How and where to source music

Sourcing music is vital to the efficient running of a music group. It normally falls to the librarian to do this and can involving obtaining music from a variety of sources.

In this resource, we’ll look at how and where you can find the music you need, and the things you need to think about when dealing with publishers and music libraries. 

For more information about other aspects of the role of librarian, such as budgeting, issuing music to members and collecting it all in again, see our separate resource on the role of the librarian.

What are the options for borrowing music?

The most common options for obtaining music are:

  • Borrow the music from another group
  • Hire the music from a music library
  • Hire the music from a music publisher
  • Buy the music from a music publisher or music shop
  • Download a free copy from the internet

As a general rule, if the music is still in copyright you will need to go direct to a publisher to hire or buy, though some exceptions to this do exist. If the music is out of copyright, then you are more likely to be able to source it through a music library or another group. Generally only music that is out of copyright can be downloaded for free from the internet.

However, it is worth exploring all these options in order to see exactly what is out there. In some cases the music may only be obtainable from one specific place, but for other works it may be available in multiple places, and you’ll be able to decide which option to go for based on specific edition, availability of the music on the date you require it, and cost to your group. If you need a large number of copies (for example in a large choral society) then you may need to use a combination of sources to obtain the amount of copies you need. In all cases, you should be able to obtain a no-obligation quote to help you make your decision.

Where do I look for music?

Before you start your search, you need to know exactly what it is you are looking for. Some pieces of music are available in one or more editions, often with significant differences between them. Others are available in a variety of different instrumentations or voice combinations. Speak with your musical director to ensure you know exactly which edition and instrumentation you need to obtain.

Once you have this information, there are several potential sources for hiring or buying the music you need.

Borrowing from another group

  • Making Music’s Music Bank is a tool on our website that allows our member groups to list the music that they are willing to lend to other groups, and also view what sheet music other member groups have available to lend and communicate with them to make a borrowing agreement. Whilst members can only lend/borrow via this system and cannot charge a hire fee, you may be charged an administration fee and of course postage costs.
  • For vocal groups, these websites include a facility for groups to lend to each other:

Hiring from a music library

Music libraries are a valued source of music in the UK as they provide an efficient and cost-effective way to hire the music you need. However, not every music library has a copy of everything, so you will need to do some research to find which library has the music you need.

The majority of UK music library holdings are listed in the Encore 21 catalogue and you can use its search facility to find out exactly which library has the music you need. It is usually best to then contact the library directly to get a quote or arrange a hire. However, the Encore 21 database does not list every single music library in the UK and may also not be up-to-date – so if you can’t find the music you’re looking for here, it is also worth spending some time searching the catalogues of individual libraries. We’ve provided a list of these at the end of this resource.

If the library in question does not hire directly, then your local library may be able to obtain the music from them for you via the inter-library loan system. Due to cuts in many local authorities, not all public libraries still operate the inter-library loan system for sheet music (we estimate only about 80% still do so) – but for those that do, you need to make sure you provide details of the edition needed and the number of copies to ensure you get the right music. The inter-library loan system can sometimes take several weeks to function, and there is no guarantee enough copies can be obtained, so give your local library as much notice as possible and explore alternative sources at the same time.

Music libraries, a crucial resource for leisure-time music groups, are under threat. In recent years local authorities have been increasingly strapped for cash, and music libraries, a part of their library service, are often the first to be considered for the chop. However, music library services are used by amateur music groups all over the UK to source around 45% of all the music they need. The best way to help save them is to keep using them as a source for music. You can also find out more about the work Making Music is doing to help authorities find more financially sustainable and future-proof solutions for music libraries which would not just prevent their closure in the short term, but guarantee their survival in the longer term.

Musica International

Musica International is an international project to create the world’s largest database of choral music. The database has a powerful search tool to find music and contains details of where you can borrow from - this is often from Musica member libraries in Europe, but some UK libraries are included.

Making Music members have free access to the Musica International catalogue.

Hiring or buying from a music publisher

Most music publishers now make their catalogues available online. You can find out more about hiring or buying music from music publishers in our separate resource.

Downloading from the internet

For music that is out of copyright, it might be possible to download a free copy from the internet and reproduce this freely. The two main sites that offer this service are:

Do note however that these websites are hosted in Canada and the USA where copyright laws are different. This means that some works available on these sites are still protected by copyright in the UK and should not be downloaded in this country. The affected works are flagged with a warning message which you should take note of.

If you choose to download and print music from the internet, note that the size and quality of the print may be compromised, as the music will often have been shrunk from its original size. You should also ensure you are printing on good quality paper, that will stay on a music stand and won’t let light through from behind. Don’t forget to budget for the cost of ink and paper that you will need for this. If you don’t want to print the music yourself, for a small fee you can use the Petrucci-Merton Booklet Service to do this for you.


As librarian you must be prepared to deal with emergencies, lost copies or last minute changes. Copyright is a main pillar of the music publishing industry, and must be respected in these situations. As a general rule, you must not make copies or any other reproductions of the printed music in order to avoid hiring or purchasing sufficient original copies for your group. The Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) has an agreed code of fair practice detailing the instances when copying or reproduction of copyright music is permitted. Copies of the relevant guides are available on the MPA website: Guidelines for amateur music hire and Code of Fair Practice. However, please note that both these documents are currently in need of updating to bring them in line with the latest legislation.

It is wise for a librarian to be aware of the rules:

  • Works by a composer are protected by copyright in the UK during the composer’s life and for 70 years thereafter. In the case of multiple composers, copyright exists until 70 years after the last one of them to die. It is an infringement of the copyright in such a work to make unauthorised copies.
  • Works by composers who have been dead for 70 years are in the public domain. However, such works may have been arranged, in which case the arranger has a copyright in their version of the work until 70 years after their death.
  • The publisher may have a graphic right in the type setting, lasting 25 years from publication.

If you are sure that the printed copy you need to copy is outside these rules, it is not an infringement to make copies.

Music libraries in the UK

If you know of any other music libraries not on this list, please contact us so that we can add them.

Other sources of music

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.