First off, this is not about where you can download free music or song files. A search on the web for Public Domain (PD) songs will result in plenty of sites to download midi files and sheet music, either free or for a fee. This is more for people wanting to record public domain songs themselves. For creative people that might want to record TV or Radio Jingles, or a Christmas, Folk, Children’s, Blues, Patriotic, Jazz, or Religious CD. They may even want to take a PD song, modernize it and create something entirely different musically.
Music or songs released before 1923 are generally considered public domain. So why would you want to record a song that’s over ninety years old? Well I suppose it’s a question of musical tastes. Just remember. You are free to do anything you want with something that is in the PD. So if you are musically inclined or can write lyrics, a PD song can be rearranged into any style you like. In fact, some PD songs have been resurrected several times and became popular hits decades later.
For example The Aba Daba Honeymoon, written by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan in 1914. The first recording was made in the same year and it became a popular tune at the time. 36 years later Debbie Reynolds sang it in the 1950 film Two Weeks with Love. The song became a hit again reaching #3 on the billboard. Then 25 years later in the mid-70’s and early 80’s the words were changed and it became the TV commercial jingle for Frito Lays corn chips. And in 1978 with the original words restored, it was performed on the hit TV show Laverne and Shirley. The song had a lifespan of over 60 years and is still occasionally used to this day, almost a hundred years later. So you see? Pick the right PD song, make it your own and you never know.
How is this possible? The answer is that songs written back then had one goal in mind. Get everyone to sing or play it. If the song became popular people would go out and buy the sheet music. Records would become more common later in the 1920’s. Before then most people actually learned and eventually performed these songs in parlors (family rooms) or saloons everywhere. A piano always seemed to be around back then. People spent more time entertaining themselves with activities like music and sing-a-longs. So the songs had memorable melodies, easy lyrics and the all-important catchy chorus. They used to call it the ‘hook, line and sinker’. For the jingle writers out there, it was the song’s chorus that Frito Lays chose as its TV commercial theme.
If you are considering recording PD music there are several things you should bear in mind. Even if a song is listed as being PD some portions of it may still be under copyright. Huh? Yes. The song’s arrangement or lyrics may still have copyright protection. So be careful and do your research. Many of these PD songs have been rearranged and rewritten by hundreds of people over the decades, in some cases a few centuries. What you remember may not be what is in public domain.
Here’s an example. Just about every American child knows the song Hokey Pokey. The song is an old favorite and comes to us from the British Isles. In the United Kingdom the song has similar but different lyrics and is known as the Hokey Cokey. When it was brought to the United States via Canada, the words were modified and the song was renamed Hokey Pokey. In the UK the song Hokey Cokey is in the public domain. In the US the rewritten version Hokey Pokey is still under copyright protection. Both have the same melodies, just slightly different words. So you can record the Hokey Cokey with no issues, but not the Hokey Pokey. Okie-dokey? Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. The point is to be careful and do your research with any PD song you plan on commercially releasing.
Old PD music can be used and recorded for Radio or TV jingles, Christmas albums, Children’s CDs and more. If you’re looking for music a bit more modern, there is always donated PD music. Now that we have the Internet, many generous artists have donated music and other artworks into the public domain. While this is of more interest for those wanting to download music, remember that if a modern song has been donated into PD you can alter or rearrange it any way you like.
Usually most music you’ll find will be licensed in some way. Many artists use a Creative Commons license, which lets them choose how they want their work to be modified, altered or distributed, if at all. Songs and music you find will have a link to the CC license they’ve chosen with information on the conditions and restrictions. It can range from strict limitations, to share-alike or PD. If you want more information on how Creative Commons works, visit their web site. Occasionally you’ll find music an artist has donated into PD. In that case you can add to what is already recorded, create a melody, write some lyrics or re-record it from scratch.
In general, if you rearrange and/or record an old pre-1923 PD song, it then becomes your property. You don’t own the song itself, but you own the recording and/or arrangement (including rewritten lyrics) of the song. If you use music that has a CC license, your ownership and distribution rights depend on the author’s conditions.
I made a search on the web for listings of PD songs. Much of what I found were sites with downloadable music, usually midi files or mp3s of midi tunes. Most charge small fees for useable downloads and still others have more comprehensive listings, notating the song’s status in terms of PD.
One helpful web site is the List of Public Domain Songs This site has a wealth of information about PD music and copyrights in general, plus several extensive song lists. Some titles for download (small fee) but many are listed for reference purposes. For a fee they also have downloadable sheet music and CD compilations. Just remember that songs listed may have some restrictions, and they also stress finding a copy of the published (prior to 1923) version you want to use or record as validation.
Another site I found is ccMixter. This site offers modern music and features remixes licensed under Creative Commons where you can “sample, mash-up, or interact with music in whatever way you want.” You’ll also find dig.ccMixter here, where there is background music intended for videos, school projects, games, podcasts and more. Any music you find on either site will have various CC licenses, so read carefully.
Originally all I was looking for was a list of popular PD songs to determine their status for recording purposes. I accomplished my goal, but also had to wade through hundreds of unrecognizable titles to do so. So I compiled a list of popular PD songs that I remember. Kind of selfish I know, but it might be of some use as a quick reference of the more popular PD tunes. They are posted on my web site . The ones listed are pretty safe, but always do your research. Your memory may bring other songs to mind. If you go searching around at the List of Public Domain Songs or even the Library of Congress, you may recognize others I have not listed. Good luck in your own search and may you have success using PD music.