“How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put a sheet of music in front of him.” Speaking as a percussionist, this joke was welcome relief from all the bad drummer jokes I had to endure. But if you need to communicate your song to another musician, especially if they play guitar or keyboards, there’s a simple and effective way to put the information on paper. It’s called a chord chart.
Most software notation programs are capable of generating elegant looking chord charts. But many pop hits were dashed off on the back of an envelope or a paper napkin! You don’t need to be a trained copyist to create a chord chart. All it takes is basic knowledge of a few concepts.
Time Signature and Bars
Almost all popular music is written in 4/4. That simply means that the pulse is divided into measures of four beats each. If you see a chord chart with no time signature at the beginning it’s safe to assume it’s in 4/4. We visually separate those measures using bar lines, which are the vertical lines you see on the page: | |
Inside each bar, a chord chart often uses “hash marks” to indicate single beats:
/ / / /
These don’t tell you what rhythm to play. They usually just help you to tell where each chord change occurs. So if a song contains four beats of a C chord followed by four beats of G, it would appear like this:
|| C / / / | G / / / ||
It’s easy to place your chords by name, such as C, A minor, etc. But a convenient tool borrowed from traditional harmony is the assignment of Roman numerals to indicate chords. They progress from I through VII, just like the notes of a scale. The benefit is you can play your song in any key by following the numbers. A chord progression of C – F – G (in the key of C) would appear:
|| I / / / | IV / / / | V / / / ||
Transposed to the key of G, you’d simply play the I – IV – V chords in G instead:
|| G / / / | C / / / | D / / / ||
There’s a variation on this scheme that uses Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) instead. It’s the basis for what’s called “Nashville Notation,” a shorthand system that Nashville studio musicians adopted to make recording sessions go smoothly.