Why Learn How to Make My Own Song Chart?

A little background

As I’ve been preparing for my upcoming workshop Charting: Make Your Own Songbook (the first of three in this spring’s Musician’s Toolbox Workshop Series), I’ve found myself remembering my first songbook:

Closed journal on a table
Originally a Christmas gift from an older cousin …
Open songbook page with blurred image of song lyrics and notes
Lyrics, chords, tablature notes … I wrote it all down.

When I was about 15 years old, I learned to play the guitar. I had a book I kept of all the songs I learned to play, complete with handwritten lyrics, chords and other notes. Like the writer who learns by reading, I learned to play by watching and listening intently to my favorite musicians to figure out what they were doing. I wrote it all down, played and played, and made these songs my own, all recorded in what I still consider to be a meaningful artifact from a deeply informative part of my music education.

As a music teacher, I share a lot of my own knowledge with students, picking and arranging songs for us to play together in classes and jams. However, I believe students need opportunities to use the knowledge to expand their musical understanding further. That is precisely what this upcoming Song Charting workshop is all about.

What is a song chart?

I’m quite sure plenty of you looked at the title of this workshop and wondered: What is a song chart, exactly?  Once again, let us refer to the songbook of my youth:

Open page of songbook with handwritten song lyrics, chords and notes
An early song of mine from my angsty young 20s … as I started writing my own songs, I made song charts for them at the back of my original songbook.

Simply put, a song chart is a written record of a song in lyrics and chords (I don’t usually include a melody in my song charts, but it may be included). It can be as simple as a chord progression at the top and some lyric cues below, or as detailed as having pictures of the chords you need, complete lyrics, and extra arrangement notes on the side. It’s your personal cheat sheet, if you will, for whatever song you want to remember how to play.

A song chart is just for you, and therefore, making a song chart is a personal task, with options and opportunities to preserve what you know and love while also deepening your musical understanding.

WHy learn to make your own song chart?

Now that I have confessed my sense of sentimentality, let’s recall that there are numerous resources online that have charted songs for you already. I regularly refer to these resources when making my own song charts; but I believe it’s not enough to just print out whatever you find online. Why? Hear me out:

  1. Writing something down helps you learn what you’re playing. Just like writing in a journal helps us make sense of our thoughts, writing down a song helps us make sense of a song’s patterns and organization, not to mention learn all the lyrics. Though I have no evidence to back this up, I would argue that however long it takes you to chart out your song, it would take you twice as long for you to learn it by just playing it over and over again from someone else’s chart.
  2. Online charts are not always correct. The people posting song charts online are only human, and sometimes don’t get certain parts right. This doesn’t preclude you from using online charts as a resource in making your own song charts but you’ll always want to double check with your own ears.
  3. Charting allows you to make a song your own. When you make a song chart, you can choose the key best suited to your voice or chording fingers, decide which verses to include, and play with the song’s arrangement. When a song is best suited to your own singing and playing, it’s easier to practice and it brings out the best musician in you.
  4. Making a song chart makes you a better musician. Taking all three of these points together, creating a written record of a song you want to play forces you to engage in the ultimate musical skill: listening. Whether you are writing it down by ear, or adapting someone else’s song chart for your own use, song charting will make you listen to a song – and to yourself – in a way you never have before, and that is what learning music is all about.

Goodness knows you don’t have to have sparkles on the front of your songbook like I did. A three-ring binder and some blank paper will do to start. Give it a try and see what you find. Whether you’re stumped, or inspired, or a little of both, learn more about how to make a song chart at our upcoming workshop, Charting – Make Your Own Songbook: Saturday, March 16, 1:00-3:00pm at Artichoke Music. Or consider purchasing the Musician’s Toolbox Workshop Package, which includes workshops on Charting, Transposing, and Arranging.

Musician’s Toolbox Workshop Series graphic

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