Moving Beyond Chord Charts


I still remember back in high school when I started playing keyboards on my first worship team. I had tinkered with the piano for a while but never played in a band setting. Some of my friends were on the youth worship team and they needed a keyboard player. They sat me down in front of a keyboard and plopped down this sheet of lyrics with these letters over some of the words. What was I supposed to do with that?! It took some getting used to, but apparently these “chord charts” are what bands use when they play, right?

While chord charts are pretty common, I wouldn’t call them standard. But they do have some positives:

  • Easy to read: After all, it’s just lyrics and chords on the page.
  • Short: Since it’s just lyrics and chords, you can condense a whole song onto a page or two.
  • Simplicity: It’s just chords and lyrics – what more could you need?

TIME and NOTES, that’s what!

Enter, Lead Sheets.

At Journey, we are starting the transition on the worship team from using chord charts to lead sheets. We’ve used them occasionally in the past, usually around Christmas when we’re incorporating lots of other instruments and we need everyone not just on the same page, but the same measure.

What exactly is a lead sheet? It’s essentially the offspring of a chord chart and sheet music. It’s a single staff with the melody, chords and lyrics. By adding the melody to a chord chart, it gives us the all important information of time. Without it, it’s far too easy to forget a rhythm, play a chord for too long or short a time, and come in too early or late.

There are a few other good reasons to use lead sheets:

  • No More Amnesia: If I had a nickel for every time someone said “No, last time we did it THIS way, not THAT way” I would be able to retire in Hawaii right now. When it’s in front of you, there’s no escaping how it’s supposed to be.
  • More Consistent Melody and Harmony: With a chord chart, the only way for a singer to learn the melody is to listen to a recording and imitate the vocals. Sometimes, it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not. Too often, it leaves the door open to errors in melody and harmony. When the notes are on the page we stay consistent, no matter who is singing.
  • It Keeps Us United: This one may not apply for every church out there, but in the future for Journey, this will be important. Journey is heading down the road to becoming a multi-site church. Our goal, however, is to remain one church and stress unity wherever possible. One area where we will be unified is in our worship gatherings. All the services will be the same, including not just the same songs, but the same arrangements. Lead sheets will be extremely important when that day arrives, keeping us on the same page across multiple venues. It also means that band members can switch from one location to the next without having to remember the variations of each location’s arrangements.

The journey to converting all of our songs to lead sheets won’t happen overnight. Beginning this week, my goal is to switch over one song each week from a chord chart to a lead sheet, beginning with songs that can benefit from it the most (songs with difficult rhythms, crazy harmonies or just ones that are less familiar and easier to forget). It’s going to take upwards of a year to get all of our songs converted over to lead sheets, but it’ll be good to once again update our song library and spruce up our arrangements.

If you’re a worship leader and you’re thinking about starting to use lead sheets, talk to me! I’d love to hear other’s experiences. If you’re not sure where to start or can’t make your own lead sheets, check out some of these resources:

  • CCLI’s Song Select: As part of your Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) license (something every church should have), you can add a membership for Song Select. It gives access hundreds of songs covered by CCLI in lead sheet form – and you can change keys to fit your needs.
  • PraiseCharts.com: This site offers great arrangements of hundreds of worship songs. You’ll have to pay for them and they can really add up if you try to get all your songs from them, but they do a great job and have a wide selection.
  • WordMusicNow.com: Like PraiseCharts.com, they also offer a wide array of songs in good arrangements. One nice feature is when you’re buying an orchestration, you can customize it to your instrumentation.

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

4 Comments

  1. I applaud you Matthew! As a professional musician who have played and lead in worship teams for about 20 years I really detest “chord charts”. They convey no musical information at all and are normally wrong because someone got it off the internet or something LOL

    • Thanks Marina! It’s been actually been an easy transition for us. About a quarter of our music is now in lead sheet format and the team is embracing the change. The biggest “challenge” for us so far has been adjusting to having more pages on stage to manage, but it’s not that big of a deal. In fact, our bass player has an iPad and has been using that as his music stand, and now we’re all super jealous and trying to figure out how we can all afford one!

      • I’m sure iPads work great. I would love to have one too. I could use it as a sound module for my keyboard while reading the sheet music and recording the rehearsal all at the same time! I still wish more worship musicians/singers would go through the trouble of having the songs memorized once it comes to the actual “performance” or “service”.

        • I’ve gone back and forth on the memorization thing. We have a lot of songs in our regular rotation, as well as special pieces we do from time to time, making total memorization a challenge. Add to that the fact that all of our worship team (aside from myself) are volunteers with day jobs, and it makes it even harder. It does happen, especially with the songs we’ve done for a while so it balances out when we add a new song that needs more of their focus.

          Do you require your team to memorize everything, and if so, how do you go about it?

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