How and where to source music


  1. The librarian's role
  2. The works to be performed
  3. How to find out what music is available
  4. Where to find copies
  5. Useful links for finding music
  6. Cataloguing the music
  7. Issuing the music
  8. Accounting for the cost
  9. During the rehearsals
  10. On the day of the concert
  11. Returning the music
  12. Purchasing copies
  13. Copyright

1. The librarian’s role

It is the librarian’s responsibility to make sure that everyone in your group who needs music has the right edition at the right times. Assembling the music will involve borrowing or hiring copies and may include providing brand new copies for those who like to buy their own. A choir librarian may also get involved with hiring orchestral material.

Perhaps the greatest challenges are:

  1. to obtain a big enough supply of appropriate copies in time for the first rehearsal;
  2. to perfect a method of issuing hired music in such a way as to minimise the number of copies that disappear without trace; and
  3. to get all hired and borrowed music back to the lenders as quickly as possible after the concert.

2. The works to be performed

Before starting to locate the required copies, you need to know exactly what is wanted. You should never assume that the conductor knows all the problems associated with specific works. Check with the conductor:

  • The full title and, if appropriate, the opus number of the works
  • The publisher, if known
  • The edition, if appropriate
  • Are there soloists involved?
  • For choral works:
    • are they accompanied or a capella?
    • if accompanied, does this mean piano, organ, orchestra, arrangement?
    • the language in which works are to be sung
  • For orchestral music:
    • the instrumentation
    • For orchestral music: the number of each string part required

If the work is in copyright, orchestral material will only be available, on hire, from the publisher.

For vocal works, if they are a capella, or with a piano accompaniment, there should be no problem. You will just have to agree on the edition. If they are accompanied by an orchestra, you need to establish the type of copies needed.

A standard work such as the Brahms Requiem exists as a vocal score with solo parts and accompaniment included. Some works with orchestra, particularly from French and Italian publishers, may be available as: -

  • vocal scores with all voice parts and piano accompaniment, or
  • chorus scores in which the solo parts and cues are absent. Worse still, some chorus scores have only single lines for each part, with no cues.

Choruses don’t like singing from single lines or chorus scores, so do try to avoid them. If you are faced with chorus scores, don’t forget that you will need enough vocal scores for the conductor and accompanist. The publisher’s website should tell you what is available.

3. How do I find out what music is available?

  • The catalogues of most music publishers are now available online. Irrespective of whether you are going to obtain the copies from the publisher, it is worth looking at the publisher’s catalogue to see what sort of material is available. If you don’t know the publisher, search by the composer’s name. You can also search via Zinfonia, the music publishers’ portal  and collective database for most leading music publishers.
  • Making Music’s Music Bank is also a good source of publication information and can be found (for registered and logged in members) on our website.
  • For choral music, you can research on Musica Net, an international project to collect all  choral music in one database. You have to register to access information, there is a  subscription for additional services. 
  • For orchestral music, you can also do your research on Orchestral Music Online, but you have to pay a subscription.
  • If you are not on the internet and can’t get someone to search for you, you should try your local music shop or public library.

4. Where to find the copies

Presuming that you do not intend to buy the copies, you need to locate a source.

  1. You can borrow music from another Making Music member via Making Music’s Music Exchange (part of Music Bank on our website). You may be charged an administration fee and of course postage costs.
  2. Petrucci Music Library or IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) makes out of copyright music available free for anyone. You have to print it yourself and/or bind it, so there is still a cost attached. It may also not be the edition your conductor would like, or is easiest, to work from.
  3. Choral Public Domain does the same, but just for vocal scores.
  4. a public library either directly or 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). If yours no longer does and does not have the music you need itself, there are a number of local authority run libraries which you can hire from directly, regardless of whether you are a local resident or not – see full information further down. With the inter-library loan system, where it does operate, it is often best if you can locate the music yourself and go to your own librarian armed with the information to pass on the loan application to be processed. To do this, search the union catalogue of music library holdings, Encore.
    • Use the ‘Search Encore’ button and then ‘search the catalogue’ to search for particular works and find out which libraries have holdings. Please note this is not up to date, but will give you some indication.
    • Use the ‘Search Encore’ button and then ‘Information about the libraries’ button, followed by ‘public libraries’. Please note many links are broken, but once you have the name of a library you can google it to ascertain their lending arrangements and/or find contact details.
  5. If your library still subscribes to the inter-library loan system, it 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.
  6. Community and Youth Music Library (CYML). This large collection, originally belonging  to the London County Council, includes choral, orchestral and a large number of wind  band scores. It is an independent charity, located inside the Hornsey Library in London. It  hires to anyone anywhere in the UK directly. They also really appreciate donations of sheet music, or money, or time (volunteers!).
  7. Yorkshire Music Library (YML). Created when the Wakefield Music Library, which held  collections from all Yorkshire authorities, closed in 2011, this is now run by a social  enterprise and hires directly to anyone anywhere in the UK.
  8. Gerontius is a source for obtaining music from other choral groups.
  9. Chameleon hires choral music out
  10. Ourtext has affordable chamber and orchestral music (parts) for sale; also check out Oriel Library for recorder music
  11. Individual music publishers: this should be a last resort as, if the publisher has copies for hire, which is not always the case, this will be the most costly option. For works that are out-of-print, the publisher may have an archive service. If you don’t know the publisher of a work, you can find out and access their individual websites via Zinfonia, which brings together most major music publishers. Where a music publisher’s hire library has copies of material for hire, it may not have enough. The publisher may be reluctant to take additional copies into stock if they do not expect to get a reasonable income from additional hiring. In these circumstances, it is not unknown for a publisher to grant a licence to copy extracts from a large work on the strict understanding that the copies are destroyed after the performance. You may also be given permission to make a limited edition of a work if a suitable score does not exist.

5. Useful links for finding music

6. Cataloguing the music

Once the music comes into your possession, make sure you know exactly how many copies you have from each source. Most lenders will have some kind of numbering system which you can use to identify each individual part. Use this wherever possible. It will save a lot of time later when you are trying to account for any missing copies. There are occasions when a set may not be individually numbered by the owner, and you will need to mark it yourself. Make a pencil mark preferably inside the front cover, and make sure it is rubbed out before return.

Once you have a unique number on each part, write out a list of each set, showing the title and source, with room against each number to make notes at a later date.

There is nothing more galling to a lender who receives back a set of music only to find that it has been defaced by biro numbers or, even worse, sticky labels. Additional salt is rubbed into the wound if his own numbering system has been scribbled over! So try to be considerate.

7. Issuing the music

With smaller performing groups, it is sometimes possible to give each member his or her own number, and write this on the part. For medium and larger groups this is not always practicable. No conductor takes kindly to hanging around at the start of the first rehearsal while the music is given out, but the majority of people will turn up to rehearsal with only a few minutes to spare. So the librarian needs to work out a way of issuing music in the fastest possible turn-round time. A variety of techniques can be used to minimise the time it takes to attach a person's name to the part number. These depend on how many pieces of music are to be used, and how many people need to receive the music.

If possible obtain a list of choir members with their phone numbers or email addresses, in case, after the concert, you have to chase those who have not returned their music.

Making up sets

When two or more pieces are involved it is worth spending time beforehand making up individual sets, (possibly packed into salvaged used envelopes. Each pack can be labelled with the person's name, which has already been entered on the master catalogue. This method works well for medium sized choirs - especially if there is not much change in performing membership from one term to another.

A variation which works in large groups, where there has to be more flexibility in issuing sets of music, is to make out a slip with the numbers of the parts in each set. At the time the music is issued, it is only necessary to write the person's name on the slip. If the recipient already has part of the set, the spare copy can be quickly extracted and crossed off the slip. Do not make these slips your master catalogue in case they go astray - otherwise you will not even know what you should have, let alone who has the missing copies.
With all the hard work done beforehand, the actual issue is very simple, and several people can be roped in to operate it at once, thus speeding up the process.

You might consider designing an order form for both hired and bought copies, and demanding payment in advance. If you try this method, be ready with spare sets of music for people who did not actually place an order, and be prepared to be flexible where forms have been filled out incorrectly, or where people have subsequently changed their minds.

Single work issues

Again for larger groups, putting the music into bundles of ten or a dozen with a list of the numbers in the bundle works well. The person's name is written against the bundle list at the time the music is issued. Several people can help issue the music simultaneously. Again, the bundle lists should not replace the master catalogue, so take extra care not to lose any!

Whatever method of issue is used, it is a good idea to spot new faces and make sure you get a phone number. This makes it easier to retrieve music from someone who came to one rehearsal never to be seen again!

8. Accounting for the money

It is customary to make a charge to people for the music hire to cover the costs. While local libraries frown on groups who make a profit on music hire, they recognise that they have to cover the cost of hiring, postage, and replacements, and make no objection to a system which attempts to break even over the season. It is wise to keep a note of money received, if only to keep tabs on the people who turn up to the rehearsal with empty pockets and have to owe for a week or two. In multiple sets, the slip in each set can be used to show the charge made, and these can be used to reconcile the money when you cash up afterwards. Some Treasurers like to see a receipt to be made out to each person. Don't try to do this at the time of issue, but during your leisure afterwards.

9. During the rehearsals

After the first couple of weeks of term, the librarian does not have much to do except to have one or two spares available for people who forget to bring their music (especially if this happens to the conductor!). As the concert approaches people begin to drop out. It is wise to keep in touch with the membership secretary, and try to get the music back before the event.

10. On the day of the concert

This is the day when extra copies might be needed for last minute draftees. An emergency supply is also useful if someone’s copy gets left behind at home.

Clear instructions should be given to members on how to return their music. It is best to collect it straight after the concert with boxes strategically placed, and get some people with stentorian voices to pass through the changing rooms reminding people to hand over their music.

Effort in getting all the hired and borrowed music back immediately after the concert will be repaid by the less time you will have to spend chasing up afterwards.

11. Returning the music

If the issuing system works efficiently, it takes only a few minutes to identify who needs to be chased up. The sooner you chase them the sooner the music can go back to the owner, and be available for the next group which needs it.

The music must be returned in reasonable condition, and this includes removing markings. Most lenders require that all markings be removed. A good idea is to have a rubbing out party. Any one who has used highlighter(!) or a pen or dug deeply into the paper with a hard lead needs to be politely but firmly told that this is not acceptable, and if necessary charged the cost of replacing a defaced copy.

Music which has to be posted back remains the borrower's responsibility until it arrives safely with its owner. Make sure that the music is adequately packed. Remember that Post Office staff throw these parcels around several times during the average journey so the package needs to be strong. An inner sleeve of plastic protects again rain. Bubble-wrap or foam chippings protect against knocks, and good strong string backs up the parcel tape you thoughtfully put round all corners. If a strong box is not available, parcels double wrapped in several sheets of newspaper, surrounded by a carrier bag and trussed up with wide parcel tape seem to arrive safely, but try not to make the package too big. A separate letter or email telling the recipient that the parcel is on its way is also a sensible precaution.

The cost of postage can be out of all proportion to the cost of hiring the music in the first place. Cultivate members whose work takes them further afield and who might be prepared to make a detour to deliver a parcel. We strongly advise that when sending music by Royal Mail or any other courier you use Recorded or Registered delivery as appropriate, including a suitable level of insurance cover.

Whilst Making Music's insurance scheme does cover property on temporary hire or loan (check your Summary of Cover for further information), unfortunately it cannot cover property whilst in the possession of a courier or Royal Mail, and the insurance provided by these services should be used.

12. Purchasing copies for sale

Finally a note on purchasing copies for sale to members. Most mail order companies can obtain music at a week or ten days' notice, and local music shops may need a similar period. Do contact them a couple of months in advance to establish the current price. They will be happy to check that the music is in print. Provided you can get a sale-or-return agreement, you should not need to get hard orders from the membership, but it is essential to get a show of hands for approximate numbers. You may get away with returning 80% of your order once, but not the next time!

13. Copyright

As librarian you must be prepared to deal with emergencies, copies lost or last minute changes. Copyright is a main pillar of the music publishing industry, and must be respected. The Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) has an agreed code of fair practice detailing the instances when copying of copyright music is permitted. Copies of the relevant guides are available on the MPA website at and 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 EC during the composer’s life and for 70 years thereafter. 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 the work until 70 years after his/her death.
  • Even if there is no arranger involved, 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.

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.