Home RMW Articles RMW Features Ever wondered how they used to type up sheet music?

Ever wondered how they used to type up sheet music?


Before the advent of $200 music software on your Mac or PC, the music that you have slaved over had to make it to paper somehow. There was the old way handwriting for hours and hours, and there was the newfangled way that appeared in the early 1930’s, the Music Typewriter.

Some writers have never left the good old typewriter. It’s the feel, the noise, and size that attracts them. It is said that writer Woody Allen has written every one of his scripts and his regular pieces for The New Yorker on a typewriter. Vinyl has proved that what was old is new again, and the same is happening with the typewriter, writers are getting back to basics. With that in mind, the typewriter we will be addressing today isn’t your plain old click clack machine, no sir, this is a wonderful piece of technology that typed out music and one of the most desired ones is the Keaton Music Typewriter.


First patented in 1936, the Keaton Music Typewriter was designed and produced to churn out, not letters or numbers, but musical notations. With the original patent, there were plans for a 14-key typewriter, this was then upgraded to 33 keys and had a serious overhaul when re-patented in 1953.

Marketed for the sole use of writing music in the 1950s, Keaton’s aim was to create a machine that would print characters precisely on a musical staff (the set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that each represent a different musical pitch)and indicate exactly where the next character would be printed to ensure accuracy. Keaton’s machine ended up with a circular keyboard which you’d be forgiven for saying his invention looked like a mangled and somewhat strange looking typewriter. Oh, and it wasn’t cheap, Keaton’s Music Typewriter sold for about $255, and when adjusted for inflation, that’s about $2,415 in today’s money.

When using the device you could control where the notes and characters fall on the page by using the curved meter on the left that Keaton called the Scale Shift Handle and Scale Shift Indicator.

You could move the handle up or down a notch, that would tell the typewriter how much to adjust, printing 1/24 of an inch in either direction. Moving one notch up or down would cause the character to fall one musical step either way. Pretty ingenious huh.

Keaton wrote of his Music Typewriter: “One keyboard is adapted to type one class of music characters such as bar lines and ledger lines, which, when repeated, always appear in the same relative spaced positions with respect to the [staff] lines… and a second keyboard adapted to type another class of musical characters, such as the notes, rest signs and sharp and flat signs etc, which may, when repeated, appear in various spaced positions with respect to the [staff] lines.”

It wasn’t an exact science but Keaton did his best to make sure that whoever was using the typewriter could actually see where the notes they were about to print were going. In order to do this, he included a long needle next to the ribbon that left nothing to chance.

The units two keyboards work in different ways with the use of the Scale Shift Handle. The larger keyboard with the musical notes, scales, sharps, and flats moved about freely in tandem with the Scale Shift Handle. Whereas the smaller keyboard (which contains items like bar lines and ledger lines) would stay in place, this worked because its characters always appear in the same place with respect to the staff lines.

So what’s the big deal about this funny looking machine? Well, Keaton’s Music Typewriter was supposed to write (type) publishable quality sheet music. For writers, this was a great way to make their music more accessible to the masses and therefore the writer had more chance of getting paid for all of his hard work.

The question is, did it work, did it make more money for composers? Well, to be honest, it’s another one of those inventions that had its heart in the right place but because it’s a niche product it’s hard to say whether it did well commercially.

So, will composers of music be running out to buy one of Keaton’s machines? Probably not, but either way, the Keaton Music Typewriter is now very collectible, and it’s thought that only about a dozen or so remain in working condition. So, if you’re in the market for some vintage music history, and you fancy owning one of these babies, the Keaton Music Typewriter will set you back around $6,000-$12,000.


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