Sheet Music or Chord Charts?

Kyle wrote in to ask this question:

I am about to start leading a worship team that consists of a good number of talented people and a variety of instruments. To this point, the band has used printed sheet music for all of the songs they play; this means that someone has manually entered everything into a music writing program (Finale) and printed everything out. It also means that for any given song, A) Musicians have four to six pages of material to deal with, B) creativity and freedom of expression are squelched a bit, and C) introducing new songs to the band, and to the congregation, will be very difficult.I have been used to working from chord charts. I feel this creates structure but allows creativity and freedom, and logistically it makes much more sense, because it would take up a LOT less space, and would allow me to much more easily introduce new songs.My question is this: A) Is it a good idea to try to transition a group of people who are used to sheet music to a chord chart paradigm, and 2) if it IS a good idea, how should I go about making that transition?

From my limited experience, Kyle’s not the only leader asking this question. Before I attempt an answer, let me offer some advantages of sheet music. A) musicians can play songs without hearing them; B) rhythms can be written out precisely; C) vocalists can learn the melody and harmony immediately.

That being said, I think a church will benefit from having musicians that can read chord charts, for the reasons Kyle mentions above. In addition, an increasing number of excellent songs for congregational worship are only written in a chord chart format. Here’s are some thoughts on making the transition.

1. Talk to your pastor. Make sure that your pastor feels this is a change worth making. It may be that he’s completely fine with the limitations of written music. His support will be crucial if you encounter resistance from members of the team.

2. Assess your resources. Before you build a tower, figure out if you have enough money to finish it. (Lk. 14:28) Make sure there are musicians in the church, maybe already on the team, who can read chord charts. Otherwise, it might just be you leading worship on Sunday.

3. Encourage what’s already there. Go overboard in expressing appreciation for what God is already doing. Don’t make it sound like you’re surprised anyone is encountering God without using chord charts. Play along with the note readers for a few Sundays. Pointing out evidences of grace will give you a more balanced perspective and make people more eager to listen to you.

4. Prepare your team for change. Communicate why you’re making changes. Help people understand the benefits of “freedom within form.” This isn’t simply a musical preference. You want to serve the church more effectively by adding another “tool” to your toolbox. Let people know that they may not be able to serve as frequently on the team, but it will make room for others who currently aren’t serving.

5. Go slowly. Don’t expect everyone to conform to your ideas and expectations immediately. Spend a lot of time rehearsing before trying it out on a Sunday. Realize that notes and chord charts are two different “dialects” and take some time to adapt to.

6. Offer training. You might do this yourself or involve others. Obviously, it works best if a chart-reading keyboardist can teach a note-reading keyboardist, etc. Some helpful resources can be found at We also did a seminar called Where are the Notes? for keyboardists.

7. Mix it up. Find ways to continue to involve those who only read music. You can write out parts for solo instruments, use instrumentalists for special music, alternate songs that use notes with songs that use charts, etc.

8. Focus on the glory of Christ, not the glory of music. Don’t make this an issue of what kind of music God really likes. While many congregations are moving towards a chord chart paradigm, it’s only one of the many ways music can be used to glorify God in the church. Let’s use as many as we can!

On a side note, Greg Scheer does a great job addressing similar issues in his chapter, “Setting the Stage,” from his book, The Art of Worship.

Finally, tell the folks who are notating music with Finale to check out Sibelius. I made the switch about six years ago and have never looked back. To top it off, Sibelius offers an inexpensive upgrade from any version of Finale. Read here about the differences.

Update: Ryan Dahl from PraiseCharts left an interesting comment below, indicating that they will soon be offering guitar charts. PraiseCharts is already a great source for lead sheets and arrangements for congregational worship songs.


19 Responses to Sheet Music or Chord Charts?

  1. Doug February 23, 2007 at 2:12 PM #

    It sounds as if Kyle is using sheet music that utilizes both a treble and bass clef staff if it’s 6 pages long. Perhaps a step in transition would be to downsize to one treble clef staff, with the melody, and maybe harmonies included, and the changes above the melody. We call that a lead sheet in my verbage. It still has the black dots that make note readers comfy, yet gives the musicians room for creativity.

    Something else to consider when explaining the transition to the note readers, is that often times, non-note reading musicians are intimidated by the notes. It is often assumed (sometimes correctly) that they must read music to join the team (again, perhaps this is a requirement in some cases).

    In my experience, some of my best players have been nonreaders with great ears, and wonderful skill. A lead sheet introduces them to note reading while the changes are still there for them to reference.

    Great topic!!

  2. scott hill February 23, 2007 at 6:26 PM #

    I have worked with lots of musicians over the years and the vast majority of them don’t really have issues with chord charts except pianists. I would venture that for several of your musicians the switch from music to chord charts would not be a great change unless there is a specific arrangement involved. Personally I prefer a lead sheet with the chords above the staff and I give music to my pianist on most songs, but my guitar players could care less if they have music. They all much prefer chord charts.

    Singers are an entity unto themselves.

  3. Ryan February 23, 2007 at 10:55 PM #

    Great topic, Bob, and great advice.

    I agree with the other comments. It seems like lead sheets are definitely the way to go. Do make sure that you are comfortable and skilled in music theory so that when asked, you can tell someone how to play a chord that’s on the lead sheet/chord chart.

    I also agree that piano players have the hardest time switching over. Guitar players already know the chords. Good bass players know the chords. Pianists usually play the notes that are written, so they’re going to need to learn the structure of the chord. Funny how when you take piano lessons, you learn music theory, but few pianists actually know music theory. Weird.

    I’ve even had good results with lead sheets with singers who want to learn to sing harmonies without seeing them on the page. Some singers can’t do that however, so that gets quite tricky.

  4. Ian Ellis (NZ) February 24, 2007 at 3:00 AM #

    Hi Scott,

    WRT Sheet music and chords. My (limited) experience has been that classically trained musicians prefer, and I assume need in some cases, sheet music. Pop, rock etc musicians are, in general, happy with chords. For the most part this has to do with the instrument, i.e. it can take a long time to work out the parts if you have things like cello, violin, trumpet, trombone etc and you are trying to work from chord sheets. It is actually a very big shift to go from one to the other and the style of music in the church is going to govern it a bit as well.
    Thank you all so much for you comments and insights each week.

  5. Lisa February 24, 2007 at 12:12 PM #

    I agree that this is an excellent topic & excellent feedback. I also agree that we pianists have the toughest time with chord sheets. I joined our music team when it was an established all-guitar team, and all they used was chord sheets. I’d never played off a chord sheet, but was fortunate enough to have learned chords as a piano student. Still, there was at least a two- or three-month lead time before I actually played in front of the congregation, and the guitarists would stay after practice and work with me on individual songs with much grace and patience. I now love the freedom of not being dependent on sheet music, and have since had the privilege of helping another of our pianists go through the same often frustrating but ultimately rewarding process. But we have another team pianist that plays only off lead sheets (though the guitars may still use chord sheets), so their team does only songs for which we can find lead sheets (or she writes out the melody for herself). This in no way detracts from her contribution to our worship services. One thing I think can be helpful to pianists is to understand that, when we’re part of a team, we don’t have to carry all the parts, which is what we’re often used to. We can be rhythm, or fill, or bass or melody (as needed), or, with an electronic keyboard, another instrument entirely. I think alot of keyboardists think they can’t play what’s not written just because they never have, and are pleasantly surprised and encouraged when things finally come together for them. Let me just add that none of our music servants are professional musicians. I hope this is helpful.

  6. Ryan February 24, 2007 at 3:19 PM #


    You said, “it can be helpful to pianists to understand that, when we’re part of a team, we don’t have to carry all the parts, which is what we’re often used to.”

    That definitely seems to be the issue. Piano players seem to be afraid of playing to little and often have a very hard time playing little.

    Unfortunately, all a lot of churches have is a piano player that acts as the whole band. But they can learn to let the vocals take the melody and not worry about playing the melody. That way, tricky rhythms won’t clash if the singers are singing slightly differently than the piano is playing.

  7. Shawn February 25, 2007 at 1:23 AM #

    Adding other instruments makes it very complicated when using only chord charts or lead sheets. Most horn or string players are not accustomed to making up their own parts unless they have some experience with jazz groups. Again, the blend of styles in your church and the musicians themselves will dictate a great deal of this. Better to meet the needs of musicians individually than have everyone play from one chord chart or lead sheet. I use lead sheets, piano uses full piano or vocal score, bassist is open to anything, drummer has no use for chords, and horns and strings have written out parts. It’s harder to introduce new songs, but everyone can play what’s in front of them with confidence, and no one feels out of place due to incompetence as a reader.

  8. Bob Kauflin February 25, 2007 at 8:00 AM #

    You all are leaving some great comments here. But I wanted to draw attention to an excellent point that Shawn makes:

    “The blend of styles in your church and the musicians themselves will dictate a great deal of this.”

    Amen. There are a multitude of variations to a theme when it comes to what kind of music our musicians play from. I’ve found that different musicians prefer or require different kinds of music. That means I or someone else may have to do more work than I originally intended.

    But you can also stretch your musicians. I’ve had note-reading solo instrumentalists grow in playing spontaneously over time. Even keyboardists can learn to read letters instead of notes! (But be patient.) The important thing is to produce music that encourages and expresses faith-filled, truth-driven, Spirit-empowered worship. That’s our goal, whether we’re reading from two staffs or none.

  9. Ryan Dahl February 25, 2007 at 7:04 PM #

    Hi Bob:
    I just added your Blog to my reader, and I enjoy keeping up with your articles. This whole topic of sheet music and chord charts is very dear to me, because we focus on meeting those kinds of needs so much through PraiseCharts. With PraiseCharts, we’ve tried to pick up where most music publishers have left off, when it comes to writing good lead sheets for worship bands. But, after almost ten years of developing our catalog, I have recognized that we have a gap in PraiseCharts with the lack of chord charts. I myself, the founder of PraiseCharts, hardly ever use PraiseCharts! Go figure. The reason is, I use chord charts. So, we are about a month away from offering chord charts at PraiseCharts. The chord charts will have a lot of features that most other chord charts are missing, such as: every song will be available in every key, all guitar friendly keys will have capo marking notes, all guitar friendly keys will have guitar chord diagrams, most of the chord charts will fit on one page, using two columns, they will match popular recordings and flow with our sheet music arrangements, and they will be accurate – if they are not accurate, we’ll fix them. Finally, they will be free to copy via CCLI but they won’t be free to purchase. That way, the authors and writers get their royalties.

    I’m very excited about this step, and I can’t wait to release our first batch that will feature chord charts for all our top songs.

  10. Jayson Wittrup February 26, 2007 at 10:18 AM #

    Recently SongSelect (for CCLI subscribers) upgraded their offerings so that they now offer lead sheets, chord sheets and what they call “hymn sheets” (with vocal parts) for a large portion of their catalog. We upgraded our subscription and so far we’re very happy with it. They usually make the arrangements as compact as possible without having to print 10 pages. I think we can print 200 unique songs per year with our subscription. Now we can choose what format we want to use for each song and we can get it any key! I highly recommend it. (

  11. James Palmer March 2, 2007 at 9:51 AM #

    Just wanted to give you my experience of a classically trained musician (flute and piano) who was very tied to scores and over a decade learnt how to improvise. I started very timidly playing the alto parts and other basic harmonies from the sheet music and over a few years got used to improvising from sheet music, then – and I forget when – had to play in a group which only had chord charts. I had always kept an eye on the chords as well as the rest of the score when playing before and sometimes there were no scores so had to play from charts. It was a bit of a shock, but it was OK. The next stage was when I lived in Spain and had to accompany a congregation on the piano with chord charts, but in Spanish – no A, D or G but rather ‘La, Re y Sol’. That was fun – I needed to practice a bit just to make sure the hymns didn’t go haywire in the service. The next stage was in the USA when I was playing at a youth camp and they frequently only had one copy of the chord chart so I was forced to improvise just from the key of the song (my home church at this time used chord charts). I am now playing in a church which never uses sheet music of any kind – neither score nor chord charts – and they just shout ‘Re’ or ‘Mi’ to me as the song starts. Sometimes they forget to do even that…

    So you can shift from a classical training to basically playing like a jazz musician, but it takes time and a willingness to move out of your comfort zone and make mistakes. But it is worth it as it gives you a great deal more flexibility both in your playing and in who you can play with.


  12. Brian March 3, 2007 at 12:17 AM #

    This is a topic that is near and dear to me. My job is to write charts for our church’s ensembles. I sometimes create orchestrations, but mostly I write/transcribe for SAT vocalists and rhythm sections.

    It frustrates me to no end when we hand out published rhythm charts to contemporary choir anthems that are seven pages long with nothing but slashed treble clef and very few items in the bass clef other than the chord changes. This has become a soapbox issue of mine–though I realize most people, other than rhythm players, could really care less!

    Many of those published charts are so full of wasted space. And I’ve never met a rhythm player who asks for multiple pages!

    Lead sheets have many limitations as well. They’re fine for running a vocal rehearsal (as long as they include vocal parts), but rarely do they have information for the rhythm players, other than the chord changes.

    My ideal notion of a rhythm chart contains information for every player in the rhythm section, some suggested cue notes or voicings when necessary for pianists/b-3 players (but only a couple measures here and there) a written out kick pattern for a couple measures (written where there is a change), a clear formal layout so that beginnings and endings of sections are easy to find, at the most, three pages, and usually some instruction about who should play at each point, dynamic markings, etc, etc.

    Achieving the perfect balance between being concise and too cluttered is hard…I usually error on providing a too much information. Mostly this is for the sake of rehearsal–when the players have what they need to know in front of them, they can work things out on their own and it reminds me of all thing things I thought were important in the tune to give to them in a busy rehearsal setting.

    Regarding charts as a limiting factor, I find paradoxically that giving players a chart is actually very freeing. I like to teach everyone a song from a “standard,” and then over time, be happy to depart from it as confidence with the song grows.

    I always score the vocal parts to the rhythm chart. This is another time saving/rehearsal-saving habit that lets me easily direct folks to the same place at the same time. “Measure 43, second time.”

    Finally, having a chart that codifies the music let’s us move on from trying to remember things like what chord comes next, or what feel we’re trying to give, or “oh yeah, we’re gonna hold that for two measures this time…,” what instrument should be playing how, and lets us move on to larger musical issues. With a chart to anchor us with these necessities, we can as a group start to focus on things like our time, listening to each other in an interactive way, building an emotional dynamic that lets us be more effective in worship. It pushes our musicians even more toward excellence, which to me lies beyond the words-with-chord-names-written-above-them charts.

    I do this work in Finale, but a quality rhythm chart can be created analog as well. Remember staff paper? :) Thought we left that behind in college! Well, it is easy to scribble all the rhythmic hits and bass/kick feels on a single sheet of staff paper as well.

    Let’s encourage our musicians to not be simply satisfied with what they can get away with musically, let’s continue to push them (and us) and challenge them to a high standard!

    I love this discussion. Makes me feel like a church music geek.

  13. saraann1987 April 25, 2008 at 11:39 AM #

    There once was a time when music in the church was of the highest quality and set the standard. Oh, how the church has gotten away from that. Needless to say, I despise chord charts with a horrible passion and think they are completely impractical, turning worship into a karaoke session.

  14. Conor June 22, 2009 at 7:16 PM #

    Don’t be too shortsighted when lumping musicians into a category. A pianist friend I have won the Juliard doctoral competition as an undergraduate, yet has no problem with playing a chord chart. Anywhere he plays is of the highest quality, whether in a church setting or a competition setting. Just because music is played from a chord chart does not mean it will be “less” than when played from music…

    • Bob Kauflin June 22, 2009 at 11:00 PM #

      Great point, Conor. Totally agree that playing from a chord chart doesn’t mean you’re an inferior musician. But that’s often how people view it, and there’s a large number of individuals who would freely acknowledge that “all they can do” is play from a chord chart. Great to have both skills — the ability to play by ear and the ability to read music — for God to use.

  15. Marc February 25, 2010 at 5:15 PM #

    Be careful when using guitar charts. We purchased a chart that had errors, and we thought it would be helpful for us to point the errors out so they could fix them. They didn’t see it that way, but claimed that nothing was wrong. I told them a D9 chord cannot be substituted for a Dadd9 or Dadd2, claiming that sometimes they aren’t as exacting in their notation to save space. With that logic, you may as well write “C” when you really mean “C#m”. You try playing a chart where D9 is noted but they really meant Dadd9, and see if you like the way it sounds.

    • Bob Kauflin February 25, 2010 at 5:59 PM #

      Marc, sorry about your experience with Praise Charts. We’ve been pretty pleased with the charts they’ve done. But as with any music you buy, it’s good to check it in rehearsal before using it on a Sunday morning. By the way, I agree that a D9 is different from a Dadd9.

  16. Felipe Bonacic September 27, 2010 at 4:21 PM #

    In my church, i’ve noticed they used the Nashville system notation. Of course I live in Nashville also,but I think is a pretty good deal.

  17. Timothy Brant April 3, 2016 at 5:00 AM #

    We use a lot of different tools at our church. We use Praise Charts , Song Select as well as a couple others. My wife and I write and compose songs so we have been able to really help those on our Praise and Worship team. I also started a Worship band that is currently going into the studio to record our 1st CD. I have been able to involve a couple members of our church team into this and have been able to expose them to different levels of reading and using both chord and lead sheets. Our drummer is a very gifted 17 yr. old who after learning lead sheets was able to expand and grow on the drums.

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