Jonathan Feist


Sheet Music Cabinets (a Rant)

Jonathan Feist

Sheet music cabinets are about the worst possible way to store sheet music I can imagine. Well, maybe an operating fishtank would be worse, but as paper storage furniture goes, sheet music cabinets are pretty awful. It’s no wonder that pianos wind up piled high with music, method books, and half-eaten lead sheet. Why? Because if we were to return an item back into the music cabinet, it is likely that we would never find it again.

The reason sheet music cabinets are unusable is because drawers only let you see the top document, and even then, only if you pull the drawer all the way out.  Sheet music is typically sold in racks that cover up the bottom two thirds, and so we publishers set the titles high on the page. But that is the opposite of what you want in your drawer, where you can only see the bottom, unless you open it all the way. And to find something lower in the stack, you have to dig. You might have to completely empty the drawer, to find a missing chart. And some of these cabinets have many, many drawers, perhaps in subconscious acknowledgement that they are beginning at a deficit, in terms of organizational design. Really, how the heck are you supposed to find anything in this gorgeous monstrosity?

I disparage music cabinet design with some sadness, because many very beautiful antique sheet music cabinets exist, made in the days when wood was made out of wood, unlike nearly anything being manufactured now. Many lovely pieces date from the early 1900s, when commercial sheet music publishing was booming, and everyone had a piano or organ in their living room. Beautifully crafted music cabinets, made of mahogany or rosewood or cherry, often inlaid  with intricate designs or graced with ornate carvings, fit right into the décor, between the Steinway and the chaise longue. It’s difficult to dislike them.

From a practical standpoint, though, music cabinets are grotesquely less convenient than file cabinets, which only became popular around 1950, when document duplication technology came into more widespread reach, and we all started becoming overrun with paper. By then, though, traditions in large-format sheet music were already entrenched, and musicians’ habits were to store them in their cabinets’ drawers, perhaps where they were more likely to stay flat and not develop the tendency to curl (particularly inconvenient on music stands). The document duplication craze was based on different paper sizes, as were their supporting furnishings, which further discouraged us from adopting the modern conveniences that those in more corporate circles were benefiting from.

Musicians became accustomed to suffering with their inconvenient but beautiful sheet music cabinets—perhaps, a good metaphor for our lives generally. It’s what our teacher used, so by golly, we’ll use one too. But file cabinets are infinitely better at storing documents for later retrieval. Open the drawer and the folder labels all face you. Beethoven sonatas are nicely located under B, and Duke Ellington piano/vocal arrangements are under E (or perhaps by song title, if you like). They are not in, oh, the third or fourth drawer, a third or so of the way down. They are not inside your piano bench (perhaps, a rare item that is even worse at storing sheet music than your music cabinet).

In a file cabinet, all is easily alphabetical.  Vertical files have paper-width drawers that come out towards you.  Lateral files have the papers oriented sideways, which is more efficient in terms of storage, but also sometimes awkward, depending on your room setup. Bookshelves are best for books, because they let you see the titles on the spines. That said, you can also put sheet music books in a file cabinet, spine facing up. It might make the most sense to just do that and keep all your music together. Then, you can keep additional paper along with your books, and if they all look ratty, they are hidden away nicely in a drawer, rather than cluttering up your fancy living room.

Inconveniently, sheet music tends to measure 9 x 12, whereas file cabinets are either designed for letter (8.5 x 11) or legal (8.5 x 14). You might be able to fit it into either sized drawer, though it might be tight, depending on the design.  The interior drawer dimensions aren’t standard, so you have to try it. Maybe it will be high enough.

The big trouble with file cabinets is that they tend to look awful, particularly the ones to be found at the ubiquitous big-box office supply stores. You have to search to find a nice one, and look again to find with quality hardware to make the overladen drawers slide nicely for more than a few months. Someday, when my ship comes in, I’m going to spring for something handmade, by an actual woodworker. Maybe one of these Amish babies. Isn’t this lovely?

Or to dream even higher, I’ll have something custom-built by my favorite furniture maker, The Windsor Chairmaker.

Until then, I have to hope that a really nice old music cabinet doesn’t somehow come my way, and tempt me to bring yet another object into my life that I know, in my heart of hearts, is a bad idea.

Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.