Keeping the score

Music in the Library

Sample exhibiton image

Popular music

Front cover of James Coward’s Romah.

Front cover of James Coward’s Romah. Senor Romah was a trapeze artist who performed at Crystal Palace in the 1870s (London: Charles Seaton, 1874) A1876.312
[item not on display]

Most popular music has always been published in the cheapest possible way, and its earliest printed manifestation was in the form of single ballad sheets. The Library’s Madden collection of over 16,000 printed ballads from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century is one of the country’s most important collections of these sheets, though most give only the words of the song and the name of the tune. By the late seventeenth century the development of printing music from copper and later zinc plates enabled the inclusion of music, and a new era of popular song emerged. The Library has over 500 song sheets from the mid-seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century.

By early Victorian times the cost of printing music had become so low that the market for popular songs and piano music exploded. Illustrated covers no doubt helped to increase sales, and they now offer a pictorial guide to the tastes and concerns of the period. From this time onward the Library began to receive large amounts of more popular material by legal deposit, including not only songs and piano music, but also band music, hymnals and teaching materials.