Beyond Vinyl: Setting the score straight on sheet music

Sex Pistolsby Stephen M.H. Braitman

Song publishers realized early that every home with a piano in the parlor also contained a potential customer. Before radio and records, music was performed in the home. By the 1880s, with the popularity of minstrel shows and vaudeville, an increasing number of songs were introduced to a welcoming public. Tin Pan Alley and other songwriting mills churned out novelty tunes, ballads, ethnic parodies and topical songs at an astonishing rate. It’s been estimated that between 1900 and 1910, there were 25,000 songs — with sheet music — being published annually.

For collectors, there’s an almost infinite well to draw upon. Although the heyday of sheet-music production was before World War II and before records became the preferred method of listening to music, there has been constant publication of sheet music up to the present day.

Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to The Sex Pistols has had sheet music published. In fact, sheet music for the body of rock since Elvis Presley is prodigious, though not catalogued to the degree that vinyl has been. Only specialty areas, such as The Beatles, have seen serious attempts to chart the sheet-music landscape, so to speak.

The Basics

Sheet music is actually a portfolio, generally one large folded sheet of four pages, sometimes with additional single sheets inside, depending on the length of the song. Most pop songs are four or six pages. Anything bound, with more than one song, is a songbook, not sheet music.

Specialist Sandy Marrone has collected for more than 35 years. Her take on the typical sheet-music collector is that their focus is on topic — commonly collected subjects include children, racial stereotypes, ladies/fashion, celebrities/performers, food, caricatures/cartoons, romance and soldiers/war. “The song,” she says, “is the least important aspect of their interest. The song’s topic is of equal importance to the composer or performer in the realm of what is most collectible. Image comes last as it relates to topical collecting.”

Ironically, some of the most artistic images on classic sheet music belong to sheets that are relatively common. Many famous songs, such as “Stardust” and “Over The Rainbow,” sold hundreds of thousands of copies. They look fantastic, but they’re not highly valued. “Interest and value rests mostly on rarity, of course,” says Marrone.

This shouldn’t deter anyone from starting to collect sheet music. The primary rule, of course, is to collect what delights you. The best way to start would be to buy a whole bunch at once and sift through it to find what you’re really interested in. eBay is quite good for beginners, since a lot of old and good sheet music is offered in bulk. You can end up with fifty or more pieces in one winning bid and spend less than $100 sometimes.

Or buy boxes at flea markets, suggests Marrone. You can also find sheet music listed on craigslist or advertised locally. “Mainly,” cautions Marrone, “you should not pay much, because what looks good to you may be the most common music around!” The more you see, the more you’ll know what’s around, what’s common and what’s something you should grab quick!

Remember, it should be fun. Investment potential comes later, with effort and education. “I like to see people find some offbeat categories that connect somehow to their lives,” says Marrone. “A person who works in finance could gather money-related music, having to do with that subject as well as the aspects of being rich, poor, etc.” (Note: The sheet music to “Money” by The Beatles is worth $50.)

A Look at Some Values

Here is Marrone’s list of the five most valuable sheet-music pieces — each could easily bring four-figure prices:

  • Francis Scott Key/John Stafford Smith, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The very first edition is worth a huge sum.
  • George Gershwin, “Rhapsody In Blue.” The cover is variations of red and blue, not the “grey flannel” edition, which many perceive as the first edition.
  • Irving Berlin, “Marie From Sunny Italy.” Berlin’s first song was published in 1907.
  • J.H. Kalbfleisch, “Live Oak Polka.” An early (1860) baseball sheet with a superb horizontal color illustration on its cover.
  • Scott Joplin, “The Original Maple Leaf Rag.” The rare one depicts two black couples out for a stroll — the edition picturing a maple leaf is common and not worth much.
  • Marrone also mentions that collectors of rock sheet music have pushed up prices for rockabilly, doo-wop, ’50s black groups, classic rock, Motown and black girl groups. “Especially desirable from the ’60s are The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and one-hit wonders such as The Seeds.”
  • “Have Mercy Baby” by The Dominoes is one of the most sought-after rock sheets and has sold well into four figures.

Paul Riseman is one of the few national dealers who holds sheet-music auctions on a regular basis. Check his Web site ( to see how much variety there is in the world of sheet music. His auctions attract hard-core collectors as well as beginners, and there are great bargains to be had for both pre-rock and 1950s and ’60s sheet music. Here are some notable rock results from his August auction:

  • Bobby Vee, “Take Good Care Of My Baby,” $60.50
  • Buddy Holly, “Peggy Sue,” $22
  • Elvis Presley, “Welcome To My World,” $45.93
  • Jack Scott, “Goodbye Baby,” $10
  • The Rip Chords, “Three Window Coupe,” $27.52
  • The Turtles, “You Know What I Mean,” $11

By contrast, here are some recent eBay results:

  • Davy Jones & The Kingbees (David Bowie’s first group), “Liza Jane,” $260
  • Pink Floyd, “Arnold Layne (the first Pink Floyd single),” $250
  • The Beatles, “Love Me Do” (the first Beatles sheet music), $255 and $125
  • The Fairies, “Get Yourself Home” $265 — this is rare freakbeat from 1965; the vinyl single is worth twice this amount.
  • Duane Eddy, “40 Miles of Bad Road,” $25
  • Martha & The Vandellas, “I’m Ready For Love,” $51
  • The Bobbettes, “Mr. Lee,” $57
  • The Supremes, a lot of eight different pieces of sheet music, $81

Of course, in the world of rock, sheet music is still a brave new world.

Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music appraiser (, writer, collector, and fan.

Sandy Marrone,, phone: (856) 829-6104
Paul Riseman,,, phone: (217) 787-2634
Beatles Sheet Music Reference and Price Guide:
“Perfessor” Bill Edwards Guide to Ragtime and Old-Time Piano Sheet Music Cover Art History:
The Library of Congress Historic American Sheet Music Collection:
Sheet Music Collections Online:
Sheet Music Plus (new sheet music):

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