Chord Charts vs. Lead Sheets

Planning Center Online just updated their Chord Chart transposer, so I was playing around with it again today. I’ve been a pretty committed lead sheet guy, but I’ve been toying with providing a chord chart option. For the non-musicians, here’s the difference: chord charts are just the words with chord symbols written above them, while a lead sheet is music notation, words, and chord symbols. Here’s a run down of the issues involved:

Chord Charts Pros:

– easy to make on any word processing software

– more accessible to any musician who can read chords

– less is more arrangement which gives a lot of freedom to the musicians to get creative

Chord Chart Cons:

– bad for learning a tune. There’s no info about rhythm, melody, harmonies, measures, hooks, etc. If you are new to the band, you have to combine it with a recording or have someone teach it to yo u note for note which is very time consuming.

-favorable to “by ear” musicians and often confusing to “readers”. Readers are accustomed to sticking to what’s on the page and resisting the urge to get creative. Just seeing a few chord symbols floating in space makes many “readers” very tense.

-less is more arrangements which gives a lot of freedom to the musicians to get creative. Sometimes, they need to just stick to the part, especially in the world of cross-cultural music. If you grew up listening to and performing style A and you have to play style B, you will not have the stylistic vocabulary to make it work. A written out notated part spoon feeds you the idiomatic devices which make the music more authentic.

Lead Sheet Pros

-easy to make on any moderately priced notation software

-more accessible to musicians who read without being intimidating to those who can’t

-means available to provide specific arrangement details without creating a cumbersome note for note transcription

Lead Sheet Cons

-still not ideal for learning tunes. You can get the melody and chords, but a recording or coaching is still needed to get the more groove and the vibe. (Those are highly technical music terms.)

-favorable to middle ground people who can read a little and can “comp” with chord symbols but can mislead the reader and confine the ear player. It’s a compromise that can sometimes leave everyone unsatisfied.

-attention to arrangement details like form, hits, breaks, dynamics, etc can create more confusion than clarity. Pages covered with repeat signs, special instructions, and dynamic markings can be difficult to just play music in real time without sitting down and processing all that information. A chord chart can be a much better way to just play the music and not over-think.

So, what do I prefer? I depends on the situation. In my role as Music Director, I prefer lead sheets because they are a good balance of flexibility and information that means that we can get through rehearsal and be ready to do our thing the next morning. When I am playing by myself or in performance contexts, I prefer chord charts because I can focus less on the page and more on the sound. It’s tempting to take this Planning Center Tool that is right at my finger tips to create chord charts for all our tunes. Then we could give everyone their preferred mode of communication. However, I think that might create even more confusion as everyone is looking at different pages.



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  1. #1 by Rick Barnes on March 1, 2011 - 10:00 am


    I’m supposing you’re the son of James Ward. We’ve used a few of his compositions here at St. Andrews, including “I Am the Resurrection,” “Christ is Born,” and soon-to-be “Just Like He Said.” We’re excited about the energy his tunes have brought to our choir and congregation. We’re an integrated church like you guys, so it’s fun to bring out different genre’s like that appeal to those different cultures.

    Pertaining to this post: I’m kind of on board with you, in that, if I’m playing by myself, I probably already know the tune and therefore only need or a chord chart/lyrics. However, I find lead sheets particularly helpful to my musicians if they’re learning a tune for the 1st time. That way, they can not only follow the melody/lyrics, but I can also call out a measure # if there’s a repeat, coda, etc. The only time I use chord charts for my whole band is if a lead sheet would require MORE than 2 pages. I try and make my them 1 page, 2 pages at the most, but someimtes there’s so many repeats and codas that it gets messy to try and condense the chart too much. My guitar player, for instance appreciates the lead sheets, but he also likes to have enough room to spread the whole set out on his music stand.

    So, I guess in short, my band appreciates lead sheets unless it’s producing too much clutter on the music stand. In that case, I’ll make a very specific chord chart and just know that I’m going to spend more time teaching – and that’s ok.

    • #2 by Kirk Ward on March 1, 2011 - 1:36 pm

      thanks for the comment rick! yes, I’m the “son of”. It’s great to see that there are more integrated churches in our denomination! I enjoyed reading you blog and I look forward to interacting more with you. -kirk

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