Legal Music For Your Videos — Part 5 — Public Domain

You might have expected that in a five part series on music that’s legal to use for your videos, I’d have written about public domain early on.  Primarily I write about how to do stuff faster and more easily — this site is about resources for improving human performance and productivity.  I saved public domain music for last because it is actually the hardest to get and use.  And it is the least relevant to today’s videos.

Here’s why you may not want to be bothered:

1. Most of pd music is classical and folk.  Most video makers want pop, rock, rap, jazz or ambient. (There is sheet music for popular songs, but how many pop songs of the late 1800’s and early 1920’s really work today?)

2. Most pd music is unavailable as recorded performances.  There are some recordings in the public domain, but comparatively few.  They are hard to find. This has to do with how copyright law treats recordings and is a longer discussion than is right for this article.

3. If you can find a pd recording, it usually requires a great deal of work to make the scratchy old thing sound good.

4. In dealing with music and copyright, you have different kinds of copyright that cover the music and the lyrics, the performance and the recording.  So while there are plenty of recordings of public domain music, the performance and recordings are copyrighted.

5. Most of your access to public domain music, therefore, would be through sheet music.  But even there, you have problems.  It’s not just the music that must be in the public domain, it’s also the arrangement.  So, you have to have sheet music that is itself in the public domain.

6. It takes a great deal of time and research to hunt down the right sheet music.  Then you have to either perform and record it yourself or digitize and sequence it.  That takes a great deal more time, skills you may not have, and both hardware and software that can run into a bit of money.

7. Even if you have the hardware, software and enough skills to use sheet music, much of the sheet music is not digitized.  Much sheet music that is digitized and in the public domain is images of the music that are old, yellowed and often written in out-of-date notation.  So conversion to digital through music OCR and sequencing is difficult and you may need to hand-copy it.

8. Many institutions that have the old sheet music and have digitized them want to be compensated for their work, so you have to buy the sheet music from them.  A great deal of the sheet music of public domain works in the hands of vendors are new arrangements of the works and come with a number of restrictions, as well as being costly.  Thus you must search for the originals and take care that you’ve found the free-to-download versions.

9. Because of all the foregoing reasons, very little of public domain music is available for free in an easily usable format.  No matter how many references you find in search engine results to “free” sheet music, you will see when you visit the site that there are a few pieces that are free, but most have a fee or require a subscription.  There are also many sites that will offer a midi or mp3 file to allow you to listen to the music, but the midi or mp3 is under copyright and usually not for sale.

So, you are probably seeing why royalty-free providers can ask so much for their music.  They make it easy, convenient and fast to get what you need.  You also can probably understand that even when they are using pubic domain music and they “merely” digitize and sequence it, it is expensive and time consuming to produce music.

All of that said, however, you may have a particular song or other musical piece in mind for your project and it may be worth your while to do the labor.  For that, you should just use a search engine to look for the particular work by name, composer and what kind of file you are searching for, such as “sheet music” or “MIDI.”   (Sometimes you may find MIDI files that the performer or sequencer has specifically put into the public domain or has licensed as Creative Commons Attribution.  I’ve put a couple of sites that have clearly stated you may freely use their MIDI’s in the link references below.)

Additionally, if you make inspirational or motivational videos, classical pieces can really rock for those purposes. (Think of selections from Debussy’s “La Mer” with ocean scenes, for example.  Or “Clair de Lune” to accompany some nighttime photos.  In fact, go look for some good uses of those on YouTube.  They’ve already been done.)

If you really want to look into the public domain music available, here are some references to get you started.  As, I’ve been saying, there’s quite a lot of it in sheet music format, but you have to source it, perhaps convert it to a printable form, perform or sequence it, and maybe add some other tracks to it to make it useable for your video.  If it’s in bad shape, you might have to hand copy it to your music program.

Public Domain MIDI, MP3: — — A site made by Kevin McLeod of Incomptech, featuring public domain music recordings he’s scoured the web for.  Mostly it’s his own generated tunes and those of Frank Nora.  But it’s free and pd. — — primarily classical. Has both mp3’s and sheet music for download. Dedicated to the concept of providing free music without copyright restrictions.  Based on Beethoven’s idea that “There ought to be but one large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist could carry his art-works and from which he could carry away whatever he needed.”

Public Domain Sheet Music:

International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) — – This library of public domain sheet music is a huge collection of scores (the originals) that have been scanned into PDF format.  They say they have 54,961 works, containing 198,333 scores, plus 17,311 recordings, and cover 7,195 composers.  Whew!  A lot of music.

MuseOpen — — As described under public domain MIDI and MP3’s above.  Free unrestricted sheet music.

Sibley Music Library – — They say they have over 16,000 publications in their collection, including both books and scores.  Downloads are PDFs.  You can search or browse.

Art Song Central —– Large library of sheet music dedicated to serving vocal artists and voice teachers.  The best use of this resource is to go to its “Sources” page.  It is filled with the sources they used to build their library and they intend to use in the future.  Since they haven’t used most the music available from their sources, why not go directly to the sources?  You could start with the references above and add the references on the Art Song Central sources page and have enough public domain music to last ten lifetimes.

Duke University Library — — Over 3000 items of sheet music images from about 1850 to 1920.  Some will require a great deal of clean-up. – — Do a search for “sheet music” using media type = texts.  Not all are public domain, but many are. Several that are not public domain have very liberal licensing for your performance. You will notice in exploring that it offers a large number of audios for your listening pleasure. Most of the audio is not public domain.  Be careful.  It’s safest to stick to the sheet music published before 1923.  Also be careful of the number of Creative Commons Share-Alike files.

Piano Public Domain — — I’m only including this because it keeps coming up in search.  It does have some free downloads among the 20,000 pieces it offers, but most are not free.  You have to subscribe and pay in “credits.”

Mutopia Project — — like Piano Public Domain, I’m only including this because it keeps coming up in search.  Not all, or even most, of the music here is in the public domain.  Most is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution or Creative Commons Share-Alike.  A lot is still under MutopiaBSD, which is similar to Creative Commons Share-Alike.  They say they have over 1700 pieces, but with all the actual public domain music available from other sources, is it worth it to search here for music for your video?

There are also lots of books of public domain music, in addition to many more sources of original scores from a great number of websites.  But, by the time you’ve finished with all the stuff above, you probably will have more than you want to deal with.  Good luck with all the hard work that follows.

[Just in case you’ve forgotten: I’m not a lawyer.  Nothing here is intended as legal advice.  Everything I’ve said about the public domain is merely my understanding.  For legal advice in the complicated field of intellectual property, please seek counsel from your own attorney.]