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Massive centuries-old sheet music collection to be digitized at U-M

"Songs for the Union"
University of Michigan Library Edison Sheet Music Collection

Music that hasn’t been played, or even heard, in centuries could be coming to a concert hall near you in the coming years. This is thanks to a rare sheet music collection donated to the University of Michigan that includes tens of thousands of pieces that date as far back as 1790.

Kristen Castellana, a music librarian at the University of Michigan Library, is helping lead the charge on a massive project to catalog and digitize about 115,000 sheets of music. The sheet music collection belonged to Thomas Edison and was donated by the Edison Phonograph Company.

“Thomas Edison had employees of his gather sheet music from music publishers and music stores across the country in the beginning of the 20th century,” Castellana told Stateside. “He was collecting this music so he could go through it to pick out the best music to make recordings of for the American people.”

Temperance song written to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner", 1840
Credit University of Michigan Library Edison Sheet Music Collection
Temperance song written to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner", 1840

Since the project is so massive, Castellana says it will be done in phases. Phase one will include the earliest pieces, from 1790 through about 1870. Most of these songs haven’t been heard by many people, if anyone.

“What’s special about this collection, it’s not just the breadth and scope of it ... but it’s also special because a very large percentage of these pieces, we’re estimating up to maybe as many as 75% of the pieces, haven’t been documented in other collections," said Castellana. By cataloging and digitizing this music, we’re really opening up a substantial portion of a repertory that’s never been seen before.”

Music often is influenced by the world it was created in, and according to Castellana, this historic collection is no different.

“That’s what’s so special about this music, is that it’s very much a reflection of society,” said Castellana. “You see a lot of serious issues being broached, political issues, temperance, women’s rights, wars – the Civil War is depicted in a large number of songs.”

Listen the full interview below. You can hear more about the wide variety of song themes that have been found so far and how long it will take to make it available to the public, and more.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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