Home / Writings / Music Printing in the Renaissance

Music Printing in the Renaissance


Copyright (c) 2003 by Paul Nelson, all rights reserved.



Music printing was born in the renaissance during a 100 year period of intense innovative activity from the late 15 century to the late 16 century. During this time, many technologies were tried. Some were newly invented, such as the process of using moveable type to set notes and staff lines. Others, such as woodcuts, were fairly old but used in new ways.

In nearly every case, new technologies were not immediately adopted, but rather began in fits and starts. Often, a new technology would require a master printer to demonstrate how it could be used effectively and profitably before it became standard throughout the industry.

The remainder of this paper will focus on this birthing period of music printing and will cover the technologies and inventors involved from the start.

The Gutenberg Printing Process

Any discussion of early printing in the western world must begin with Gutenberg, who, around 1450, integrated a wide range of technologies into a single coordinated system of printing with moveable type.1 At this time European paper (made from flax and hemp) was already a fairly mature product, having been introduced into Europe 100 to 150 years earlier.  New, oil-based inks, unsuitable for Velum but perfect for paper were mixed with varnish and soot by Gutenberg to create thick pasty inks that would stick to the type in his printing press. The pressing mechanism itself came from similar ones used to produce wine and olive oil. These presses were used to create intense, but even, pressure across the entire surface of the paper, creating a strong consistent image.2

But what made it all economically feasible was Gutenberg's primary innovation: metal moveable type. Moveable type had already been invented in China much earlier using ceramic characters. However, the large variety of characters in the Chinese language prevented it's wide-spread adoption, and all indications are that Gutenberg had no knowledge of his Chinese predecessors. Gutenberg's invention spread quickly and within 15 years had been copied up and down the Rhine valley and into Italy.3

Moveable type is fashioned in three stages. The first stage is to carve the needed character (in reverse) into the tip of a small bar of iron. This iron bar becomes a "punch" and is forcibly hammered into a small strip of copper to make a forward impression. The strip of copper is then placed at the bottom of a mould into which molten lead is poured, reversing the impression one last time and creating a single character of type (called a 'sort'). Early professional typecasters who manufactured sorts of moveable type could create as many as 4,000 characters an hour.4

Once the sorts were created, typesetters would line them up in reverse order in rows to make words and lines, and then stack the rows to make paragraphs, and then wedge the whole thing into a frame (called a 'chase') which was placed into the printing press. To print each page of text the printer would do the following: 1) Smear Ink on the metal rows of text, 2) place a piece of blank paper on top (oftentimes using a special frame), and 3) Press the paper into the text using a big flat platen screwed down from the top.5

Unfortunately, it took Gutenberg two tries to create moveable type. His first attempt produced text too large to be used economically: too much paper would be consumed for each book. When he went back to his investor to obtain additional financing, Johann Fust forced unfavorable terms on Gutenberg, and after the Gutenberg bible was produced Fust dissolved the partnership and went into the printing and publishing business with Gutenberg's partner, Peter Schoeffer. This left Gutenberg to limp along by himself with various printing projects (and some of the original equipment) until his death in 1468.6

Printing Music: Partial Solutions

Printing of alphabetic text for a book can actually be a pretty sloppy process and still yield acceptable results. This is because each character of text is an independent symbol, floating on the page. It is no great problem if any one character shifts by a small amount, or if the entire page is slightly shifted or tilted in relation to other pages.

Early printers who wished to include music in their books quickly ran up against the primary difficulty of music printing:  staff lines, which caused enormous problems.7  Characters are no longer independent objects floating on a page, but are now notes drawn on top of staff lines. How could one symbol be reliably printed on top of another?

The first printed book containing music was the Mainz Psalter, produced by Guttenberg's successors, Fust and Schoeffer,8 which also has the historical distinction of being the first book to be printed in color. Notice the careful wording of the previous sentence. The Mainz Psalter did not actually print the music. Rather, the music was added by hand after the pages were printed.9

Many printers solved the problem of printing music in a similar, if half hearted, fashion. Sometimes blank spaces were left with no music or lines at all (as was the case with the Mainz Psalter), sometimes the staff lines were printed with the notes added later by hand, sometimes the notes were printed with the staff lines added later. For example, many early Missale Romanum (by Ulrich Han, Antonio Zarotto, and others) were produced in the early 1470's with blank space left for hand-drawn music.10 An early example of music notes printed without the lines is Franciscus Niger's Grammatica of 1480, some copies of which still exist without the lines.11

Printing the staves without the music, in addition to sidestepping the fundamental problem of music printing, allowed publishers to tailor their music to different markets. This was necessary at the time since there were several different types of plainchant notation in common use: Roman, Ambrosian, Gothic, and Hungarian.12  For these reasons, the printing of staff lines without music lasted well into the 16th century.13

Printing with Woodcuts

50 years or more before Gutenberg introduced the printing press, woodcuts were used for printing images and pictures.14 To create a woodcut, a reverse image would be drawn on a block of wood, and any part of the surface not drawn on would be carefully carved away. The resulting image would be inked and pressed into paper.

Since moveable type and woodcuts use basically the same process (a raised, inked, reverse image) it was an easy extension to include woodblocks in the chase along with the moveable type to create illustrated pages of books. Pages of mixed text and illustrations could then be printed with a single impression. Early examples of books with woodcut illustrations include the 'lavishly illustrated' Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) (1457) and the 'lovely' Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo's Dream about the Strife of Love) (1463).15

And so, early printers of music were able to avoid all issues of music typography by simply creating woodcuts of the music, as if the music were freeform illustrations, and this was done quite frequently. For example, Franciscus Niger's Grammatica of 1480 (an example of typeset notes without staff lines) was reprinted in 1485 using woodcuts instead. In 1487, the first complete polyphonic composition printed with staves was created, the Musices Opusculum printed by Ugo Ruggerio in Bologna.16 Six years later, Woodcuts were used for the first secular polyphonic printing, the Historia Baetica, printed by Eucharius Silber in Rome.17 The first rounded note heads are also found in woodcuts, J.F. Locher's Historia de rege frantie18, perhaps because they were easier to carve.

Printing with woodcuts, however, had many technical difficulties. First, mistakes made in carving the wood were difficult, if not impossible to correct. Second, the frail nature of wood (in comparison to metal) meant that woodcuts could only be used for a limited number of printings before staff lines and note stems began to break off. This was made even more difficult by the nature of music notation, which is primarily made up of thin lines (unlike pictorial illustration which is more flexible). Finally, woodcuts were expensive to produce and required skilled craftsmen. For all these reasons, woodcuts were most often limited to small musical examples, such as might be used for music theory textbooks.19

Even so, woodcuts continued to be used into the 16th century for several reasons:  1) they were popular books with many reprints, 2) competing printers held monopolies on moveable type foundries, or 3) because no type foundries were available for regional notations (such as Ambrosian plainchant notation).20

Systems using Multiple Impressions

Early examples of printing both staves and notes with moveable type used multiple impressions to print a single page. For example, a first impression would be used for the words, a second for the staff lines, and a third for the notes. This could be reduced to two impressions: words and notes first and staff lines last.

Such 'multiple impression' techniques required the highest level of craftsmanship: since notes and staff lines are printed at different times, accuracy is paramount. Notes could not drift within the chase for fear that they would drift to a different staff line. Pages had to be placed in the press very precisely. A page which was slightly tilted or mis-aligned would cause notes to drift off the staff at one side or the other. Certainly, early printers would have had to devise new, more exacting techniques to place the paper within the printing press.

The earliest example of printing both staves and notes with moveable type, the Constance Graduale, occurs around 1473, actually before the first known examples of woodcut, and while other, manually intensive methods were just getting started. Probably the needs of printing a Graduale, with extensive quantities of music, drove the printer (still unknown) to create the musical sorts needed to set musical text.21  Regardless, only a single example of the Constance Graduale exists, and there is no evidence that this early example of printing had any lasting influence on the music printing industry.22

A better example occurs just a few years later, printed in Rome by Ulrich Han and Stephan Planck. It was a reprint of an earlier Missale Romanum, this time with music. It is the first clearly dated and attributed example of complete early music printing. It used a double-impression printing:  first printing the red text and red staves, and second printing the black text and black notes.

The 1476 Missale Romanum is a masterpiece of music printing, far beyond the experimental stages of the craft. The staves and notes are well designed and cut, printed clearly and strongly on paper or vellum, precisely registered for the proper placement of black notes on red staves…23

Ulrich Han only printed this one book with music, but his methods quickly spread throughout Europe. Just a year later, an abbreviated Graduale was printed by the brothers Damiano and Bernard Moilli. This work contained vastly more music than had been produced by Han: 212 pages of music compared to just 33 pages of music in the Missale Romanum.24  By 1500, just 24 years after Han's initial printing, some 66 different printers working in 25 different towns had created liturgical works containing music using the double-impression technique, including Missale Sarum printed by R. Pyson in London in 1500.25

Printing with multiple impressions became fully mature in the hands of Ottaviano Petrucci who raised the technique to its highest level of craftsmanship. Claiming that he had discovered the secret to printing "canto figurado", Petrucci was granted a 20 year monopoly on printing such music as well as music with lute tablature. Petrucci's "discovery" was, in fact,  merely the processing of printing with multiple impressions, albeit with 'much finer type material.' Early books (such as the wildly popular Harmonice musices odhecaton A) were printed with a three impression process (notes, staves, and text), a process which was reduced by 1503 to a double impression.26

During his 23 years of music publishing, Petrucci appears to have been very successful, producing over 59 volumes and many reprints, including many firsts:  the first secular polyphonic music printed with moveable type, the first lute tablature printed with moveable type, the first book dedicated to the music of a single composer (Josquin Des Prez), and the first books dedicated to frottole, published in 1504.27 Other than the crucial role he played in preserving the music of his time, Petrucci's influence is still felt in the typesetting rules for music that he established, many of which (such as the size of the note stem in relation to the height of the staff) are still in use today.28

Single Impression Systems

A series of ad-hoc attempts were made in the early 16th century to print music and text all at once, in a single impression. Such a system would be dramatically less expensive than the multiple impression systems not only by reducing the time spent on a single page, but also needing less skilled printers and less accurate machinery to execute.

Several early attempts appear to have been created to fill immediate needs, and were then abandoned once the job was complete. For example, the very first music printed in England by printer Wynkyn de Worde was in 1495, the Policronicon, and may also be the first, moveable type single impression music printed anywhere. However, it really doesn't count, being only eight notes long, with no clef, and made up of non-musical sorts (in much the same way that pictures are rendered in ASCII E‑mail messages today).29 Better examples are found in the Salzburg missals printed by Liechtenstein in 1507, and Winterburg in 1510, who both used a series of single impression characters to print limited amounts of music in the Salzburg liturgy.30

Somewhat more significant are the efforts of John Rastell in London, who invented a single impression system and used it for a limited number of printings, of which two fragments (roughly dated to 1523) and Coverdale's Goostly Psalmes (1535) are the only survivors. Along with these early examples of single impression printing, Rastell may also have executed the first mensural music in England, the first song printed with a theatrical work in England, the first broadside printed with music anywhere, and the first attempt at printing a score by any printer. And yet, John Rastell does not appear to have inspired any successors.31

The secret to printing music with a single impression is to combine the notes with the staff lines into a single character of type. Such a system, of course, requires a much larger number of characters than separating the staff lines and notes into two separate impressions. With a single impression system, one will need to have characters not only for notes of different rhythmic values, but also for notes (and clefs) at varying positions on the staff. While the single impression system is generally more forgiving of inaccuracies in typesetting and printing, care must still be taken to line up the staff fragments as straight as possible, otherwise the staff lines will appear jagged. The shakiness of staff lines may actually get worse over longer printing runs as the sorts work themselves loose.

The single impression system was eventually proved successful by Pierre Attaignant who used the technique from 1527 to 1550, ultimately printing over 1,500 musical works from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.32 His methods were quickly copied and less than 5 years after Attaignant's first printing, other single impression works were produced (Motetti del fiore printed by Jacques Moderne in Lyons and the Odarum Horatii concentus printed by Christian Egenolff of Frankfurt). Other printers in other cities and countries followed suit: 1534 in Nuremburg, 1537 in Naples, 1538 in Venice, 1540 in Antwerp, and reintroduced into England around 1553 by W. Seres 33. This system would survive for the next 200 years.

Early Engraving

While single impression systems represented a leap forward in productivity, as is often the case with new technology they represented a step backwards for the composer. With the notes and staff lines fixed into the same moveable type, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to do chords (as required by keyboard music), multiple voices per staff, slurs, ties, and other musical ornaments and articulations.

A solution to these problems, intaglio engraving, first requires that the music be engraved (scratched or indented) on to a large flat sheet of copper. To print a page, ink is smeared over the copper sheet, settling into the engraved lines, after which the excess ink on top is wiped away. Wet paper is then pressed into the sheet at great pressure to soak up the ink still stuck into the engraved lines. Because the engraving process does not use pre-cast units of moveable type, it places no limits on the music or notation that can be reproduced.

There is evidence that intaglio engraving was being practiced as early as 1436, but the process wasn't really popular until the 1540s (for printing maps), probably because the machinery required to print pages from engraved plates had to produce much more pressure than standard moveable type printing.34

As with single impression printing, music printed via engravings had many early experiments. The earliest dated example of printed music using engravings is Francesco Marcolini's Intabolatura di liuto di diversi, around 1536 and, much later, Vincenzo Galilei's famous Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna printed in Florence by Giorgio Marescotti in 1581.35

Around this time, the invention of the rolling press, specifically designed to print pages from engraved copper plates made printing from engravings economically feasible, and the technology quickly spread throughout Europe. Music from engravings was produced in Rome in 1586 (printed by Simone Verovio), in England in 1612-13, the Netherlands in 1615, and France and Germany by 1620.36


The period from 1470 to 1600 was an incredibly active time for printers and publishers of music. Many new techniques were tried, abandoned, and tried again by many different printers working all over Europe.

The three most important developments: the use of moveable type, the single impression system, and music engraving all exhibited similar startup cycles. Each was tried very early on by printers striving to solve individual problems and each was initially abandoned.

In all cases, an early champion was required to mature the process and demonstrate how it could be used profitably. The first such champion was clearly Ottaviano Petrucci, followed closely by Pierre Attaignant, and (to a lesser extent) Simone Verovio. The long standing success of these champions inspired others to copy their techniques all over Europe and has had lasting influence on look of printed music ever since.




1   Geoffrey Rubinstein, 'Printing: History and Development', Jones Telecommunications & Multimedia Encyclopedia (Accessed 12/1/2002), <http://www.digitalcentury.com>.

2   Richard W. Clement, 'Medieval and Renaissance Book Production - Printed Books', ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies,   (Accessed 12/1/2002), <http://orb.rhodes.edu>.

3   Clement.

4   Clement.

5   Clement.

6   Clement.

7   J. Evan Kreider, The Printing of Music 1480-1680 (Vancouver: The Alcuin Society, 1980), p. 2.

8   Stanley Boorman, 'Printing and Publishing of Music', 'I. Printing / 1. Early Stages', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 12/1/2002), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

9   Mary Kay Duggan, Italian Music Incunabula, Printers and Type (California: University of California Press, 1992), p. 1.

10  Duggan, p. 44.

11  Kreider, p. 2.

12  Duggan, p. 6.

13  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 1: Early Stages'

14  Author unknown, 'A Renaissance Invention: The Repeatable Image -- Woodcut', The Metropolitan Museum of Art Website  (Accessed 12/1/2002), <http://www.metmuseum.org>.

15  www.metmuseum.org.

16  Kreider, p. 2-3.

17  Duggan, p. 65.

18  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 3: Printing from type, (ii) Early history.'

19  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 2: Woodblock printing'

20  Duggan, p. 68.

21  Duggan, p. 11.

22  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 1: Early Stages'

23  Duggan, p. 83.

24  Duggan, p. 89.

25  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 1: Early Stages'

26  Stanley Boorman, 'Petrucci, Ottaviano', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 12/1/2002), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

27 Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 6th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 151.

28  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 3: Printing from type, (ii) Early history.'

29  Kreider, p. 4.

30  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 3: Printing from type, (ii) Early history.'

31  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 3: Printing from type, (ii) Early history.'

32  Grout, p. 194.

33  Robert Steele, The Earliest English Music Printing (1903; rpt. Germany: Hain - Meissenheim, 1965), p. 6.

34  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 4: Engraving, (i) Early history.'

35  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 4: Engraving, (i) Early history.'

36  Boorman, 'I. Printing, 4: Engraving, (i) Early history.'