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Charts Smarts - Serving Your Team with the Right Music

If you're coming across this post without first seeing the WorshipMinistry.com series: Quit Practicing at Rehearsals, you might want to read those first. This post can stand on it's own, but it was designed as a supplemental resource to the WorshipMinistry.com articles. 

When it comes to charts and music, what we provide and how we provide it is a huge opportunity to serve our team and set us up for success.

I used to provide only the kind of charts I liked--and I like leadsheets. They have the melody, the chords and the words - all you need. You can see rhythms, but you don’t have all the extra notes and pages of a piano chart. And it’s not a “dumbed-down” chord sheet with no sense of rhythm or "real" musical markings. That was my not-so-humble opinion.

But I began to see that no matter what I preferred, my team has different learning styles and musical backgrounds. So for one, a leadsheet was overly complicated. For another, it was too simple.

So a few years back, I started to provide music for the “wide middle” whenever possible. So here's what that looks like for my team:

CD and/or mp3
This is a must for everyone, regardless if they play by ear or “only” read. Even the readers need to hear the music as part of learning it. There are a few exceptions that I make to this. If the song is a well-known hymn or chorus, and we aren’t using any particular artist’s arrangement, then I don’t bother providing a recording. If a particular recording doesn’t fit the way I want to do a song, I may still use it as a reference for learning the melody, but I make sure I communicate that to the team. 

Pitch-shifted CD and/or mp3
We really shouldn’t put our congregation through the excruciating experience of having to sing as high as Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster. While those guys do it well, most of the rest of us don’t. Nowadays, it’s easy with SongSelect/CCLI to get charts in new keys.

But if we change keys from the recording, what about our players who learn parts by ear? You’ll be in for a dirty look (or worse) if your guitarist learns the opening riff for a Hillsong tune (from an mp3 you provided), only to find the rest of the band is playing in a different key.

Pitch shifting your music is a worthwhile investment of time. I used to pitch-shift mp3s with my recording software. Once I figured it out, it wasn’t hard—just time consuming. I was thrilled when PlanningCenterOnline.com began to offer Transposr.com. It’s a great tool (and not to mention free—read more about it here). It’s as simple as uploading the mp3, selecting the original key, the desired key and then waiting a minute or two for it be ready to download.

Lead sheet (or leadsheet)
If you’ve not heard this term before, a “lead sheet” contains a treble clef with the notated melody with lyrics and chords symbols. Lead sheets communicate chord changes, time, rhythm and arrangement without being as cumbersome as a full piano score or as simplified as a chord chart.

Most worship songs fit easily on one or two pages. Some of the more complex songs coming from Hillsong, Tomlin and others end up being 5 – 6 pages from CCLI’s SongSelect. I use Sibelius notation software to pare those down to two pages, three at the most.

Using Sibelius, or Finale, or other notation software programs is another way to serve your team. If your arrangement differs greatly from the one you pulled off SongSelect, consider re-charting it so you don’t have to go through 10 minutes of chart scratching before rehearsing the song. 

Chord Charts (or chord sheets)
Chord charts are simply the lyrics with the chord symbols above them. Even though I referred to them as “dumbed-down” – I don’t think players who use them are dumb. In fact, I was the 'dumb' one for not providing them for my team. Here are three reasons why players like to use chord charts:
  1. no formal musical training, so the bars and repeats and rhythms and notes are just gibberish that gets in the way
  2. they’re short – usually only one page
  3. they provide just enough information for the player who has learned much of the song by ear, but doesn’t have it memorized

Guitar Capo Charts
Another advantage of chord charts is the ability to turning them into “guitar charts.” These charts are specifically for guitarists to capo their way out of “guitar-unfriendly” keys.

For example: Let’s say you’re going to play “You Are God Alone” in the key of Bb.  After you print out the key of Bb chordsheet on SongSelect, print out the keys G and A as well. Make sure you write on top of the chart in big letters – "GUITAR CHART: CAPO 1" on the key of A sheet and “CAPO 3” for G. I learned the hard way to make sure I differentiated chord charts from guitar charts and make sure my players know the difference. More than once I had a bassist playing in a different key. In fact, on my team site, I now name these charts as GUITAR CAPO 2 (or whatever fret they're capo'ing at).

If you've got static charts from other locations and want to transpose them, you can use Transposr.com, listed above. It will transpose your pdf chord charts that are fixed. There’s also a free download called “Chord Chart Wizard” that works pretty well (especially considering it’s free). But with this you need to remake your chart from scratch.

The biggest disadvantage to the chord chart is the complete lack of rhythm notation. There is nothing that shows bars, beat one, etc. The players need to rely on their ear.

There have been some movement towards a hybrid chord charting system that Brian Steckler introduced an article in one of articles Worship Leader Magazine. He simply added bar lines like this | (shift \). If you go this forum page, you can download in a zip file with his ppt notes and examples from a seminar he taught on it. (His post is the third one down. Look for the Charts 2.0 link.)

Only armed with Steckler's article in Worship Leader magazine (I didn't discover his seminar notes till much later) I took his idea and tweaked it using this Chord Chart Wizard (listed above). Where Steckler puts the bar lines up with chords, I opted to put the bar lines between the words. He also used some in-house symbols to show "holds" and "pushes" etc. that I may adopt/adapt, but haven't yet.

If you want to see an example of this type of chord sheet, download this zip file for the song Holy, Holy, Holy. It contains a leadsheet made with Sibelius, chord chart and guitar capo chart made with Chord Chart Wizard and a lyric sheet, which we'll talk about in a moment.

[This is a good place to mention another great tool - a PDF printer like PrimoPDF and some sort of PDF editor. The best route is probably with Adobe Acrobat, but there are less expensive options out there as well. Google it and get one. It'll keep your charts 1st generation nice (as opposed to reXeroxed to sheer ugliness) and allow you to add capo numbers and other notes.]

Lyric Sheets
Lyric sheets are simply that and are used primarily by vocalists. Occasionally, if I know the music of a song, I’ll just use the lyric sheet because I forget words so easily. (It’s been a running joke that I forget the lyrics even on songs I wrote.)

A couple years, I made a modification to lyric sheets: I added in our “standard” song form (v, ch, v, ch, brdg, etc.) in a text box off to the side. Adopting a standard song form is important. It doesn't mean you never change. It just gives you the baseline from which to modify. Your team (especially those who are more "structured") will appreciate this.

Full Piano Scores
I don't like these, but I'll use them occasionally. I have several reasons why I rarely use full piano arrangements. Here are the top three:
  1. For classically trained note-readers, these charts don’t have too many pages, But for the rest of us, they are ungodly long.
  2. The arrangement is set in stone. This is somewhat true of lead sheets. But to make a change to lead sheet, it requires a little more than drawing a circle here, an X there, and maybe an arrow or two. Making the same pages on a piano chart can be quite involved.
  3. Piano scores are often arranged with the idea that the piano is carrying everything - the opening riff, the bass line, the rhythm, etc. In most band settings, these arrangements step all over the rest of the band.
Here’s why your situation might call for piano charts:
  • You only have a piano player and few other instruments.
  • Your pianist is the “glue” that holds together the band, and he/she cannot read chords or lead sheets.
  • It’s a “piano-driven” tune, and you want it to sound as close as possible to the original recording.
I do use piano scores for this last reason if I have a lead sheet version of it that matches it. By the way, PraiseCharts.com is worth the $6 per song because most of their charts come with both the lead sheet and the full piano score.


So this sounds like a lot of different charts and forms to keep track of. That's because it is. Honestly, I’d love it if I could simply use only a lead sheet. But my team is made of different types of personalities with diverse musical backgrounds AND I have an administrative assistant that helps out. If you’re a volunteer leader, or a paid staff person in a church with no admin help, you need to draw a line in the sand. In my last church, I had to get myself flowers for Secretary’s Day, so serving the team in this way wasn’t feasible. I simply used lead sheets and mp3s.

Find that balance between serving the needs of the team and what you’re realistically able to do. And make sure you communicate why you can’t give the vocalists a lyric only sheet or why you’re requiring the guitarist to transpose his own capo notes. People will have grace (and they just might offer to help out…).


  1. how do you take the ccli lead sheet and put it into Sibelius? Do you have to print it and rescan it or can you just take the pdf and import it?

  2. Can I come work with you?