Extreme Makeover: Chart Edition


For professional musicians, sheet music is a way of life. While you’re not necessarily reading sheet music at every gig, you’ll definitely encounter a lot of it. At some point, you’ll probably find yourself making charts, either for yourself, or for someone else. The beauty of sheet music is that you can put it in front of any musician who can read, and they can play that song (theoretically).

It’s your responsibility then to make it as easy to read as possible. You can have all the chords, rhythm, lines correct, but if it’s difficult to read, it’s going to sound bad. Let’s talk about how to lay out a rhythm chart.

The beauty of rhythm charts is that you can give the same chart to the guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, or drummer, and they’ll be able to play the song. Since you’re using the same chart for all of these people, you won’t be writing out every single line. The goal is to make a sketch of the song that’s good enough for all of the musicians in the band to follow along. We won’t be including lyrics in this style of chart either. Sorry singers, you’re on your own.

Let’s Do This

Rather than just talk about it, we’re going to lay out a chart I’ve already made.
Chart 1.1

Chart 1.2
Just look at that. Nobody wants to read a poorly made chart for the Backstreet Boys’ mega hit “I Want It That Way” (Very few people even want to read a well made one). It would be like if someone made you read “Twilight” but there were no chapters, paragraphs, or indentations. Just a solid block of text. Your fellow musicians deserve better than this.

Big Things

Label Your Sections, Man

Beginnings of new sections like the verse or chorus should always be labeled, and the first measure of that section should be the first measure of that line. Add double bar lines at the end of a section to make it visually clear that a new section is beginning.

By default, Sibelius lays out 6 bars to a line. You can probably squeeze 8 in there. You don’t want your line to be too crowded, especially if you’ve got a written line for someone to play, but if it’s just chord changes, 8 bars lays out nicely in a line.

One Page To Rule Them All

If at all possible, try to fit your chart on 1 page. If you’re printing these charts, it’s half the paper. If this chart ends up on an iPad, it saves a page turn. This may not seem like a big deal, but to the player, it’s huge. If trying to squeeze it all on one page makes it feel too cramped, go ahead and make it 2 pages, but use all of the second page. Having a bunch of white space at the end of your chart is useless. If you instead spread out your staves, that leaves room for players to take notes.

Be Conscious Of Your Repeats

Don’t put a repeat at the top of the second page. For musicians reading a paper chart, it’s a tease. For iPad users, it’s adding yet another page turn.

After adding just those three things, look at how much better our chart looks.
Chart 2.1

Chord Changes

The next order of business is our chord changes. More and more musicians are using iPads for sheet music (because they’re fantastic). If your chart will ever get read on an iPad (which it most likely will), you should think about how it will look on that screen. At 9.7 inches for the full size, and 7.9 inches for the mini, the iPad is considerably smaller than a standard sheet of paper. Plan accordingly.

This is why I like to keep charts to 1 page if at all possible. Also, make your chord changes nice and big. If you tried to read our Backstreet Boys chart as is right now on an iPad mini (my iPad of choice), you’d be squinting more than a sunglasses-less Robert De Niro on a sunny day.

15 point font ensures your chord changes will be readable on smaller tablet screens, without being too big and looking like those scary letters from sesame street. 

Also, for goodness sake, make sure your chord changes are all lined up with each other.


Also, while we’re on the topic of fonts, can we all stop using the “Inkpen” font? The novelty of the pseudo-handwritten look wore off right about when the Backstreet Boys did. Sorry, Comic Sans and Papyrus are out too. Pick a modern font. It’ll bring your charts into the 21st century and make your charts look like yours.

Chart 3.1

This is looking a little crowded for my taste. While it’s still technically readable, it would probably be more of a pain to read the cramped measures than add a page turn. If we had just 1 chord change per bar, I would leave it with 8 bars in a line, but due to the extra changes and rhythms, it’s looking too messy. Let’s expand it into 2 full pages.

Chart 4.1

Chart 4.2

Ahh, much better, right?
I know, I know, I said you can probably squeeze in 8 bars to a line. But in this case, with multiple chord changes per bar, it makes it look too crowded. After expanding a few lines, I’m left with a ton of empty space on the 2nd page, so I went ahead and expanded it all the way out, making sure the page turn was at the most opportune time (in this case, just between the 2nd chorus and bridge).

Make Your Own Style

At this point you might be thinking, “This sounds like a lot of work,” which it is. However, you can drastically cut down your work time by saving your favorite things as a template. In Sibelius this is called a “House Style.” In Finale, it’s called “Go buy Sibelius.” Create your own with all of these little things saved in it and import your custom style every time you make a chart.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about a few small things that will help make your charts easier to read.

1. Add brackets to repeat signs. This should go without saying, but it makes it so much easier to read and ensures everyone will take the repeat.
2. Things like a “DS” require a huge jump and extra time to find where you need to go. There’s nothing worse than realizing in the last measure of the line that you have to figure out where the #(@$&% the sign is. Make the font extra large for these. I prefer 17 pt.
3. If you have room, adding lyric cues at the beginnings of new sections is especially helpful.
4. If you have a section that needs to repeat multiple times, do NOT write “Repeat 3x.” This ensures that someone will say, “Do you mean play it 3 times total, or repeat it 3 times after the first, so 4 times total?” The best thing to write is either “Play 3x” or “3x Total.” This should be quite large as well.

After your chart is complete and you’ve gone through it with a fine tooth comb, put your website on it, right under the songwriter’s name. This serves a two purposes. For one, if you put your website or email in plain sight, you can potentially get more copy work. For another thing, you’ll probably be hesitant to put your name on a chart that looks like it was thrown together.

Now, take a look at our finished chart as compared to the original. Which would you rather read?


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Wrap Up

Chart layout can be summed up like this: Make your charts so readable that you would have to be an idiot to not understand it. This applies to rhythm charts as well as any other type of sheet music. Try to anticipate problems that the players could have and get rid of them. If you do that, you’ll be making charts that everyone wants to read. Yes, even if it’s an outdated boy band song from 1999.