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  • Using Chord Lines to Chart Songs

    In recent years, I’ve become ever more frustrated with charting songs for guitar. For a long time, that’s consisted of simply writing lyrics with the chord changes above them. If I’m familiar with the song, I can usually get by with this method, and I have for many, many years. The band I play with also uses song charts, which consist of listing the basic structure of the song and the chord changes. It’s not bad, but in the past few months, I’ve wanted a little more. When learning new songs, I seemed to miss the big picture, the conceptual whole of the song I was trying to play. One solution I’ve found helpful is using chord lines.

    What are chord lines, you ask? Well, several months ago when I started using them with greater earnest, I scoured the internet looking for some kind of guide, but to my surprise found nothing. Turning to paper and print, I scanned my book spines and found an undersized book with its black spiral bound pages. Rise Up Singing. Compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, the book contains lyrics for over 1200 songs. An indispensable classic, in my opinion. It’s the place where I first learned about chord lines.

    Chord lines are a method of charting the chords for a song developed by Peter Blood. Rather than writing the chord changes above the lyrics, which is the typical way we often see charted songs or fake sheets, a song charted using chord lines isolates the chord progression for a verse or chorus, recording the basic pattern of chords and beats for one line of lyrics. The break for a new grouping of chords, as well as another line of lyrics, is marked by a slash. For repetitions of chords, the method uses dashes, and if a whole measure of chords is to be repeated, there will be an empty space between a pair of slashes. Using this method requires much less space when charting a song, and the simple markings and grouping of chords communicate the basic structure of song in a way that can be quickly understood by the musician.

    An image of the Wild Rover from Rise Up Singing
    from Rise Up Singing by Peter Blood & Annie Peterson, p. 237

    I like the method because I struggle with rhythm sometimes. It’s nice, therefore, to have the chords and beat of the song illustrated in a way that’s easy to understand. That helps me get a feel for the song much faster, and more importantly, conceptualize the overall structure of the song. When I’m charting songs for myself, I often use this method because it helps me account for the correct number of beats in each measure or line of lyrics. Granted, it looks a bit strange at first, but once I became familiar with it, I felt quite at ease using the method.

    The genius of the method is that of saving space. Whereas traditional songbooks might become quite large with only a few dozen songs, the 1200 songs in the Rise Up Singing take up far fewer pages. In fact, there are usually about four songs on each page of the book. To me, that’s incredible, and as a guitarist, it’s convenient to have such a great number of songs collected in such a small book.

    It really bothered me, however, that I couldn’t find anything more about the origin of notating songs in this method, especially something I think so useful. So back to the internet, and instead of coming away disappointed, I found contact information for the authors, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson. After a couple emails, I had some answers.

    According to Peter Blood, he invented the method of chord lines. Although he had been working on a version of the system for several years, he dates the method back to Winds of the People, his songbook self-published in 1979 and the predecessor to Rise Up Singing. Blood writes, “I think I had used a modified version in earlier song sheets that had been mimeographed for groups I was part of, but I don’t think I used the consistent system of relating the chords to the downbeats of the rhythm until we created Winds of the People.” Over the years, he says many people have expressed appreciation for the system while others seem a bit mystified by the groups of chords, dashes, and lines that accompany the lyrics.

    Despite those who might be a little lost, Peter Blood cites some of the same reasons I did for using the method. He told me the system seemed the best possible way to show where the chords fall without writing the chords above the lyrics, and ultimately, that saves space. He also finds playing and reading chords from these sheets easier. “It pops out more,” he says, when comparing his charts to the traditional method of notating the chords. I agree, too, that the method seems to declutter the page, stripping away the extraneous to create cleaner, simple song sheets.

    For me, as well as many others, simplicity makes a world a difference. The irony is that Blood’s chord lines are a simplification that communicates more than the traditional method of charting songs. To make a comparison, his method acts like a snapshot of the song’s deep structure, and as we have so often heard, a picture is worth a thousand words.