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What Is a Music Manuscript?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A music manuscript is a hand-written piece of music usually written on paper or parchment in traditional musical notation. Many different music manuscripts still exist today, from famous musicians throughout history. Music is written down in the form of notes on a staff so that musicians do not have to remember all of their compositions personally. Treble and bass staffs exist on music manuscripts, and these indicate which note positions represent which notes. Blank musical notation paper is also occasionally referred to as music manuscript paper.

Any piece of hand-written music can be called a music manuscript. Most music manuscripts that are commonly referred to come from famous classical musicians such as Bach, Handel, and Beethoven, and these are incredibly valuable artifacts. These more valuable music manuscripts are often stored in libraries or museums. Musicians occasionally wrote accompanying notes outside of the music manuscript to help them determine how exactly sections should be played.

Despite the term music manuscript often conjuring up images of famous artifacts such as this, any piece of music written down by hand can technically be called the same thing. The word manuscript is also used to refer to pieces of writing, and just as there can be an unpublished novel manuscript written by anybody, so there can be a music manuscript written by anybody. Any musician who decides to write down his or her music on paper has technically created a music manuscript, even if it isn’t done in standard music notation.

Generally, a manuscript will be written in traditional music notation, which features staffs, clefs, and notes to convey how the music should be played. Staffs are blocks of five horizontal lines which most notes either sit on or between. Clefs are symbols shown at the beginning of the staff to indicate which part is being described by the notes. The positions of the individual notes tell the reader which specific notes should be played, and the type of note indicates how long the note should be played. Other, non-standard music notations, such as guitar tablature, can also be used on a music manuscript.

Blank books of music notation paper are often referred to as books of music manuscript paper. These books feature staffs already printed onto the page, along with clefs. Musicians can then buy this paper to avoid having to draw out each individual staff and clef. This type of manuscript is basically note-paper for musicians. Some music manuscript paper can also be bought without clefs.

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