The Seven Different Types of Written Music

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Like a bassist, bandleader, teacher, and music copyist, I've worked hundreds of singers over the years. Though working musicians know a huge selection of tunes, singers require good charts to be able to have their music totally way they want. I define a "good chart" like a piece of written music that effectively tells the musicians whatever they should play.

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Written music is available in seven basic forms: chord charts, sheet music, songbooks, lead sheets, fake books, master rhythm charts and fully notated parts.

Kanary Young
Being a musician has a responsibility to experience the chart before him correctly, the supplier of the chart has the responsibility of providing the right kind of chart. Being aware of what type of chart for what kind of tune or gig is essential.

This article explains just what the different types of charts are, and under what things to use them. I hope you think it is useful.


Charts could be simple or elaborate based on the style of music and sort of gig. Cover tunes are traditionally learned from recordings; classical and choral music come in sheet music stores along with various music catalogs; numerous tunes will probably be found in music books of all types; and many public libraries carry recordings and written music available.

The word "chart" refers to a piece of writing of written music or any arrangement (music that's been adapted in a unique manner) of a tune. Decades ago it was strictly a "cool" slang term for any tune, but a content article of music might be called a chart currently, though a classical buff probably won't refer to a Mozart act as a "chart."

Understanding what type of chart to use for what kind of tune is vital. When you're playing a gig and someone hands you a chart -- it is what it's and you either see clearly well or not. But, if you decide on charts, have them created for you or provide them yourself, you have to know which kinds for which situations. Years back, while doing singer showcases, singers earned all kinds of charts: honest ones, bad ones, incorrect ones, inappropriate ones, plus it was a real pain. The singers who provided the best kinds of charts got their music totally way they wanted. The singers that had the wrong kinds of charts didn't, and weren't delighted about it. Unless a musician already knows the actual parts, he can only play according to what's about the chart before him. Though a great musician can improvise an excellent part in any style, if the specific musical line should be played, it needs to be written out.

As a musician features a responsibility to correctly play the chart before him, the supplier of the chart has the responsibility of providing a proper one.

Without getting into too many music notation specifics, allow me to share the different kinds of charts and when they are used:


A chord chart provides the chords, meter (how the song is counted, e.g., in 4 or perhaps 3 (like a waltz), and also the form of the song (the complete order of the sections). This type of chart is primarily used when: 1. the particular musical parts are improvised or already known, though the form and chords should be referred to, 2. to deliver chords to improvise over, or 3. each time a last-minute chart needs to be written, high isn't time for some thing elaborate.

A chord chart will not contain the melody or almost any instrumental parts being played. To play from simple chord charts an artist basically needs to have steady time, have in mind the chords, and improvise his part in whatever style the tune is at.


Sheet music is a store-bought version of a song printed by a publisher, that contains the instrumental part, chords, lyrics, melody and form. An instrumental piece will, naturally, have just the music. Written music is written for both piano and guitar. Guitar sheet music is in standard notation (often classical), along with TAB. A good bit of sheet music will always say whether or not it's for piano or guitar. Most written music is not meant to be completely connected the actual recording, along with the actual arrangement that you've heard on a recording is seldom present.

A lot of people have experienced the frustration to getting the sheet music to a song they like, playing it, and discovering that the chords differ from the recording, and sometimes the proper execution is too. Unfortunately that is the way it is a lot, and yes it could be for a number of different reasons. To find the exact arrangement and chords, you must do a "takedown" of the song: learn it by ear. A takedown is the place you listen to an item of music and write it down. Takedowns can range from simple chord charts to elaborate orchestral parts or anything involving. In order to do good takedowns, you need to have good ears, understand and become fluid with music notation on the complexity of the form of music you're dealing with, and preferably understand music (greater the better). Having "good ears" includes recognizing and knowing the music, whether heard on the radio, played by another musician, or heard in mind.


Songbooks are compilations of numerous tunes and often offer the same information that sheet music does, along with the chords and arrangement being not the same as the recording most of the time. Written music commonly has full introductions and endings, whereas songbook tunes are usually shortened to create space within the book for more tunes. Sheet music is generally written to get played on a keyboard, but songbooks are available in different styles and for different instruments. They are compiled by artist, style, decade, and in various collections including movie themes, Broadway hits, etc.

Songbooks are a fantastic reference source when other, more exact charts are unavailable. As an example: I needed two movie themes to get a gig once (client request). Rather than spending $8 for two tunes of sheet music, I bought a book of movie themes for $16 that contained over the hundred tunes. Sheet music and songbooks are pretty unusable at gigs as a result of cumbersome page turns and bulkiness; but also in an emergency you use them and do what you can. If having to use written music or songbooks for live show, either: 1. recopy the tune onto 1-3 pages or 2. photocopy it and tape the web pages together (although, in fact, this may be considered copyright infringement). Make sure to always provide a copy per musician.

To play from songbooks and sheet music, a musician needs to be able to read the music notation, or otherwise improvise a part from the chord symbols, i.e., a guitar strum, bass groove, piano groove, etc., or in addition to this, both. A vocalist can sing the language if they know the melody, or why not be able to read the notated melody whenever they don't know it.


Lead sheets retain the chords, lyrics and melody line of the song and are mainly used by singers, accompanists and arrangers, though they appear on the bandstand now and again. Songwriters use lead sheets to copyright their songs, and intensely often sheet music carries a lead sheet in the tune as a condensed version to utilize. Instead of having 3 to 5 pages of sheet music to turn, a lead sheet is often one or two pages long. Lead sheets do not contain any music notation except the melody and chords, so a musician needs to know how to improvise when reading derived from one of. A lead sheet is usually written out by a music copyist, that is someone who specializes in preparing written music. Playing from lead sheets minimally requires playing an accompaniment from the chords and comprehending the form directions and symbols (the markings hinting to go to the verse or the chorus or the end, etc.) and maximally having excellent accompaniment skills and reading notation fluidly.


A fake book is a large book of tunes that includes only the melody line, lyrics and chords. There's no piano part, guitar part or bass part. This is why they call it an imitation book. You have to know already your parts, or improvise them in the style of the tune. Some individuals call that "faking it." Faking it implies to be musically adept enough as a way to follow along by ear and decipher it as you go: that's a primary reason for ear training. When a person's ears "get trained", they figure out how to recognize and see the relationship of pitches and musical elements. With this understanding you can "hear" your path through tunes, even though you haven't heard them before, you fake it. However, once you don't hear so well, you're really faking it!

Before there is an abundance of legal fake books on the market, there was an abundance of illegal fake books around the streets. (As of this writing, I've only seen a few at gigs.) Since a practical musician needs to have entry to a large number of tunes at gigs, musicians compiled books of numerous useful tunes containing only melody lines and chords. A functional player doesn't need every one of the notes written out, as he can improvise, so large books were created with choice tunes. Some fake books are hand copied, either with a pro copyist or casually completed with pen or pencil, while some consist of cut up written music where all the piano parts are removed, leaving the melody and chords, all with regards to condensing space.

Rather than take stacks of songbooks to gigs, you pop a fake book of hundreds of choice tunes into the gig bag and from you go. A tune trying out five or six pages in songbook/sheet music form can take up a page or fewer when rewritten by hand or cut up, leaving merely the chords and melody. Fake books in many cases are used and I've seldom been at a casual where someone hasn't had a minumum of one.

The reason the illegal books are illegal is copyright laws. With the homemade books, nothing goes through the publishing houses that own the rights to the tunes, so neither the publishers nor the composers earn money from their use. The Catch-22 over time has been the fact that there weren't a bit of good legal fake books that pro musicians might use at a gig. In a songbook of 200 tunes, maybe ten were usable. So, the gamers made their own, and gigging musicians lived happily ever after. Speculate making these books is illegal, some decades ago a couple of nationwide distributors were arrested and fined for copyright infringement. However you still see the illegal books about the bandstands, nonetheless.

Over the years many legal fake books have been published and are very good. There are music books for: pop, jazz, rock, country, specific artists and movie themes, and you will find special wedding books with all the key music that brides like. Big sheet music stores should have them. And recently, one of the most popular illegal fake books have already been made legal. (Hooray!) The 5th Edition Real Book is definitely an example. Filled largely with jazz tunes, the ebook is in the original format, but published legally as the 6th Edition Real Book.

Legal fake books are readily available at sheet music stores, and illegal books... well, you're by yourself. Trade magazines and music union papers often advertise a multitude of music books in addition to joke books, ethnic music and other associated entertainment materials. Sometimes instrument stores carry fake books also.

Fake books are perfect to have, but the more tunes an artist knows, the better.


Master rhythm charts are charts designed for the rhythm section (piano, bass, guitar and drums). It's one chart made up of the general idea for all of us to play from: a sketch with the tune, a master copy than it all for each player. These charts are similar to elaborate chord charts with simply enough specifics with them to make the music either feel and sound more like the original recording, or to provide just enough specifics to make it interesting and recognizable, leaving the remaining to improvising.

Unless a tune comprises or arranged in this style to begin with, which the majority are, these charts are written by someone doing a takedown from your recording, or made from lead sheets or songbooks. Whereas lead sheets are primarily for your singer, master rhythm charts are primarily for that musicians. When a singer provides charts for the musicians in the band, these are the usual ones to utilize.

A master rhythm chart contains:

• All of the chords

• Key rhythms (the primary rhythms)

• Key melodic parts for the instruments

• Key lyrics for reference if desired

• Key background vocals if present

• Dynamics-how loud, how soft, etc.

• Any kind, clarifying instructions and symbols needed to ensure a good performance from the tune.

All types of popular music use master rhythm charts, and common to have one along with a lead sheet for every tune when a singer is involved. Master rhythm chart reading, and writing, entails improvising fluidly inside the style of the tune, and needs fluid notation reading abilities.


In the event the music needs to be extremely specific it'll be fully notated. Everything that has to be played is written for the page. What to play, when you should play it and how to participate in it: the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and then for any and all notational expressions, for example tempos (how fast or slow), who cues what, etc. Best recording sessions and shows require fluid note reading and supply individual parts per instrument.


Though they aren't written music, lyric sheets with chords deserve a mention.

Singers who play a guitar often use lyric sheets with chord symbols written over the words. For a singer/musician these are generally very useful, and are often used. I've used them myself.

Musicians reading these charts, however, can do well if they are familiar with the song, but this leaves a very large margin for error. Often the chords are gone the wrong words, or the chords are wrong or incomplete: very dicey business. Musicians like specifics.

My students start using these all the time, and there are a number of Internet sites with a large number of lyric sheets you can download. For several situations they are very handy!


With all the presence of smartphones, tablets, and other devices, it's common to view a musician with all of their music scanned in to a device! Though this can never replace paper, it is convenient! A solo pianist can leave the suitcase of music in your own home, a jazz player can load the 6th Edition Real Book with their smartphone, and a singer could possibly get last-minute lyrics via the Internet while on the bandstand.

Technology is marvelous!


As a musician has a responsibility to learn the chart before him correctly, the supplier with the chart has the responsibility of providing the right kind of chart. Being aware of what type of chart to use for what kind of tune or gig is essential.

Provide your musicians with the right kind of chart, and it's likely that your music will sound the way you want. The closer you abide by this maxim the greater your performances will likely be.