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How To Write Great Charts!


Chart writing can make learning or navigating a lot of music quicker and easier. Especially if you don’t have a lot of time to learn the music in the first place. This can save you time (and money) in a variety of situations, whether you’re leading an ensemble or performing in one. This month’s blog post is going to show you some ways to help you write smarter charts and give you some clues as to the charts you might encounter in your music career.

First, let’s figure out what situations might arise for why you might need to write a chart. Here are some that I have encountered that you might have to deal with too.

As a sideman……

-You get too many songs (recordings or a list of titles) that make it difficult to memorize everything.

-You get called last minute and there isn’t enough time to find a chart online.

-You play as a sideman for several bands and need to keep the tunes straight.

-You have to play the music exactly like the recording.

-You are called for a recording session (jingle or otherwise) and need to play along with other instruments already recorded.

-You are playing with a National touring act who has a large catalog you need to learn without a rehearsal.

-You get another instrument chart (or lead sheet) and need to write a part for yourself (your instrument’s part is unavailable).

As a bandleader….

-You have many musicians performing with you and none of them have played the song before.

-You’re recording and need the music played right immediately (because you’re paying by the hour).

-You are recording and want the engineer, producer or other musicians to be able to follow along with the form of the song.

-You have a song you are performing (or wrote) that has many tricky sections and/or time signature changes (odd meters).

-You constantly have subs or different musicians rotating through and they have to read from a book of charts with little to no rehearsals.


When you are writing the charts, you need to figure out who you are writing them for. That will help you decide what medium to use in writing them. If I am writing a chart for myself, I tend to write by hand. I’m much quicker that way and I can write myself notes, abbreviations or notate things in shorthand that will make sense when I have to read it later on. However, If I am writing for other people, I tend to use a music software program like Sibelius or Finale. This way it is legible for other people to read and I can email them a PDF of the score as well as the parts. It makes it easy to transpose to different keys (or modes) or copy and paste parts and rhythms.


PRO-TIP: If you’re transposing different instruments, remember this rhyme. When it sees a ‘C’, it sounds its key. This comes in handy if you need to transpose a part from a Bb trumpet to a horn in F.

Scan 1

Also, if I need to edit things for one (or several) part(s), I can do that with a click of the mouse (or track pad on a laptop). Something I highly suggest when using music writing software is some sort of midi keyboard to quickly input notes and such. I like to use the Korg Nanokey 2. It is small and lightweight and I can fit it in my backpack next to my laptop when I travel.


Next would be, what do you need to write on your chart, or how detailed do you need to make it. Sometimes you just need the lyrics, so printing (or writing) them out is enough. You can make notes in and around the words like: the key, the time signature, some chords, when to play or not (tacet/breaks etc).

Always Be My Baby_Chords

Or maybe you’re accompanying someone and just need the chords.


A popular style of chart is the “lead sheet”, which can be found in most Fake Books (or Real Books). This chart has the melody and the chords.


In this case you need to know what the chord symbols mean and how to play the various chord qualities. Here is a chord chart to help you out.


However, as a drummer, sometimes you don’t need all of that information and need to write a form chart (notating the different sections of the song). I use this template (below this paragraph), in which I can put multiple songs on one sheet of paper and I can also write down a sample groove and point out different hits or breaks if they come up. This chart helps a bunch if I am playing pop songs that are pretty straight forward. Because I know “song form”, I can listen through the first time and pretty much catch the form and I make a mental note if there is anything that catches me off guard. This way on the second listen, I can mark down and/or notate those couple of spots in the song that might have been different than what I expected, and know that I will be able to nail the chart on a minimal amount of listens.


Here’s another example of a short hand drum chart. I used to write charts similar to this before I discovered the above template.


PRO-TIP: If you aren’t already familiar with song form or many genres of music, you should get in the habit of listening to many styles of songs. You can make an exercise out of it and test yourself and see if you can identify essential descriptions of the chart. For example, figuring out the time signature, what style/genre, duple vs. triple (straight/swung/shuffle etc.), parts of the song (verse/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge). This way when you have to make a chart, these factions won’t trip you up.

Other charts you might encounter could be ones that deal with the Nashville number system. If you understand “song form”, as well as the chord symbols listed above, then the notation of the Nashville number system shouldn’t scare you. It’s just understanding the notations in this chart here….


And then applying them to a chord chart like this one (below). The numbers are so you can change key at a moment’s notice.


For example, the 1 stands for the tonic (root) and then the 4 would be the subdominant. These are just fancy ways of  describing the scale steps of each key.


Like anything, the more charts you write out, the better and faster you will become. Being able to memorize quickly is a great skill to have and rely on, but sometimes you need to write out a chart. One of my professors used to say, the more details/information you can put into a chart, the less time you will need rehearsing it. This goes for leading an ensemble or performing in one.