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I'm planning to self-publish some of my scores, and will probably also be publishing some scores for friends and colleagues. I'm confused as to whether my publications should have ISBNs or ISMNs.

Bowker (who issue ISBNs in the US) are quite unequivocal on their website:

No, sheet music does not get ISBNs. The ISMN is the appropriate standard for sheet music, which doesn’t have any binding. ISBNs are not assigned to books of printed music.

Nielsen here in the UK seem to agree:

Some examples of products that do not qualify for ISBN:

...

Printed music

However, when I look on my shelves (or rather the piles on top of my piano) I find that most of my books of commercially published sheet music do have ISBNs, even when they have no end matters or musicological commentary and are just the scores and a contents page. The only one I can find with an ISMN on it also has an ISBN right next to it.

Clearly practice is at odds with theory, so what should I do? I'm not expecting to sell more than a handful of copies, but do want people to be able to find my scores on Amazon etc. so they will need an identifier of some sort. ISMNs are significantly cheaper than ISBNs so that may be the deciding factor if all else is equal.

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For me it seems pretty obvious that you should be looking at an ISMN. I'm not going into the SEO aspects of an ISMN; that would be a different question in a different Exchange site.

An extract from the ISMN manual at https://www.ismn-international.org/files/Web_ISMN_Users_Manual_2016.pdf;

Each constituent part of a publication which is separately available must receive its own ISMN. Items to be numbered include:

• scores

• miniature (study) scores

• vocal scores

• sets of parts

• individual parts, available separately

• pop folios

• anthologies

• other media that are an integral component of a publication of notated music (e.g., a tape recording that is one of the «parts» of a composition)

• song texts or lyrics published with the notated music

• commentaries published with the notated music (also available separately)

• song books (optional)

• micro-form music publications

• braille music publications

• electronic publications of musical notations

For books on music see the following list.

The following are not to be given ISMNs:

• books on music except when they contain examples of notated music

• stand-alone sound or video recordings (including recordings available on computer media)

• periodicals and series as a whole, as distinct from individual volumes in series

  • Yes, but that doesn't explain why actual music publishers seem to use ISBNs. – Bob says reinstate Monica Oct 11 at 16:10

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