Chaos to Order: Taming the Music Mess

by Hilary Feldman

[Warning: This writer is anal, and the paragraphs to follow may be unsuitable for the ambivalent and unmotivated.]

My fellow musicians (and you other folks who collect things), if you’re anything like me you have an enormous collection of sheet music — books, single commercial sheets, downloaded sheets, copies (only legal ones, of course!), fake books, etc. For many, this is a constant source of chaos and frustration — the organizing project that never gets done or, if it does, never seems to stay done. So I thought I’d try to help. In another life, I was a professional organizer, and I’m here to tell you that taming that music mess is as easy as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3…

Music Books

Obviously if you can shelve your books in some particular order that makes sense to you (alphabetical by composer, or by type of music, etc.), great. HOWEVER, I have a terrific tip that will be a tremendous time saver when you find yourself needing to browse your entire library for a single piece or when you’re on the prowl for new music.

Using your home copier or scanner, make a copy of the Table of Contents page of each book. Then put all those copies into a binder, again in some order that makes sense to you. The next time you want to browse your library, simply flip through the pages of your binder. Then go pull the appropriate book(s) off the shelf (or out of the pile!). Easy, fast, tidy… and mobile! Ta da!

Single Sheets

I had literally thousands of single sheets of music, in many different formats: lead sheets, choral music, store-bought piano-vocal sheets, and jillions of copies and downloaded sheets. I used to try to subdivide them into styles of music, but I found this system much too difficult to maintain. I know some people use binders as a filing system. I don’t recommend this, as it is also bothersome to maintain. Too labor-intensive. Don’t do it.

NOTE: The more difficult an organizational system is to maintain, the less likely you are to maintain it. Seems obvious, but this rule of thumb is broken all the time by the well-intended.

Here are two solutions. The first one is really good. The second one, if you can do it, is exceptional!

Really Good Solution (RGS): Create a simple filing system (the key word is ‘simple’) in a filing cabinet, if at all possible. If you can’t get a cabinet, use file boxes — something you can put box bottom hanging files in — rather than those expansion files. The simplest filing system is alphabetical. Don’t subdivide more than that, and don’t worry about alphabetizing within each letter of the alphabet (again, too hard to maintain). Use hanging files and simply mark their tabs “A,” “B,” C,” etc. This way, when it’s time to put music away, you just open a drawer and drop the music in its hanging file. Not labor-intensive, and easy enough to find a song when you need it. If you’re really ambitious, and you want to join AAA (Association of Anal Americans), you can make a list of all your single sheets, print it out, and add that to your music library binder, along with your Table of Contents copies. This takes time up front, and requires another step of maintenance, but it does save you time when you’re searching for music in your collection.

TIP: If you use this method, I recommend putting some kind of marking in the upper corner of the front page of each piece of music, in red, so you never give away your last or only copy.

Exceptional Solution (ES): If you have access to a high-speed scanner, or even a regular scanner with a sheet feeder, scan your music and get rid of as many of those sheets as you can. There are several advantages to this:

  • It saves a ton of space;
  • If you leave the “A” and “The” out of song titles, the file list alphabetizes itself on your computer, and you can very easily browse that list when searching for
  • It’s incredibly easy to share music (with students, with colleagues, with transposers or arrangers, )
  • If you do share the music, you never have to worry that you’re giving away your last
  • You can carry your entire music library around on your tablet or

I transitioned from the RGS to the ES in December of 2009, and I am thrilled with the result. It definitely took some time, but zowie! Is it ever great! Granted, I have access to a high speed scanner to do this initial huge bulk of scanning (now I just use my home scanner to add new pieces), which made the time commitment much less than a regular scanner. I would have done it regardless, however. That’s how useful it’s been for me.

I still have my vintage sheet music and my choral music in file drawers, but all the other single sheets are in the com- puter. After I finish a round of scanning, I let my students pick through the hard copies and take whatever they want, and then I take the rest to open mic to give away. Always a hit!

Adding New Music to Your Incredibly Organized Collection

I have one set of stacking trays on my desk. As an organizer I must tell you that I am generally against stacking trays, as they most often just become yet another paper abyss. HOWEVER, they are great for the purpose of integrating new material into your sheet music library. The trays are labeled:

  • To Copy (new books whose Tables of Contents need to be copied)
  • Music to Scan (new sheets I want to scan)
  • Music to File (new sheets I want to file)

Then, when I have a few minutes, I can add the music appropriately. In the meantime, I don’t lose track of what’s what. This works for both the RGS and the ES.


It’s difficult to be your most productive and creative self when clutter is preventing you access to your own resources. I hope these ideas help you tame your music mess and make order out of chaos. Best of luck!

−Hilary Ann Feldman

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