In the midst of streaming music services and (unfortunately) pirated music, we tend to forget that there’s a type called public domain music too. Public domain music quite simply is music and musical works which do not have any form of licenses or copyrights attached to them. They can be freely shared and if one sees it that way, they have no legal owner.
Public domain music can be re-used, re-interpreted, and even sold. It might sound strange, but you can actually sell public domain music without doling out royalties to anyone and even copyright it again. For instance, many classical compositions are in the public domain and are often re-used, performed publicly, and even sold. If you have ever bought a ticket to a Mozart or a Beethoven performance by a symphony group, then that’s a fine example of the use of public domain music. In the U.S., music and lyrics published on or before 1922 are in the public domain.
Public domain music is a vast part of our musical culture and there are riches we can all tap into. Let’s explore it some more.
5 Best Sources for Public Domain Music
Public domain is a large universe in itself. We earlier took a look at 6 Free Websites For Public Domain Images & Free Stock Photos. Now, let’s dive into a few free websites for public domain music.
Public Domain Information Project is one of the more comprehensive websites on public domain music. When you think that it’s older (started in 1986) than even Google, then you can appreciate the resource richness of the site. The site has a searchable index of public domain music titles and an alphabetical index. Clicking on a song or musical piece opens up a YouTube page with search results. Individual songs are linked to reprints of the sheet music which can be bought from the site. This can help if you have to record your version of a public domain musical work. Remember, all public domain information on this site is based on USA copyright law.
The International Music Score Library Project/Petrucci Music Library has a compilation of nearly 190,000 musical scores and is a Canadian website (MediaWiki). The resources are listed as such – 53,700 works, 189,401 scores, 14,916 recordings, 7,209 composers, and 192 performers. You can browse the public domain music resources from the filters given on the left or use the search box on the homepage of the wiki. IMSLP also has the Werner Icking Music Archive which is a collection of sheet music in PDF format. The sheet music files have been electronically typeset by volunteers and provided under the public domain so that musicians can use them liberally. Each score page gives you the downloadable PDF sheet and also links to commercial recordings.
Musopen sets music free by providing access to recordings, sheet music, and textbooks to the public for free. The entire music collection is classical, so musicians from that genre have a bounty to choose from. You can browse music by composer, performer, instrument, form and time period. You can listen to music online and stream it on the Musopen radio. You can also download tracks as MP3 files. You can contribute to the Music Theory Textbook Project or the various other ones on the site. (See Directory)
Freesound is a collaborative database of Creative Commons Licensed sounds. So, this site stands a bit away from the above three with their focus on sheet music and classical recordings. But free sound effects is nonetheless important because sounds effects (whale songs, bird calls, nature sounds etc.) are used everywhere from mobile ringtones to advertising. In fact, one of the prime goals of The Freesound Project is to be an open database for audio research institutions source them with correctly licensed audio to test their algorithms. You can also upload your own creations and expand the database. (See Directory)
A small and neat site that contains a listing of songs that are believed to be in the public domain. You can click on the links and download the songs to your desktop. Digital History is an educational site and the public domain section is a small part of it which can be used by teachers and students alike. All the musical titles are arranged under – Historic Music. You can choose to view it by title or topic.
Some other links:
How Can You Use Public Domain Music
You can use public domain music in an audiobook or podcast. Public domain sound samples featured in a few sites in the above list can be incorporated in PowerPoint presentations. Public domain music will always find a place in interesting mashups as also in films and documentaries. But…
3 Things to Keep In Mind When Using Public Domain Music
Determining if a work falls under public domain can be the trickiest part of using a music file (or any other kind of document). There is a scope for ambiguity and undefined areas. So here are three main things you can keep in mind:
- The definition of what falls under public domain differs from country to country. For instance, in the U.S. any work published before 1923 are in the public domain as their copyright has expired. But even if a work is in the public domain in the United States, it may still be protected in other countries.
- Different versions of a material may fall under different copyrights. It is not necessary that if one version is in the public domain, the other versions will also be as each version may be protected by a separate copyright.
- In the U.S. the span of copyright protection depends upon when it was created. But there may be material that has come into the public domain because the authors did not renew the copyrights or did not attach a copyright notice to their works.
The last point adds to the riches that one can discover if trolling for copyright free work. But copyright issues are a murky area and due caution is always advised when trying to reuse and adapt a work that seems to be in the public domain. Legal traps are many. Here’s hoping this brief look exploring the world of public domain music has helped somewhat. The IMSLP wiki has a section called Copyright Made Simple which is of more help.
Have you searched for public domain music? How have creatively used them? Are there any sites you would like to recommend?
Image Credit: chrisbb