 5: Recording and distributing music.

Printing lyrics 

The printing of lyrics is controlled by copyright and so you should have permission to do this. Obviously, this only applies to music or lyrics in copyright, but remember that if words have been translated the translator may own the copyright, which will last for 70 years after their death. 

The most common examples we can think of is printing lyrics for a choir that doesn’t read music. By the letter of law, permission should be sought from the publisher, but there are circumstances where you might decide to take a balanced view of the risks.

Often lyrics are readily available online but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be, or that you should print them, as it would be classed as reproducing/copying. Technically even writing them by hand would be classed as copying. In practice, these things do happen - and the risk is probably quite low. If you do decide to print lyrics then you should consider ways to minimise the risk. For example:  

  • We have heard of some groups that ask members to print their own copy (it is still copying but would be 60 individuals doing it once rather than an organisation doing it multiple times)
  • Don’t use the printed sheets in performance 
  • Destroy them after use 

And of course, you should be paying PRS fees for any live performances.

Arrangements and adjustments

During the course of rehearsals, it is not uncommon to make small changes or adjustments to the music to suit your group. By the letter of the law, you need permission from the copyright holder to make any changes to a piece of music. This applies to the music and lyric copyright and includes things like key changes, removing a verse, or repeating a chorus. 

However, there is perhaps some common sense to be applied. Where the changes are minor you might decide that getting permission is an unnecessary administrative burden for you and the copyright holder/publisher. Small adjustments made during the rehearsal process are likely to be minor. If you are making significant changes then you should get permission from the publisher. 

You can read more about arrangements and what might constitute minor and significant changes in Part 2: Obtaining music, but a good question to ask yourself is: are you fundamentally changing the nature of the piece or are you are maintaining its original nature and making small adjustments to suit your group? 


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.