How to Organize Your Church Music Library

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A few weeks ago, I got an email from a woman asking for help organizing her church's music library.

What should I keep?
Should I put everything in alphabetical order?
What about cantatas and reading copies?

Great questions. I'm by no means an expert, but I have learned a thing or two from watching others and organizing a few music libraries myself.

Of course, there are many ways to go about this and if you've been doing this long enough, you probably have your own system. But, if you're new, or you just started at a new church, or you're looking for a few ideas to be even more organized, keep reading, because today, I'm sharing my best tips and tricks for organizing your church music library. 

Where do I start?

If you're standing in a cluttered room filled with boxes, loose papers, and stacks of anthems, this is a valid first question. Sometimes, just the thought of organizing thousands of pieces of music and keeping track of everything can be overwhelming.

The key is to start with a manageable amount of music. Don't try to tackle your whole music library in one afternoon!

Step 1  |  Start pulling music off the shelves and/or out of filing cabinets. Work with maybe 20-25 anthems at a time. Stack on chairs and/or floor.

Step 2  |  Number each anthem (e.g. 1-50) with pencil in the upper right corner or put in numerical order if already numbered. Assign each choir member a number and box. This makes passing out new music a breeze and next time the piece is sung, choir members will get their same copy back.

If the music is already numbered but you're missing copies (for instance, 3, 19, and 26), pull from the end and renumber so you have an accurate count.

Step 3  |  Create new filing boxes or folders, as needed. Once an anthem is ready to be re-shelved or filed, stack under chairs or in a corner of the room.

Step 4  |  Repeat this process with another batch of anthems.

Step 5  |  Once you've cleared out enough shelf or drawer space, begin re-shelving or filing anthems by theme in alphabetical order (see more below).

How should I organize everything?

Everyone has their own system for organizing music, but I usually like to sort by theme first (General, Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, Communion, etc.), then alphabetize within each section. I alphabetize by title, but others prefer filing by composer's last name. Choose whatever will be easiest for you!

Step 1  |  Separate children's unison/2-part music from things your adult choir would sing (SAB, SATB). If you have enough women’s or men’s choir music (5-10+ anthems), I would pull it out and make a new category (or categories: women’s choir, men’s choir). Include ALL women’s choir music (SA, SSA, SSAA etc.) in this category - Christmas, Easter, General - everything. Same for men’s choir (TB, TTB, TTBB, etc.).

Step 2  |  For most churches, mixed choir (SAB, SATB) and children's choir (unison/2-part) will be your largest sections. Working within these sections, group anthems by theme (General, Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, Communion, etc.). Consider tagging these boxes or files with a color coded label for easy searching later:

General = green
Advent/Christmas = pink
Lent/Easter = purple
Communion = red

Note: If you have only a few things that are women's or men’s choir pieces, not enough to constitute making a separate category, then file with the mixed choir anthems by category (e.g. Christmas women’s choir piece with Christmas section).

Step 3  |  Once you have music sorted by category (mixed, children, etc.) and sorted by theme (General, Advent/Christmas, etc.), put anthems in alphabetical order.

Should I keep copied music?

The general rule is, if it violates copyright, discard. If it's legitimate sheet music (public domain, covered under CCLI license, or purchased and downloaded legally) and you think you might use it again, file with the rest of your anthems. For solo or instrumental music, hole-punch, file in notebooks by theme and/or alphabetically, and label.

What do I do with sample music?

Publishers often send out free reading copies, promotional materials, and listening CDs a few times each year to promote new anthems and collections. Most directors find it helpful to keep a few sample copies on hand to remind them of new pieces they discover; however, this can get out of hand if you save everything every publisher ever sends you.

Take this opportunity to purge your sample music stash and discard any outdated or excess music or promotional CDs. Don't worry - your church is likely still on the publisher’s mailing list and will get new things in the mail throughout the year.

How long should I keep music?

When it comes to music, there really is no expiration date.

Some churches choose to keep old music for years and years. Some directors go back to old cantatas sometimes to pull out a piece or two to do during Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter; others may choose to repeat a cantata after a certain number of years. You might also dig into the archive for a special church anniversary or celebration.

If you have no intention of using old music again and you're running out of space in your music library, see if another local church could use it. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to post it on ChoralNet to see if someone wants it. (It’s free to post on ChoralNet - you just need to create an account.)

How do I keep it organized?

If you don't already have some sort of spreadsheet or database of what's in your music library, this is a perfect opportunity to make one. Set up a simple spreadsheet on your computer or laptop and add titles and basic information for each anthem as you go. I recommend the following information for each anthem:

Title
Composer/Arranger
Voicing (SATB, SAB, etc.)
Number of copies
Theme (General, Communion, Advent, etc.)
Notes (optional instrumentation, Scripture reference, hymn tune, etc.)

How do you organize your music library? Share your favorite tip below!

Read more:
5 Things to Organize in a Church Music Program
A New-and-Improved Worship Planning Worksheet for Church Musicians
For the Church Musician: A Music Program Budget Worksheet