Notes on Notation


By Ryan McLouth

I’m excited to be back with you again this month, continuing the discussion about practical and technical components of worship. Last month we discussed how to get the best sound from your worship team both onstage and from the congregational perspective. Obviously we want our musical leadership to be presented without distractions. This month, I would like to talk to you about notation.
If you asked any church musician, most would tell you that there are as many types of sheet music and notation as there are styles of music and worship. The question is, what is right for your musicians or team? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on congregational music only for a moment. Of course we all know that hymns are often available in full staff notation with chords, melody and text. Most of us have seen this in the hymnal at one time or another. This format of notation obviously provides more than enough information for musical leaders to be successful but requires that they possess the skill of reading “standard notation.” Though many professional musicians have this talent (particularly those with classical training), the volunteers on your worship team may not. If your worship team is geared toward a blended or contemporary style, then it is almost guaranteed that at least some among their ranks will not have the training of standard staff notation. So, what’s the solution?
The next stop in your notation adventures have probably been the chord chart format. We’ve all seen these at some point. Put simply, chord charts are the text of a song with the symbol for the chord written above the word on which the harmony changes. When you need something quick, chord charts are great. They are especially useful if you’re already somewhat familiar with the sound of the song. However, they do come with some challenges. Since chord charts don’t really provide any sort of rhythmic or temporal notation, it’s difficult to know when harmonic changes should happen. Formatting issues that stem from exchanging files, downloading or printing also pose issues. I am sure those of you who are musicians have seen this before. Chords can get shifted and represent harmonic changes where there should not be.
My favorite format outside of standard notation would be the lead sheet. Lead sheets are usually created and formatted with the instrumental musician in mind. They very clearly show where and when harmonic changes should occur and very rarely suffer from formatting challenges. I have always found that instrumentalists working under my direction appreciate lead sheets more than chord charts with lyrics. They provide only the necessary information and look much less cluttered. Lead sheets are not without their own challenges. Since lyrics are rarely represented on standard lead sheets, they may not work for the instrumentalist that is also singing. Individuals that fit into this category may prefer chord charts with lyrics.
The bottom line should simply be to use whichever resource best serves your team. At times, I use all three. I currently work with some folks that need to see lyrics with chords, some folks that only need to see the chords in a lead sheet format, and some individuals that prefer standard notation—particularly classically trained keyboard players.