Many contemporary musicians in church today use lyric sheets with chords written above the words. There’s nothing wrong with these chord charts. In fact, they’re very helpful in providing basic reminders of lyrics and chords for musicians who already know the tunes.
However, there are significant limitations compared to full leadsheets – notated music on a staff that includes all the same things (lyrics and chords) but with helpful details such as more exact melodic and harmonic rhythms. The fact that leadsheets require some ability to read traditional notation might discourage some musicians.
But I think there are several good reasons for worship leaders to use leadsheets. Here are a few:
- New Music: Leadsheets allow musicians to play an entirely new song without first hearing it. We are no longer bound by whatever is most popular. Instead, we can include songs in our services that are lesser known or even brand new, perhaps written by someone in your church. Chord charts require that musicians have heard the song before, often over and over again. It leads us to prefer songs that get played repeatedly on the radio or in a limited repertoire of congregational songs.
- Efficient Rehearsals: Leadsheets tend to answer many more questions than chord charts do. Rehearsal time, then, is not wasted simply trying to learn the song. Thinking through the form of a song on paper is a good way to make decisions about form and other elements before getting to rehearsal which makes more room for working together to hone the quality and creativity of our leading.
- Better Singing: A mentor of mine spent a decent amount of time creating his own leadsheets for the worship teams at our church. It helped the worship leaders agree on things like words and melody with the ultimate goal of leading worshippers to participate more fully. It also allowed for multiple teams to lead a song in a predictable way. The proof was in how well the congregation sang on Sundays!
- Creative Freedom: It seems like chord charts would allow for more creativity. In my experience, however, they tie teams to a particular recording that might not match the context of your congregation, service, or space. Instead, try making your own leadsheets. This naturally leads us to make some decisions, such as “What exactly is the melody that we’re singing together?” or “Is it helpful to repeat that section so many times?”
- More Participants: Just as some musicians prefer learning aurally, other musicians prefer to learn music by reading it on the page. String and wind instrumentalists, for example, are often used to reading notes on the page or improvising from a leadsheet. Vocalists, too, can benefit from notating simple harmonies. This is becomes more and more helpful when there are multiple singers involved and rehearsal time is in short supply.
Let me be clear, I’m not against learning music by ear. The ability to play what you hear is just as important as playing what you see. The musicians I admire most have incredible abilities to do both well!
No written medium can capture the whole musical picture. And we can be just as tied to the details written on a page as we are to how a certain musician performs a song on a particular recording. Leadsheets for a single congregational song that are more than a page or two often suffer from too much needless repetition or convoluted repeats. Keep it simple.
My hope is that the points above help you to consider what can be gained from using notated leadsheets with your church musicians in order to better serve your congregation and worship God through music.