Free Public Domain
Thousands of beloved pieces of Christian music are free, largely because they are now in the public domain, which in the United States means they were written before 1923 (everywhere else, a safe rule is to make sure the author has been dead for one hundred years, or since 1908). Two web sites, ChoralWiki and The Cyber Hymnal, contain thousands of public domain pieces that are free for immediate download.
The Cyber Hymnal contains more than 7,000 hymns and carols. Most of them are in English, but there are hymns either original to or translated into languages from Afrikaans to Zulu. If you are planning to do Christian service in another country, this is your place to pick up songsheets for “Amazing Grace” and similarly well-known hymns in a variety of languages.
The Cyber Hymnal can be searched by title, by hymn tune, or by letter of the alphabet. If you wanted to search for “Holy, Holy, Holy,” you can do so by its name, in the results for the letter H, or by the name of the tune (“Nicaea”). When you reach the page, you will hear a MIDI of the tune playing, you will see pictures of the hymn’s authors, and you can read brief information about the hymns. Some hymns have quite a bit of biographical information on the authors, history of the hymns, or links to alternate tunes for the hymn.
If you spend a lot of time searching The Cyber Hymnal, you will see that some tunes have been used for multiple hymns — “Nicaea” is indeed the tune for “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but it is also the tune for “God Most High, We Praise You,” which is a newer hymn donated into the public domain by a living composer. The reverse is also true; some hymns have had multiple tunes attached to them. The Cyber Hymnal makes for excellent one-stop shopping; you can find a hymn, learn its history, and pick the tune you want to download.
The only tiny hassle is this: since The Cyber Hymnal has so many tunes and hymns or carols that are interchangeable, it does not have the words and music in one piece of sheet music. You have to copy and paste the words (instant songsheets, at least) and download the tune separately — and the tunes are not in the handy PDF form we all know and love. To download these tunes you will first have to download a piece of free software known as the Noteworthy Composer Viewer, which you can link to through the Cyber Hymnal web site. It is a tiny hassle, but for 7,000 public domain hymns, that’s no big deal!
The second excellent site for more public domain hymns and carols, along with sacred choral works, is ChoralWiki. ChoralWiki has about 10,000 choral works; recent searches I’ve done showed more than 200 Christmas carols (it is close to that time of year again) and more than 200 hymns.
But the great strength of ChoralWiki is in its selection of larger choral works. You can find the complete Messiah by Handel, and several versions of the “Hallelujah” chorus. You can find Mendelssohn’s Elijah as well. A great host of anthems, choruses, selections from oratorios and liturgical works in several languages are available for immediate download.
ChoralWiki is best searched by title (if you know what you are looking for), by composer, or by type of work. Alphabetical search is often ineffective due to the number of ChoralWiki’s selections. Most often you will find your results downloadable in PDF format, with the occasional GIF thrown in. ChoralWiki hosts most of its music on its own site; occasionally it will refer you to outside collections, but this gives you a chance to access hundreds of pieces in addition to the ones at ChoralWiki itself.
If you are looking for a piece of gospel or contemporary music in the public domain, there unfortunately is very little in ChoralWiki or The Cyber Hymnal — or in the public domain, period. Most music we consider contemporary today will not enter the public domain until very late in this century, unless individual composers decide to put their works into the public domain. And gospel music did not really come into its own until the 1930s, with Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” often credited as being the beginning of the genre. But consider how “Precious Lord” shares a remarkable tune similarity with the older hymn “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” think of the available hymns and choral works written before 1923 as an opportunity for you to do some arranging! Also, you can find a number of the immediate forerunners to gospel music; both The Cyber Hymnal and ChoralWiki have their share of Negro Spirituals.
Free public domain Christian music is readily available on the Web — two good sites to find thousands of public domain hymns, carols, and choral works are The Cyber Hymnal, with some 7,000 hymns, and ChoralWiki, with some 10,000 choral pieces in total. You can find them at http://www.hymntime.com/tch and http://www.choralwiki.org Happy hunting (and arranging when necessary)!