There is a huge demand for public domain sheet music for a variety of purposes. Some folks use this music to create public performances – and with public domain materials, there are no royalty or performance fees to worry about. Others want to build collections of royalty free music to sell to product developers. Still others build themed collections and sell it as books or CDs.
Finding sources of public domain sheet music is not too difficult. A bit of searching in your favorite search engine will reveal a variety of sources.
One of my favorites is the Library of Congress website. It has several fascinating, historical collections free for downloading and using in your projects. Here are some of the collections available on their website.
African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 – This collection consists of over 1300 pieces of African-American origin from 1850 through 1920. The collection includes many songs from the antebellum minstrelsy in the 1850s and from the abolitionist movement of that same era. It also includes many titles associated with the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Additionally, there are many Civil War era pieces about African American soldiers and the plight of the newly freed slaves. Post Civil War, the collection includes music related the the challenges of Reconstruction and the northern migration of the now freed slaves. Popular composers include James Bland, Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, James Reese Europe, and Will Marion Cook.
Historic American Sheet Music 1850-1920 – This collection contains more than 3000 pieces related to the late 19th and early 20th century periods. The collection is very diverse – spanning a variety of music types including bel canto, minstrel songs, protest songs, sentimental songs, patriotic and political songs, plantation songs, spirituals, dance music, songs from vaudeville and musicals, “Tin pan alley” songs, and songs from World War I.
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music 1820-1860 & 1870-1885 – This massive archive includes more than 62,000 pieces, about 15,000 from the period of 1820-1860 and the rest from the period of 1870-1885. This collection includes popular songs, operatic arias, piano music, sacred and secular choral music, solo instrumental music and music for band and orchestra.
There are many additional examples available at other Library of Congress collections. If you are into public domain musical collections, this is a great place to start your collection. Be sure to check it all out at the American Memory Collection at http://memory.loc.gov.