Buyer’s Guide – Printed Music Or Digital Downloads 

By Barry M Rivman

   People take sides. It’s what we do—and we do it for all sorts of things: Mac vs. PC, tubes vs. transistors, Democrats vs. Republicans, boys vs. girls, The Rock vs. Triple H, etc. Plus, we’re pretty passionate about defending our side. At Guitar Place, we sell printed music only, and with good reason (well, many good reasons), so don’t expect us to pull our punches when printed music comes to lay the smackdown on digital downloads.

   To be fair, there are advantages for downloading digital versions of music score, but so far, we can only think of two: Instant availability and the opportunity to preview before you buy. The question we intend to answer is whether those two advantages are significant enough to warrant the purchase of digitized media instead of physical media. 

  • Does exactly what it’s meant to do without exception
  • Fits on any music stand or music rest anywhere
  • Retains value or may appreciate in value
  • Requires no special reading devices
  • Lasts beyond your lifetime
  • Malware cannot be embedded in paper
  • Can become a decorative item
  • Does not require tech support or extensive FAQ to read
  • Easy to return
  • Always readable – no batteries to fail during performance
  • Instant access to music via download
  • Can preview music before purchase


   Let’s start by examining whether digital downloads are truly more convenient than printed score. To begin with, instant availability only applies if you don’t experience problems installing the software needed to view and/or print digital titles. Plus, the files can be corrupted or formatted incorrectly. Possible software compatibility issues aside, you can only view the files on the vendor’s website or print them on paper. If you have printer issues, there’s nothing the vendor can do for you—you’re on your own. As to the second point, the ability to preview before purchase, due to copyright law, you can only preview one sample page and not the entire piece. Otherwise, the seller would be giving the music away for free.

   Speaking of copyright law, it’s important to remember that you cannot store digitized sheet music on your computer. As such, you never actually own digital music score. The files remain resident on the seller’s website, which means you’re really renting rather than owning them. However, assuming no computer, software, or peripheral hardware problems, if you’re having a music manuscript emergency (e.g. need music for a gig right away), a download can be just the ticket. Then again, there is such a thing as overnight shipping if you need sheet music for guitar quickly. And more importantly, you can’t embed a virus, spybot, or adbot in paper.

   So let’s say your computer can read the vendor’s digital files. How are you going to read them and hold your guitar at the same time? You’ll have to improvise something or spend more money on a stand that can hold a laptop, iPad, or electronic music reader (all of which cost a significant amount of money themselves). You can print digital files, obviously, but when you do, you’re really paying for the music twice: once for the download and twice for the printer ink and paper. Plus, you’re not getting the same quality as professionally printed music, nor are you getting the added value of cover artwork. You’ll also have to manage your printed single sheets.

Laptop Computer with Headphones and Sheet Music 

 Digital Music Readers

   As we mentioned above, there are devices that are designed to read digital files. They sell for around $500 and have many clever features, but you have to pay extra for access to its “premium” features, plus extra for a special stand. And while these devices can hold up to 50,000 pages of music, you have to convert your downloaded files to the reader’s proprietary file format—one at a time—provided it can read them. Imagine the time it would take to transfer a collection of 1,000 files. 

   Beyond that, if your computer’s OS is not supported by the manufacturer’s proprietary software, you can’t transfer downloaded files at all, and your $500 music reader becomes useless.

   On the other hand, printed sheet music will remain state-of-the-art for as long as humans have eyes. (In fact, even future alien races could learn your songs if you wrote them down . . . it could happen). Quite simply, the sheet music you bought twenty years ago will still be usable twenty years from now. You can’t say that about any digital technology (remember the 5" floppy disc?).  

   Let’s sum it up: $500 + for an electronic music pad and accessories; $1,000 and up for a laptop; and $150 and up for a printer plus ink and paper—all which will be made obsolete, requiring replacement at equal or greater expense. Plus, when certain digital formats are no longer supported you lose your music, which also costs money to replace. Now weigh all that against the price of a songbook, which will be readable beyond your lifetime and may even appreciate in value. For longevity and economy, printed music is a no-brainer. And one last thing: you can’t return a digital file or software for a refund if you don’t like it.

   Printed sheet music does not require any special technology to read (unless your counting reading glasses), is refundable, and will sit on any music stand anywhere, including those flimsy fold-up ones (try putting your laptop on one of those). When you think about it, if printing out a digital download on paper is the most convenient way to read it, as well as the only way you can store it in your home, then why not eliminate all the “middle men” and just go for the print version? 

  • Overnight shipping is expensive if needed right away
  • No preview before online purchase 
  • Hard copy printouts cost extra money in printer ink and paper
  • Digital files can be corrupted or unreadable
  • Digital files can contain malware (viruses, spybots, adbots)
  • OS update can cause files to be unreadable
  • You don’t own digital due to copyright law. You can only print or transfer them to an electronic reader
  • No replacement for files unreadable by your system
  • Non-returnable
  • No artwork, resale, or sentimental value
  • Non-collectible
  • Reading requires laptop, iPad, or dedicated electronic reader
  • Files for electronic reader must be converted to proprietary files one at a time
  • Electronic reader software may not support latest OS
  • Electronic reader requires power – batteries may fail during performance

Art & Collectibles 

   Printed music has one towering advantage that digital downloads will never have: the ability to retain its value or even appreciate in value. Plus, printed music has the intrinsic value of not only containing art, but also being a work of art in and of itself. But let’s not get too carried away. Printed music can become a collector’s item, but in truth, most pop sheet music for guitar does not increase in value—unless you can get it signed by the artist and keep it in pristine condition. And even if it doesn’t appreciate in value, it can still be a lot of fun to collect.

   There are numerous societies dedicated to collecting printed music of all ages and genres, such as the New York Sheet Music Society, where you can connect with kindred spirits. As yet, there are no sites dedicated to vintage PDFs or MP3s, and none likely to appear. Nor are there likely to be any rare, collectible first edition e-books either. As an aside, the André Meyer collection of music manuscript for sale at Sothebys is valued at well over $1M dollars—so start collecting those classical scores—your grandchildren will thank you.

iPad Sheet Music and Print Sheet Music

Digital devaluation and disposable art 

   The accelerated obsolescence of digital technology makes everything created on it disposable. Apart from money, when you lose a digital file, you lose a part of your past and you deny your future as well, since all future creations are built upon past achievements. In essence, digital technology erases our culture every few years, whereas print has kept it alive since it was first invented in China 1,100 years ago. (That’s printing—writing dates back to 3200 BC.) Imagine where blues and jazz would be if players such as Robert Johnson or Charlie Christian had recorded on 5" floppy discs . . . 

   Today we still have written manuscript from the times of Beethoven and before, which is not only of historical value, but educational and cultural value as well. In truth, our entire music culture, including live performance; the recording/record industry; film and TV; makers of music instruments and equipment; and our entire music education system, all grew out of music printed on paper. And don’t forget all the ancillary businesses associated with music. After all, someone has to build those concert halls, schools, and recording studios—and someone has to write about music too. Ironically, despite dying in a pauper’s grave, Mozart has proved to be a better job creator than General Motors will ever be—and all because of printed music.

And “Finale . . .”

   The most important thing to remember is not whether printed music appreciates in value, rather, the value of the art it preserves. Printed music lives on long after the composition it contains is not current. As such, it makes great reference material, thus forming the basis for future music creation. To sum it up, printed music is easy to read; convenient to use; never crashes; can’t contain malware; doesn’t require tech support or extensive FAQs to operate; can appreciate in value; can be framed and hung as artwork; and will always be there when you need it for a gig or your own musical pleasure.