I always had problem in understanding the reason people call it sheet music. Isn't it a sheet (an object) that has an adjective of being related to music? We don't say things like sheet Excel, or sheet cheat. The correct syntax or grammar of English tells us that we should use the adjective before the noun. So, why don't we call it music sheet?

  • Thanks for the question! I'm going to migrate this over to English Language and Usage, since it's more of an etymology question than a musical one.
    – NReilingh
    Jul 15, 2011 at 11:45
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    To me a "Music Sheet" would be bedding that plays Here Comes the Sun when I get out of it in the morning. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 15, 2011 at 11:58
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    Great note. But context always plays an important role in our communication. Without context, and based on the similar grounds, plays Here Comes the Sun is a game, rather than playing music. :) Jul 15, 2011 at 13:09
  • I'm always dismayed by foreign language education that leads people to think that the standard term for something must somehow be "incorrect" because it doesn't follow a general pattern in the language. Sep 10, 2011 at 11:35

2 Answers 2


In this case, 'music' is in fact the pluralization, and 'sheet' is an adjective describing the music.

So, rather than "A sheet of type: music," we're talking about "Music (pl.) in sheet form."

Really, the whole construct is the noun, and there are many other cases like this where the object itself comes second. For example, there are some big differences between 'print fine' and 'fine print' or 'bass string' and 'string bass'. Essentially, you're right that the describing word comes first, but you need to understand that the term sheet music is referring to a more abstract definition of 'music'.

Sheet music is essentially synonymous with 'notation', as in "Do you have the notation for that song?" We would say "Do you have the sheet music for that song?" because "Do you have the music sheet for that song?" would be referring to a definite object that the asker supposedly already knows about. We could technically say "Do you have a music sheet for that song?" but that semantic construct is never used because it's a bit too broad in the interpretation of what the "correct sheet" would be.

"The sheet music" refers to "the correct notation for your part of the song we're playing," where "the music sheet" would be "a specific piece of paper I gave you earlier that has music on it."

  • Well, what you say sounds logical. But only if we use other forms of music like 'sound music', or 'oral music', or 'formula music'. I mean, seems that we don't have these combinations (compound words), thus "music sheet" seems really more meaningful. But voteup for this nice analysis. :) Jul 15, 2011 at 11:53
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    Music sheet would be essentially a sheet, albeit a musical one and I feel that musical aspect is not stressed enough in that term, while sheet music is still essentially music, but that comes or is written on a sheet. Also, we do have similarly constructed idioms such as: elevator music, shopping music, chin music.
    – Unreason
    Jul 15, 2011 at 12:01
  • To me, it's still like 'accounts payable' instead of 'payable accounts' in Accounting. I think there should be an etymology behind this combination. For example, maybe it comes from a language in which, noun comes before an adjective. Jul 15, 2011 at 12:11
  • @NReilingh, I like your answer, however in your examples of 'fine print', 'fine' is a regular adjective (in the sense of small and delicate) and turning it around to 'print fine' puts it in a place of a noun (and takes the meaning of money you need to pay when you break some law or regulation); I think that OP was interested only in the cases where nouns are used as adjectives.
    – Unreason
    Jul 15, 2011 at 15:28
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    @NReilingh, I think your answer is slightly misleading. As a musician I know all about "sheet music" but have never heard anyone refer to a "music sheet". (I know that Unreason has an ngram search showing that it does occur, but that doesn't mean it is in common usage.) Also your discussion about "cases where the object itself comes second" seems to be overcomplicating this phrase: it is a straight forward adjective-noun combination - "sheet" (adjective) shows what sort of "music" (noun) we are talking about. Which is what your first sentence says -- you should have left it there!
    – AAT
    Jul 15, 2011 at 16:58

Actually you offer half of the answer already:

Isn't it a sheet (an object) that has an adjective of being related to music?

Now, imagining for a second that you don't know which term is an established term: sheet music or music sheet, you should admit that an equally relevant question is:

Isn't it music that has an adjective sheet, signifying that it is related to a sheet (written to or read from it)?

To me it seems rather obvious that the principal noun here is music and that the sheet only determines the context. We are firstly talking about music and therefore the music remains the noun.

It is similar to these constructs: piano music, elevator music, shopping music, chin music, etc..

As for the term music(al) sheet look at the results of the ngram search (you can explore the examples by clicking on the links in table below the graphs to see actual usage in books):

enter image description here

This shows that the actual terms music sheet and musical sheet are actually used sometimes, especially when referring to a single sheet of sheet music (or when the actual sheet is an object in the sentence). Still sheet music is appropriate when talking about the actual music written on the sheet and as such it is much more common (as a subject and consequently in the language).

As for etymology, etymonline only lists the date

sheet music is from 1857

  • 'piano music' means 'music of piano'; likewise, 'elevator music' means 'music of elevator' or 'music played in elevator'. Thus none of these two examples have an adjective in them. They are just two nouns which describe something belongs to something else. Jul 15, 2011 at 12:31
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    English can use nouns as adjectives, see for example english-zone.com/grammar/adjective3.html or usingenglish.com/glossary/noun-as-adjective.html If you understand that 'piano music' means 'music of piano' then you should have no problem with a concept that here 'piano' is a noun that is working as an adjective.
    – Unreason
    Jul 15, 2011 at 12:49
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    Nouns are used as attributes, as in expiration date.
    – apaderno
    Jul 15, 2011 at 21:38
  • attributes - adjectives, potato - potato.
    – Unreason
    Jul 16, 2011 at 2:21

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