Chord charts or lead sheets? Every situation is different, every musician is different. In order to best suit your needs, understand the unique purposes for types of sheet music.
This is a question I saw posted this week on Facebook, and it’s one that I’ve heard for many years. To simply say, “use chord charts” would be bad advice, so let me clarify. Each kind of sheet music serves a different purpose. I say ‘sheet music’ because any printed music falls in this category.
This is probably the most common chart that churches use today. It contains the song lyrics with the ‘chord symbols’ written above. It does not contain any music notation, rhythms, staves, etc. The sole purpose of this chart is to remind you of the chords to play. Because it’s only chords and lyrics, it doesn’t tell you specifically when to play the chords. You can guess your way through it by watching the lyrics, but it doesn’t give you specifics. The prerequisite for using this kind of chart is that you are already somewhat familiar with the song. If there are syncopated rhythms, rests, holds, etc, you have to already know those by way of listening to the song itself, because the chord chart isn’t going to tell you any of that. However, if you have listened to the song and are familiar with it, the chord chart is a great (usually one-page) solution for musicians, especially those who play by ear. If you have musicians who need to read notes, then this is not the chart for them.
I would say this is the perfect ‘all around’ chart. Lead sheets include one staff with chords, lyrics, melodies, and rhythms, so musicians and singers alike can use them. If you have never played a song before, or even heard it for that matter, you can manage about 90% of it with the lead sheet. A down side is that they are almost always more than just one page (usually 2-3+ pages), but they are better than a full piano/vocal chart that potentially could be 10+ pages. A lead sheet can provide the melody along with the harmonies for the singers, they always include the lyrics, and they’re great for musicians because they show specific rhythms, chords, and melodies. If there’s a guitar lead line, it’s probably written out. If there are specific holds and stops, those are written as well. This is what makes the lead sheet a great all around chart to use for your team. I almost always use this for my teams when learning a new song. Once they have it, I’ll switch over to chord charts simply for reminder.
These are used more in a setting where a rhythm section (keys, bass, drums, guitars) is accompanying a choir and/or orchestra. They are almost identical to the lead sheet except that they don’t contain lyrics, melodies, and harmonies. A single staff will have slash bars to indicate beats while chords will be written above the staff just like the lead sheet. If there are specific rhythms or melodies to be played, those will be notated. Usually, the rhythm chart is about the same length as the lead sheet, so it's just as effective to use the lead sheet, since seeing the lyrics can help keep you on track if you get lost for some reason.
This is typically used in choral settings as well as for pianists who have to read notes. It can contain four staves (two with vocal parts and a grand staff for the piano). It’s the most comprehensive chart out of those mentioned. It contains all the same elements as the lead sheet with the added bass clef for the pianist to read. These charts can be quite long depending on the song, which means there are a lot of page turns! The only time I’ve really used this chart is in choral settings, vocal rehearsals where there are more that 3 parts, and times where I’m required to play exactly what’s in the sheet music. Other than that, I’ll take the lead sheet any day!
(Nashville) Numbers Chart
This can be any of the first three charts, but instead of seeing chords with letters it uses, well, numbers. Every chord in a specific key has a specific number attached to it. For example… in the key of C… C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim would be 1, 2m, 3m, 4, 5, 6m, 7dim. The reason for this is due to the fact that Nashville studio musicians would often have to record a song in a different key. Rather than having multiple charts in different keys, they could have just one chart with numbers and transpose on the fly. The ability to think in terms of numbers is one of the greatest techniques any musician can develop (but that’s for another time :-) If I do use a chord chart, I almost always will use a numbers chart because it allows the flexibility of changing keys without changing charts.
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Which chart is best? Whichever chart works the best for you! If you are a keyboard player and need to read the notes, then the Piano/Vocal Score is probably your best bet. Are you a guitar player who plays really well by ear? Then the Chord Chart is for you. Are you at a small church with a small budget? Lead Sheets may be your ticket. It all comes down to your needs and situation. Hopefully these distinctions can help you give your the team the music that suits their needs the best.