Today, we learn to print music. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Here's a problem for you
music lovers. How did we set music in the early
days of printing? Gutenberg perfected movable type
in the 1450s. He formed letters on the edges of
narrow slivers of lead. Then he arranged them into
racks called galleys. Printers inked the galleys
and pressed them against paper.
That was hard enough when you only had to set a row
of free floating letters. But the notes of music
sit on lines. How do you set lines that run through
the notes? The obvious solution was to print do a
whole page at a time with a wood block. Block
printing had gained popularity just before
Gutenberg and it worked. But it lost every
advantage of typesetting.
Gutenberg never tried to print music. But in 1455
he borrowed 800 guilders from Johann Fust. By 1457
he'd run that debt over 2000 guilders. Fust
foreclosed before Gutenberg could turn a profit. He
took over the new printing business and Gutenberg's
assistant, Peter Shoeffer.
That same year, Fust and Shoeffer printed a Psalter
with music in it. First they printed the text and
three of the four lines used in Gregorian Chant.
They put the 4th line, and the notes, in by hand.
Other printers did the same thing.
That was clumsy business. Printers tried to find
something simpler. One printed the words do, re, me
fa, sol -- each in its vertical position. No lines
at all! That was as hard to read as it was easy to
print. It did not catch on.
A few years later, an Italian printer started
setting music in two passes. First he printed
lines. Then he made a second impression with the
It was 1524 before a French printer, Pierre
Haultin, cast notes in type with fragments of lines
attached to them. He assembled them into a one-pass
galley. By 1551, a family named Ballard had taken
over that scheme. The men and women of the Ballard
family defined the state of the art in music
printing until the French Revolution.
As printing made written music available, music
itself grew more complex. When we created full
opera and oratorio scores, even the Ballards were
driven back to a form of block printing. They
reverted to copper-plate engraving by the early
So printing technology drove the very complexities
it struggled with. Music printing took music out of
the cloisters and castles, and put it in homes.
Like the radio you're listening to right now,
printing spread the gift of music. And printing
opened up the evolution of music itself.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Reese, G., Music in the Renaissance. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1959.
Heartz, D., A New Attaignant Book and the
Beginnings of French Music Printing. J. Am.
Musicological Soc., Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring
1966, pp. 9-23. (Pierre Attaignant was an extremely
important printer, who picked up Haultin's
technique and first made wide use of it, even
before the Ballard family.)
Cardwell, D.S.L., Turning Points in Western
Technology. New York: Science History
Publications, 1972, Chapter 1. (for a simple
discussion of Gutenberg's technique.)
Raynor, H., A Social History of Music from
the Middle Ages to Beethoven. New York:
Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978, Chapter 8.
See also Encyclopaedia Britannica
entries on Gutenberg, printing, and Ballard.
I'm grateful to Carol Lienhard for suggesting this
topic, sketching it out, and locating much of the
source material for it.
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 216, 753,
756, 894, and 992.