How to Chart a Song

If you have read my blog at all you will know that I am a proponent of notated charts, not of lyrics and chord charts or just a melody with chords over it.

To understand why I believe in notated charts, read my previous posts:

What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?
6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

For this post I am focusing on how to chart a song you have not written.  Writing a chart for your own song is a different story.

Charting a song by another artist requires certain tools:

  1. A good mp3 or recording.  Carefully choosing the mp3 helps your team and helps you.  Find a recording that is high quality and that has the style you are looking for. I talk about the role of recordings here.
  2. A metronome.  I use Frozen Ape on my iPhone, but a simple adjustable tick-tock will do.
  3. Software.  Gone are the days of longhand.  Get Finale.  I am a huge proponent of this software and have been using it since 1991.  Finale enables you to set templates, play your music back, adjust and edit music quickly, and much more.  The learning curve can be steep, but the work is worth it.  If you are in a church or academic institution you can take advantage of a huge discount.
  4. A basic understanding of music theory.  You do not need to be able to analyze symphonies or understand jazz chord structures.  You simply need to be able to identify a chord when you hear it as I, IV, V, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, etc.
  5. A good ear attached to a good mind.  Yeah, here’s the rub.  You can’t use the other tools if you do not have this.  You must be able to listen to a recording and distinguish individual parts, and then you have to be able to notate what you hear.  This takes practice, but you can do it!
  6. Patience and humility.  Your first charts will have lots of mistakes.  Expect it, and be ready to graciously say, “Thanks for pointing that out.  I will fix it,” rather than getting defensive because someone pointed out that you are human.  You will get better and more confident as you do this more and more.

Before we jump in to the details, let me show you the end product.  Here are parts of a completed chart (I’m not posting the whole thing due to copyright concerns, which is another issue altogether).


OK, so once you have gotten the tools at hand and figured out how to use them, here are the steps I follow in writing all of my charts.  Ready?

  1. Figure out the tempo marking with your metronome and a word or two to describe the style.  For instance, Rock ballad quarter note = 80.  No wussy things like “Prayerfully” or “Hopefully.”  Always use words that a musician can act on.
  2. Figure out the primary time signature (4/4, 3/4, etc.) and key signature.  Both of these can change throughout the piece, but we will discover that as we go.
  3. Set up a grand staff.  The top one should be Vocal and the bottom one should be Rhythm.  I prefer to use a treble clef on the Vocal staff, but a bass clef on the Rhythm staff because I always begin with the bass.  More on that later.  Enter in all of the data (key and time signature, etc.).  In a program like Finale all of this is created for you at the very beginning in the set-up screen.  You enter in all of the values and it plugs them right in.
  4. Now listen to the recording closely all the way through.  Find any places where the time signature changes and notate that on the appropriate measure.  Often pop songs will add or subtract two beats in a 4/4 song for interest.  There are multiple ways to notate this, but just do what makes sense to you.
  5. Next, do the same for the key signature, notating the changes in the appropriate measure.
  6. Enter section numbers/letters/descriptors.  I give each section a letter and name: “A: INTRO,” “B: VERSE 1,” D: BRIDGE,” and so forth to facilitate learning and rehearsal.
  7. Now you should have a complete layout: Vocal and Rhythm staves, time signatures, key signatures, tempo markings, section markings, and the exact number of measures in the song.  If the song has an extended ending you just need to decide how much of that ending you want to include.
  8. Now listen through the recording and notate the bass line.  By bass line I mean the lowest note of the chord, not the bass part.
  9. Next figure out the chords over each bass note and enter them accordingly.
  10. Once the bass line and chords are entered, in Finale you can use the Clef tool and convert the Rhythm staff to the proper styles.  I use slash notation for straightforward, non-syncopated parts; rhythmic notation for parts that are syncopated or require rhythmic precision; and regular notation where I need for a musician to play exact notes.  I also occasionally notate the basic drum pattern at the beginning of a section.
  11. Now notate the melody in the Vocal staff.  If the melody varies from verse to verse, I generally (not always) make a decision to keep the verses identical in deference to the congregation, who needs to learn the song quickly.
  12. Enter lyrics.
  13. By this time you probably have listened to the song a dozen times.  Write in directions you want to give the team at certain points to help them.  Under the Rhythm staff I write in notes such as “fill,” E Gtr solo (electric guitar solo), “piano only,” “pads,” “kick on 2 & 4,” and so forth.  On the Vocal staff I write directions such as “unison 1st x,” “harmony 2nd verse,” and so forth.  These directions can save you tons of rehearsal time.
  14. Finally write the form of the piece in the upper left hand corner of the first page so that the band always has a cheat sheet to the structure.
  15. Now decide if you are going to sing the song in the key of the recording or change it.  A good rule of thumb is that the melody should go no higher than a “D” and no lower than a “D.”  A lot of melodies are rang-ey and break these rules, but the meat and potatoes of the song should be in this range so that the congregation can sing it easily.
  16. As you do the final layout of the music on the page, format the chart so that you have lots of white space, reduce the size of the music to 90%, and try to keep the music on two pages.  In Finale you can print individual Rhythm and Vocal charts.
  17. Print out the charts and read them as you listen to the song to find errors.  Fix them.  Be professional.  No colliding lyrics, lyrics covering chords, repeat signs covering the system above, and so forth.  Every detail can help you save time in rehearsal by giving you clarity.  If you do not have clarity you will waste time fixing it.
  18. Get the charts to your band and go for it.

This is a lot of information on how to chart a song, and there are a lot of subtleties I have not mentioned, but this is my basic process.  I have been developing this process for about 12 years now and I can pump out a basic tune in an hour or two.  At the end of that time period I know the song like the back of my hand and am ready to walk into a rehearsal and work with the band.

I am considering creating some Finale tutorials, so let me know if this has been helpful to you.

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2 thoughts on “How to Chart a Song

  1. Yes, it is very helpful to see your charting method. Finale costs $450 versus $100 for PrintMusic. I believe that PM can do most or all of the things that you describe; any comments? I think it would take me more like 4 hours to create a chart, based on my occasional use of PM, which is why I seldom do it. Have you ever tried taking a chart from one of the commercial sites you recently reviewed, and scanning it into Finale to hopefully really speed up the process?

    • I think Print Music is a great stepping stone for people beginning in the process, much like Garage Band is a great stepping stone to Logic, it’s big brother.

      As for scanning, I haven’t had a lot of success. Scanning things in would be counterproductive for me except in emergencies, however, because part of arranging is learning the music. Scanning circumvents that.

      By the way, Praisecharts offers the Finale files for sale, which is a very cool perk.

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