As a bassist, bandleader, teacher, and music copyist, I’ve worked with hundreds of singers throughout the years. Though working musicians know hundreds of tunes, singers need to have good charts in order to have their music played the way they want. I define a “good chart” as a piece of written music that effectively tells the musicians what they should play.
Written music comes in seven basic forms: chord charts, sheet music, songbooks, lead sheets, fake books, master rhythm charts and fully notated parts.
As a musician has a responsibility to play the chart before him correctly, the supplier of the chart has the responsibility of providing the right kind of chart. Knowing what type of chart to use for what kind of tune or gig is very important.
This article explains what the different types of charts are, and under what circumstances to use them. I hope you find it useful.
TYPES OF CHARTS
Charts can be simple or elaborate according to the style of music and type of gig. Cover tunes are traditionally learned from recordings; classical and choral music can be found in sheet music stores as well as in various music catalogs; numerous tunes will be found in music books of all kinds; and many public libraries carry recordings and written music for your use.
The word “chart” refers to any piece of written music or any arrangement (music that has been adapted in a unique manner) of a tune. Decades ago it was strictly a “cool” slang term for a tune, but any piece of music could be called a chart these days, though a classical buff might not refer to a Mozart work as a “chart.”
Knowing what type of chart to use for what kind of tune is very important. When you’re playing a gig and someone hands you a chart — it is what it is and you either read it well or not. But, if you buy charts, have them made for you or provide them yourself, you need to know which kinds to use for which situations. Years back, while doing singer showcases, singers brought in all kinds of charts: good ones, bad ones, incorrect ones, inappropriate ones, and it was a real pain. The singers who provided the right kinds of charts got their music played the way they wanted. The singers who had the wrong kinds of charts didn’t, and weren’t very happy about it. Unless a musician already knows the specific parts, he can only play according to what’s on the chart before him. Though a good musician can improvise a good part in any style, if a specific musical line needs to be played, it needs to be written out.
As a musician has a responsibility to correctly play the chart before him, the supplier of the chart has the responsibility of providing an appropriate one.
Without getting into too many music notation specifics, here are the different kinds of charts and when they are used:
1. CHORD CHARTS
A chord chart contains the chords, meter (how the song is counted, e.g., in 4 or in 3 (like a waltz), and the form of the song (the exact order of the sections). This type of chart is primarily used when: 1. the specific musical parts are improvised or already known, but the form and chords need to be referred to, 2. to provide chords to improvise over, or 3. when a last-minute chart needs to be written, and there isn’t time for anything more elaborate.
A chord chart does not contain the melody or any specific instrumental parts to be played. To play from simple chord charts a musician basically needs to have steady time, know the chords, and improvise his part in whatever style the tune is in.
2. SHEET MUSIC
Sheet music is a store-bought version of a song printed by a publisher, which contains the instrumental part, chords, lyrics, melody and form. An instrumental piece will, of course, have just the music. Sheet music is written for both piano and guitar. Guitar sheet music is in standard notation (often classical), as well as in TAB. A good piece of sheet music will always say whether it’s for piano or guitar. Most sheet music is not meant to be completely representative of the actual recording, and the actual arrangement that you’ve heard on a recording is seldom present.
Many people have experienced the frustration of getting the sheet music to a song they like, playing it, and discovering that the chords are different from the recording, and sometimes the form is too. Unfortunately that’s the way it is a lot, and it could be for a number of different reasons. To get the exact arrangement and chords, you need to do a “takedown” of the song: learn it by ear. A takedown is when you listen to a piece of music and write it down. Takedowns can range from simple chord charts to elaborate orchestral parts or anything in between. In order to do good takedowns, you need to have good ears, understand and be fluid with music notation to the complexity of the type of music you’re working with, and preferably understand music (the more the better). Having “good ears” consists of recognizing and understanding the music, whether heard on the radio, played by another musician, or heard in your head.
Songbooks are compilations of many tunes and often contain the same information that sheet music does, along with the chords and arrangement being different from the recording most of the time. Sheet music commonly has full introductions and endings, whereas songbook tunes are generally shortened to create space in the book for more tunes. Sheet music is generally written to be played on a keyboard, but songbooks come in different styles and for different instruments. They are compiled by artist, style, decade, and in various collections including movie themes, Broadway hits, etc.
Songbooks are a good reference source when other, more exact charts are unavailable. For example: I needed two movie themes for a gig once (client request). Instead of spending $8 for two tunes of sheet music, I bought a book of movie themes for $16 that contained over a hundred tunes. Sheet music and songbooks are pretty unusable at gigs because of cumbersome page turns and bulkiness; but in an emergency you use them and do what you can. If having to use sheet music or songbooks for live performance, either: 1. recopy the tune onto 1-3 pages or 2. photocopy it and tape the pages together (although, strictly speaking, this may be considered copyright infringement). Make sure to always provide a copy for each musician.