First off, I am a novice with piano; played until junior freshman years, then stopped. Now, twenty years later I'm picking it up again.

I have always preferred to play popular or classic music as it was written originally - I believe music is written in a specific key for a reason; it just sounds better (maybe it's just my imagination).

When trying to download sheet music, I often see different versions of the same song in different keys, most often dumbed down; this even on sites where you have to pay 5 dollars and up.

My question is, how do you spot the original? I usually just look for the most complicated piece I can find (especially on the the treble clef side it seems to be easier to spot). Most often it also seems to be the pieces in the B key (or anything with more than 3-sharp based keys) that get dumbed down. Is this pretty much how you spot them?

4 Answers 4


For popular music, the original key is usually whatever worked best with the original singer's voice, rather than whatever worked with the piano. So when it's resold, it's often transposed to whatever key is deemed easiest to sing and play for a large range of people. Better musicians may be able to transpose on the fly, as well as add their own embellishments.

Your thought of looking for the most complicated version of the written music is reasonable. This is likely to be either what the original artist wrote, or a fairly accurate transcription of what they played. Many musicians outside the classical world play more by ear than by the written note, especially in small goups, so the original artist may not have produced detailed sheet music of what they play.

If you want to be sure you are playing popular music in the original key, listen to the original recording. The first chord is often the chord of the song's key. The last chord is nearly always the song's key.

I'm less familiar with classical music, but if you were to buy copies that were not labeled as arrangements, I'd expect them to be the original, in the original key.

  • Agreed that listening to the original recording is a good idea, but it's not always so simple. For example, the original recording of The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" ends on the V chord, not the I, and also is in a key half-way between D# and D. In this case wikipedia claims the pitch change was due to a change in tape speed, in other cases bands sometimes tune to something other than A440. Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 14:48
  • I'd say that in a case like that, listening to the original recording is the only way you'll find out that kind of detail. Music isn't always simple, and examples like this are exactly when transcriptions will be most inadequate, and the original recording most useful.
    – Karen
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 16:06

A lot of contemporary popular music is never "officially" published by anybody. It's purpose is to make money from recordings and live performance, not by selling sheet music. In general, it is legal for anybody to perform live their own version of any piece music (though there are some legal restrictions on "defamatory" versions), but recording a cover version, or selling printed music, are covered by copyright and "mechanical reproduction rights" law - which can usually be summarised as "it's only legal if you pay somebody."

The music from "big-theatre" shows like musicals may not be published either, at least until the piece has established itself as a "classic". If theatre groups want to perform these shows, they don't buy the music scores and band parts but hire them, and pay the hire charges as part of the performing rights fees for the show.

The above comments also apply to original music on film soundtracks.

You are most likely to get "original" versions of popular music from big-name publishers like Warner/Chappell music or Hal Leonard, but (being very big companies) they don't usually publish stuff unless they think they can make money from it.

For classical music, it should be clear from the edition whether it is the original, or an arrangement, transcription, easy-to-play version, etc. If the edition doesn't say what it is, it's a reasonable assumption that it isn't original (and it's probably a poor quality arrangement as well).

If a classical piece is out of copyright, you can often download scanned copies of the original published version(s) free from http://imslp.org/.


For classical music, look for "Urtext" editions. Those are the originals as written by the composer without added fingerings and other editorial additions that tend to be more annoying than helpful.

For popular music, this is rather trickier since rather often there has not even been sheet music before there was a recording. And even in case there is "official" sheet music from the actual creator, for composer/performers like Ástor Piazzolla his actual renditions may well differ in a number of details from the parts he wrote for himself.


Try http://imslp.org/

It is a very good site to find classical music, they are the original version unless stated otherwise.

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