Anatomy of a good song chart – pt. 1

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself in this situation more than once. You’re getting your charts ready for rehearsal, and as you’re doing so you come across a chart that you know is weak. But, because you’re running out of time, you just go ahead and shove it into the copier. Not long after that you find yourself in a rehearsal and all of a sudden you’re wishing you had taken the time to rewrite the chart that you are now struggling through, having to talk people through all the wrong chords, and chords in the wrong places.

Here are some of the things I think to be of highest importance when it comes to a good chart. In part one of this article, I’ll talk about what I do. In part two, I’ll talk about some of the options that are out there for pre-made charts, and in a possible part three I’ll talk about some more advance (time-consuming) methods for writing charts.

  1. Start with the right text and copyright info. I know this sounds ridiculous, but you wouldn’t believe the number of charts that I’ve come across that have wrong words and no copyright info. The ironic thing is that it’s not that hard to get either of these. The easiest way is to go to, find the song you’re looking for, copy the text from right there as well as the copyright info. If it’s for a song you can’t find on songselect, take special care to copy down the words correctly and find as much copyright info as you can. This could be in the CD cover (if you bought a CD), you could find it on iTunes or the artists website.
  2. The next key element is get the correct chords. Unless you’re doing your own arrangement, you need to make sure to get the chords as they are played in the artist’s recording – this is for more than convenience in rehearsal (it’s a lot easier for your musicians to learn their parts at home if you have the right chords on the chart) it’s also a part the copyright agreement your church is most likely a part of. If you have a hard time hearing the chords correctly, especially when it comes to inversions and 7th’s, etc., find someone who has can help you do this.
  3. Choose easily readable fonts and a big enough font. Unless your church is a church of all twenty somethings or younger, then you’re likely to have people who need some sort of assistance to read. That being the case, you need to make sure your font is easy to read. Don’t get too fancy with different fonts, just find a good looking one, where all the characters are distinguishable and stick with it. Then make sure you use a font size that’s big enough to be easily read at a distance. You don’t want your musicians struggling to figure out the difference between different letters. If they’re doing that, they’re not going to be focused on their primary responsibility – playing the music!
  4. Space don’t Tab. Yes, tabbing is faster, but it’s not nearly as precise. Some people tab close to where the chord is supposed to be, then space to get it in the right space, I find this to eventually be more frustrating, especially down the road if you choose a different font and you have to reposition the chords.
  5. Use a different and larger font for the chords. I use font size 14 for the text of song and 16 for the chords. So the text is smaller, and a different font and the larger font for the chords sticks out much better and is easier for the musician to read quickly.
  6. When you’re spacing the chords over the words, you want to make sure the chords are exactly over the syllable of the word the chord change comes on. This is where it gets a little tricky. Some chords don’t come “over” a word or syllable. Some phrases of songs start after the down beat, and you want to denote that in your chart. I space in 5 spaces on the line of text, and put the chord right at space one. Other times, a chord will change at the end of a line when there are no words. You want to make sure it’s clear that the chords are out beyond the end of the text so people know it’s after the last word.
  7. Make it easy to find Verse, chorus, & Bridge. I like to set margin of the verse title (verse 1, verse 2, etc.) half an inch into the margin. This way, it doesn’t blend in with the text of the verse or chorus it’s labeling, and it’s easy for people to find as they quickly scan the chart. I also like to shade the chorus a light gray in the background so that it in particular stands out.
  8. Have plenty of space between Sections. You don’t want it to look like the verse blends in with the chorus. Especially if you jump back into the chorus unexpectedly.
  9. Use Page numbers and try to keep it to two pages. During rehearsal, it helps to be able to say “at the bottom of the second page.” You also want to try to keep it to two pages so your musicians aren’t having to turn pages in the middle of the song. If you have to do more than two, try to find a place that’s easy to turn the page. A weird, but true suggestion, is during a verse. Verses are usually more laid back, and less involved for musicians, so it’s easier to get a hand free to turn the page. (Not in the middle of a verse, but, put the verse at the bottom of the second page, and put the chorus and then bridge on the top of the third. If you’re going to go back to the chorus after the bridge you want to make sure to have it on the last page so they don’t have to flip back.
  10. Leave room for notes. You want your people to be able to write in part specific notes, so make sure they have room to do so.
  11. Include Arrangement Notes. Make it as easy as possible for people to remember riffs and other changes in the arrangement.
  12. Include Key, Song Structure, capo info, meter, tempo and any other crucial info in the header. For the future, you want to make sure it’s easy for people to look at the top of the chart and know everything they need to know to get the song started.

There are are couple of other things I do in my charts to help denote “musical” things that aren’t on the page. After doing some study of the Nashville Numbering System I came up with a few innovations to help denote measures. It’s always been a struggle for me to denote measures, and exactly where a chord change comes.

  • Use a comma to denote measures.
  • Underline all the chords in a measure when there is more than one chord in a measure.
  • If the chord changes on the and of a beat, put the beat number and an ampersand in superscript.

I’ll attach a couple of examples to this article for you to see what I’m talking about.

rest-in-your-peace – DOC

rest-in-your-peace – PDF

I know this sounds like a tremendous amount of detail, but once you do the first one, then you have a template to work from, and it gets much easier. And you’ll be glad that you have a detailed chart to come back to the next time you do that song. Commit to doing one chart like this a week, and soon you’ll have all new charts that people can follow along with easily.