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I recently encountered a puzzling issue while working on Jean Sibelius's Thirteen Pieces for Piano Op. 76 No. 2. My teacher pointed out a potential error in my music score, specifically in the sequence E-E-(A/B)-E-D (measure 27). After downloading several versions, all seemingly with the same mistake, I finally found the correct one according to my teacher.

This experience led me to wonder: how can musicians reliably determine the accuracy of a music score? Is there a universally recognized database or a "single source of truth" for music scores? Additionally, what strategies do musicians typically employ to ensure they are using a correct and authoritative version of a piece?

I'm interested in learning about resources and methods that could help me and others avoid such discrepancies in the future.

Here the part in question (3rd measure of the excerpt, 1st beat, RH):

Version 1 (with A):

Version 1

Version 2 (with B):

Version 2

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    Which version does your teacher think is the correct one?
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 15 at 6:36
  • @Dekkadeci version 1 with alternating A/B
    – nowox
    Jan 15 at 7:46
  • Measure 25 has the same change Jan 16 at 12:31
  • The consensus seems to be that version 1 is correct in this regard, but the engraving is very poor, which I would take as a sign that it should not be trusted. For one thing, the "half notes" are actually whole notes with stems instead of proper half notes. The minuscule hairpins under the LH staff aren't a great sign either, nor is the condensed spacing nor the tortured slur in the second beat of 29. When care has been put into the production of the score, such mistakes and stylistic quirks will not be suffered to remain. I would not trust it to be reliable for that reason. Jan 17 at 19:29
  • @A. R. You are right, I found many other issues in this version... I should really buy an official version, but I like having editable versions (musescore is pretty awesome).
    – nowox
    Jan 18 at 14:09

4 Answers 4

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There's no database of definitive editions of music. In a lot of cases you can find a scan of the composer's manuscript and if you're very lucky it's legible and correct. Composers are often sloppy in their notation and forget things like accidentals and it might be unclear what line notes are on.

If not then you're at the mercy of whoever edited the edition you're using. If you have an edition from a major publisher edited by someone with a reputation, it's much more likely to be correct than something somebody's published on the MuseScore site. An edition published during the composer's lifetime is more likely to be correct, the composer would have had a chance to point out any errors.

Often you find two reputable editors disagreeing on the correct notes. In cases like that you have to choose one of the two interpretations.

In this case the 'A' of version 1 is in the first edition published by Wilhelm Hansen, Copenhagen in 1922 when Sibelius was very much alive so it's quite likely he proof-read it. The sixteenth-note motif always repeats the same third note in the second half of the measure, a 'B' would be the exception here. Also 'A' fits the LH better, so for both reasons version 1 looks more likely. On the other hand, if you prefer version 2 with the 'B' then play it. Sibelius died in 1957, he's not going to complain.

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    The musician himself is also privy to interpretations and modification. I've put notes in a different hand because I can reach a 10th on my left, and sometimes it's just better to play more harmony notes on my left hand so my right hand has more focus on the melody.
    – Nelson
    Jan 15 at 6:37
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    In cases where reputable editors disagree, recordings of reputable performances can also be consulted, if published performances of the work in question are available.
    – Jim L.
    Jan 15 at 21:46
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    Are any publishers known to have kept records of correspondence with composers regarding potential errors in scores?
    – supercat
    Jan 16 at 17:15
  • @supercat I don't know if any publishers have kept records. If composers keep their correspondence, after their death it often ends up in an archive. If there's a difference between the first edition and the second, it's likely due to the composer's corrections.
    – PiedPiper
    Jan 16 at 19:41
  • @JimL. While I agree, sometimes it makes things worse. Take a look, e.g., at YouTube vids of Debussy's Sonata for Cello & Piano. Different notes invoked in some places, wildly different tempos chosen. Jan 17 at 14:36
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Is there a universally recognized database or a "single source of truth" for music scores?

No. To find (or, more accurately, get as close as you can to) the definitive form of a composition, you have to do a bit of legwork, figuratively speaking. In some cases, much ink has been spilled by musicologists on various instances of this question.

The best way to be sure of the "correct" musical content is to have a published edition prepared under the composer's supervision or at least a carefully copied manuscript, either in the composer's hand or with the composer's corrections -- these are often prepared in connection with an engraved edition, but before music printing became widespread they were also frequently prepared as presentation copies.

Another very useful kind of source is performance materials. Parts give insight into the numbers of performers as well as the musical text, because any copying errors are generally caught and corrected during rehearsals. A composer's performing score, however, may be less legible than a fair copy (and in baroque works the continuo part is often "unfigured" in the score, where as one of the continuo parts will often be "figured," meaning that the numbers describing how the harmony relates to the bass note are present).

I put "correct" in quotes earlier because composers often change their minds -- or perhaps do not remember certain minor details -- so it is not uncommon that two manuscripts from the composer's hand, written at different times, might differ. Therefore, if you find an edition that disagrees with a composer's manuscript, it is not necessarily an error. The edition might have been prepared from a different manuscript, also from the composer's hand.

Therefore, your next question is very much on point:

Additionally, what strategies do musicians typically employ to ensure they are using a correct and authoritative version of a piece?

First and foremost, buy your editions from an established professional publisher instead of downloading them from the internet.

Second, if you want to be thorough, buy or at least consult every such edition you can get your hands on. Where they disagree, find out why. For music that is out of copyright, publishers add value by including a scholarly commentary on the decisions they've made and the sources they've used. Find those sources and see whether you agree with their choices.

Finally, if you don't have access to scholarly editions, you can still look for sources and do your own scholarship. The best places to start are https://imslp.org (look for manuscripts and first editions) and https://rism.info (they don't host any sources but they tell you where you can find them, and in many cases they link to images that are available online).

Since Sibelius died less than 70 years ago, his scores are still copyright protected in many countries, but not all. His publisher is Wilhelm Hansen. If you can't find the first edition for sale, you can also try your nearest music library.

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  • You should modify part of this: imslp.org often has multiple versions including early manuscripts or first printings. This is a reliable source. I agree that material lacking the name of the arranger should be discarded. Jan 17 at 14:37
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It's a big problem. There is a music site (I forgot the name) that has lots of discussion on the subject. As mentioned in other posts, one has to look at as many published editions as possible. Also check if the editor of any edition is reliable. Correspondence between composers and publishers is useful. So is a good sense of three style of the composer.

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For pop music you can always check the original on YouTube - which is a database of sorts.

For folk music, variations are normal, there is often no source of truth. For traditional Irish music you have https://the session.org which contains numerous variations on each song - some have over 20 different versions.

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