The trouble with music setting is that there is so much going on simultaneously. You have to have your staff lines, then on top of that you have bar lines, notes, time signatures, clefs, slurs accents and so on, with text below if it’s a song. If it has a base line and a treble line, or it’s an orchestral piece, with multiple parts, everything has to be in vertical alignment. In hot metal type, putting a note on top of five horizontal rules was an impossibility: the two elements had to be at the same level so that they’d both print. You can imagine having little bits of type showing a crotchet on or between the five lines of the staff I guess, but this would lead to some pretty intricate work. That it was done can be seen from this photograph of a relatively straight-forward job from

From the Museum of Turnhout

Prohibitively intricate; which is why the manual process of engraving, shown in the video below, lasted until computer setting was sophisticated enough to take over. Apparently early printers would operate with paper carrying preprinted rulings, but this obviously demanded a precise control of registration, always difficult but especially so when the paper has to be dampened before printing. They might alternatively rule in the staves after printing, which again would demand some pretty tight control. Engraving into metal plates, initially copper, was first used for music in 1581.

The Munich music publisher G. Henle Verlag’s website shows a couple of videos of the music engraving process. I think this one is the clearer of them, but if you visit their site you can enjoy a demonstration by their charming operative, Hans Kühner. The manual process, beating notation into soft lead plates using punches and a hammer, continued in operation till the 1990s, by which time an adequate computerized replacement had been developed.

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You can see that printing would be via the intaglio process: ink collects in the grooves punched into the plate, and is then transferred to the paper. This of course dictates that the engraver work in reverse images.

Printing music was always a demanding branch of the business. The size of sheet music (conventionally 9″ x 12″) is slightly larger than most presses are built to accommodate economically and the scores need to be bound so that they remain open without attention. Thus the work tended to be done by specialist printers, of whom there remain fewer and fewer. What about an e-reader now that we have crossed the computer barrier in creating scores? Well, of course they are all too small too. Here’s a solution: The Digital Reader sends a note about the Gvido Dual-Screen Music Reader. The Gvido website provides the following lyrical video, showing the device in operation.