The 4 Types of Music Editions

Have you ever performed a piece of music for a teacher or coach only to learn that the printed edition you’re using contains errors or odd revisions?

This post describes the 4 main types of published music editions – facsimile, urtext, performance, & critical – and suggests ways in which we can avoid the pitfalls of faulty publications.


Type 1: Facsimile
A facsimile edition typically presents a photographic reproduction of a composer’s or copyist’s manuscript or of a historical published version of a piece.

Here are the opening measures from an autograph facsimile of Mozart’s Variations K455 for piano (i.e., the original was hand-written by the composer):

Mozart K455 [1]

Type 2: Urtext
In an urtext edition (i.e., “original text”), a publisher engraves a primary source of the music, such as a facsimile, into modern notation. No alterations are made to the music, but a composition becomes much easier for performers to read and learn.

The following is an urtext edition of the above excerpt by Mozart; it’s taken from the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, or New Mozart Edition, published by Bärenreiter (as is the facsimile):

Mozart K455 [3]

Type 3: Performance
A performance edition presents a composition in a manner that an editor believes will facilitate a performer’s learning process, add expressive features to a piece, simplify notation and page turns, clarify technical execution, or make the music available at lower cost.

Often, no indication is given in the score as to the source of the music or whether an expressive or technical marking originates with the composer or the editor. Sometimes, pitches, articulations, and other elements are changed without notice.

These types of editions can be problematic because they may include alterations that reflect an editor’s style, opinions, or lack of precision more than a composer’s intentions.

For instance, consider this edition of the foregoing Mozart excerpt:

Mozart K455 [2]

Observe that, among other editorial differences between this and the urtext and facsimile, slurs have been added to the eighth notes in the right hand in measures 1 & 2. Did an editor insert those slurs or was an alternate manuscript source used? The edition doesn’t say. The slurs seem dubious because they don’t match the notation in the left hand.

And what about the time signature? In the above facsimile, Mozart indicated cut time, yet here the time signature is 4/4.

Surely, a mature pianist seeking to perform Mozart’s music would prefer to use an urtext edition and perhaps consult a facsimile. But what about student musicians?

Young students commonly depend on editors to suggest fingerings, phrasing, articulations, and the like. So performance editions designed for students characteristically incorporate editorial markings.

Such revisions aren’t troublesome or confusing, however, when they’re crafted by responsible editors and publishers. Nonetheless, diligent students would do well to check the editions they use against urtexts or facsimiles.

High-quality performance editions identify their sources and indicate when revisions are editorial.

Some even include facsimile or urtext versions as well as editor explanations that allow performers to assess an editor’s changes and then make their own decisions about how they’ll perform a piece.

Hence, carefully produced editions are worth paying for.

In addition, with the proliferation of websites providing online access to facsimile and urtext editions, it has become easier than ever to view reference scores (see “Free online music scores“).

Type 4: Critical
Also known as scholarly editions, these sorts of publications analyze aspects of a composition or compare versions; they aren’t meant for use in performance.

For example, a critical edition of a Mozart piano piece might discuss the ways in which Mozart employed slurs and examine how slurs could be performed and whether they might be added when they aren’t notated.

Such editions often present snippets of music accompanied by text, as in this article.

* * *

In sum, by being aware of what type of edition we’re working with, we can recognize whether we’re interpreting a composer’s idea or an editor’s. We can then consult other sources, if necessary, to gauge the veracity of an edition and the likely intentions of an editor.

With that knowledge in hand, we can make wise, artistically responsible choices about the editions we use.

For more about selecting music, see “Choosing New Material” on pages 14-16 of The Musician’s Way.

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein

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6 Responses to “The 4 Types of Music Editions”

  1. So Hyun Bak said:

    Nov 23, 09 at 09:57

    While preparing different pieces, I often come across a marking that seems out of place if not incorrect. This is particularly so in chamber music, when one person has a marking that does not relate to the marking of another part. Besides marking up the music for performance reasons, the editors are also adding in mistakes so that they can produce the music. For that reason alone, it is important for any musician to look at a facsimile or an urtext version of a work, because in performance you want the most accurate interpretation of a piece. Also, the critical version of a work should compare and contrast between “popular” performance techniques or phrasing and what the composer might not have intended in the original manuscript. For the performer, that would be a very useful thing to read and be aware of.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Nov 23, 09 at 13:28

    Thanks, So Hyun Bak – excellent points. I agree that errors in performance editions are quite common, and performers have much to gain from studying urtext, critical, and facsimile editions.

  3. mjdisler said:

    Feb 10, 10 at 08:56

    An interesting publication that combines these various editions into one package is J. S. Bach 6 Suites á Violoncello Solo senza Basso. BWV 1007-1012
    Bärenreiter Urtext: Scholarly Critical Performing Edition, c.2000 Edited by Bettina Schwemer and Douglas Woodfull-Harris.

    This edition presents 7 volumes of material for detailed study of the cello suites. It includes (vol.1-5) facsimiles of all five sources known today, (vol.6) a performance score, and (vol. 7) a 40-page text volume with discussions of the textual tradition and performance practice. The unique performance score incorporates alternate notation where the sources differ, thus enabling performers to develop a version based on their personal, informed reading of the variants. A “Critical Report” details corrections, ambiguities, and discrepancies between the music text and the 5 sources that are not otherwise represented by the general editorial policies.

    Personally would like to see more publications like this. Hunting down the various types in separate books & sources can be frustrating & time consuming.

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Feb 10, 10 at 13:39

    Thanks for the heads-up. Cellist David Starkweather at the Univ. of Georgia has also put together an innovative edition of the Bach suites, published in Nov. 2008, which includes multimedia. More info at his webpage:

  5. Scott Watkins said:

    Jun 20, 10 at 11:40

    I think the whole idea of creating a usable, performable edition, combining the history of a work’s publication along with scholarly comments and corrections (where needed) is fascinating. The subject of my dissertation at Florida State University is preparing a new edition of Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. 80 – a work which the composer never published during his lifetime and therefore never subjected to necessary revision nor correction. Thus, the work, which was published posthumously in 1900, contains simple mistakes (incorrect chord spellings, accidentals which are either missing or misplaced), inconsistencies with regard to phrase structure, etc. It’s been fascinating to compare the few available editions to the first edition, published by Jurgenson. James Grier’s book, “The Critical Editing of Music” has been of enormous help and guidance. Thanks for this blog – this was a wonderful addition to my work!

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 20, 10 at 11:54

    Thanks for the comment, Scott, and bravo for taking on such an important and useful dissertation topic.
    If you’d like to see two examples of integrated editions from the guitar literature, check out Frank Koonce’s edition of the Bach lute music arranged for guitar (Kjos) as well as Stanley Yates’ arrangements of the Bach cello suites (Mel Bay).