Stardust melodies

Popular sheet music

One of the functions of a Rare Book collection is to help us understand the past. Through collections of popular sheet music we can hear the sounds of our ancestor's lives. These were the songs and tunes to which they danced and listened in theatres and music-halls, around the piano or pianola in their parlours, and from their gramophones and wireless sets. The Monash University Library Rare Books Collection includes about 10,000 pieces of music mainly from the Victorian era to the 1970s, mostly in the form of popular song lyrics with piano accompaniment. Until the early 1960s this type of sheet music was a major part of the retail music business. Typically people played these pieces on their pianos. From the 1960s onwards popular song and piano sheets went into decline along with home pianos and the music was mainly bought by people for professional use.

The pieces on display are among the items individually entered in the Library catalogue. The remainder of our sheet music collection, which also includes solo instrumental and orchestral music, is filed alphabetically by title. An online inventory has been prepared for these by Stephen Herrin and Barbara Taylor.

The exhibition was shown from  22 June - 5 September 2011 at the Rare Books Exhibition space, Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, Monash University.


Dr John Whiteoak

Popular music generally refers to the mass-market pop and rock of the 1950s to the present-day.  This exhibition, however, brings together a wide selection of sheet music held in the Monash Rare Books collection and illustrates 'popular music' as the songs enjoyed by ordinary people. Before recordings and radio conveyed the latest popular tunes, sheet music was the means of mass marketing the latest musical vogues and hits: Charles K. Harris's 1892 song, After the Ball, reportedly sold 5 million copies. Sheet music, and illustrated sheet music in particular, preserves an evocative record of our musical, cultural and social past – as interpreted by the composers, arrangers, illustrators, printers and marketers of America's 'Tin Pan Alley' and its equivalents elsewhere.  It is also a repository of personal memories, especially – in the words of the song, "Stardust" – 'the memory of love's refrain.'

The striking and colourful cover illustrations on sheet music were designed to convey the theme of the music in evocative ways that would arrest the eye of prospective purchasers.  Illustrated covers could also be used to promote artists and theatre productions or for propaganda purposes, as in war-time sheet music. The musical notation of songs and their piano parts was generally simplified for the amateur market, but all professional pianists knew how to fill-out and embellish the published sheets.  Amateurs were often very disappointed to find that the music, as presented, sounded nothing like the professional version or as it had been played by the accomplished music house 'play-over-girl' employed to demonstrate new pieces for customers. Sheets were also purchased by people who could not read notation; they wanted the lyrics, the tonic sol-fa syllables, or the chord tablature for stringed-instrument accompaniment.

From the 1930s, Hollywood musicals began to dominate popular entertainment and illustrated covers became less striking. The main selling feature was often a photograph of a Hollywood artist like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra rather than elaborate artwork.  From the mid-1950s, when popular music was increasingly learned from recordings and home pianos were traded for radiograms, the sale of sheet music declined.

A good metaphor for this exhibition is the home piano-stool, which often contains a treasure trove of sheet music: loved, played and sung by many generations of a family. Similarly, the vast collection of sheet music in Rare Books provides rich opportunities for researchers to explore the popular culture of previous eras.

Dr Whiteoak is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, School of Music-Conservatorium, Monash University.