Rutgers Digitizes Sheet Music Related to New Jersey

By Lauren Wanko

Springsteen isn’t the only Jersey-born musician to sing about the shore. It turns out composers were poking fun at the Garden State since the early 1900s.

“You get a window into what people thought, what people did, you really get a vision of society you might not always get just from looking at history books,” said Rutgers University Professor Jonathan Sauceda.

Which is why Sauceda’s had students comb through nearly 180 pieces of sheet music in their special collections university archives to study songs from the 19th and early 20th centuries — music written by a Jersey composer or lyrics all about the Garden State. They compared them to contemporary artists like Sinatra or Bon Jovi and studied the historical significance of the old lyrics.

“It’s interesting how little the songs themselves mentioned minorities, African-Americans, immigrants but in covers of some of these pieces of sheet music there are depictions of African-Americans especially,” Sauceda said.

Research Assistant Trey Shore studied dozens of songs.

What did he find? “I found a lot of pieces that were very positive about New Jersey,” he said. “The idea that this state is such a fertile ground for artistry and for musicianship is an idea that I thinks gets forgotten a lot of times.”

Professor Sauceda’s determined to keep this music alive.

A team of Rutgers University staffers and students began digitizing the sheet music. They scan it into the computer following the standards set by the New Jersey Digital Highway. Each piece could be four to 10 pages long and depending on the size, the process could take up 45 minutes per song.

“These materials are old. Sheet music to begin with, it wasn’t set up to last forever, it was set up to be used. It gets ripped so it really is kind of a ticking time bomb as far as these pieces falling apart,” Sauceda said.

Students have been creating an electronic card catalog of sorts. They hope the sheet music will eventually be uploaded onto a Rutgers website.

“That will make them accessible around the world. Anybody with an internet connection can see what the music is,” Sauceda said.

Most of the song recordings don’t exist.

Students already recorded three songs.

“I thought the most interesting part was definitely the artistic liberty we had with this,” Simon Wang said.

“I feel like to be a good musician you have to be well-rounded. It’s an important part of not just of musical history, but history in general,” said Melanie Chambers.

“It’s very interesting to be one of the first people to hear this music in 100 years, much less perform it,” Shore said.

So far about 30 pieces of sheet music have been digitized. Only about 150 more to go.