Types of Sheet Music

Prerequisites: none

Without sheet music, we would have to learn how to play everything by ear. There are four prominent types of musical notations that are used in and around the church, and they all have their pros and cons. Here they are:

  1. Standard Notation

    This is by far the most common notation in all of music, and for good reason. It includes everything you would need: the key signature, the time signature, the tempo, the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, and all their rhythms.

    In short, this notation is able to display the most information without sacrificing much–the biggest downside to this type of music is that a performer would need to be adequately trained to be able to read it, and even more trained to read and play it on the fly. Another disadvantage is that standard notation doesn’t make it easy to jump from one part of the music to another (for example, from the bridge back to the chorus).

    Even though we technically don’t use this type of sheet music at church, it’s incredibly helpful to know how to read this music, so we can communicate ideas with each other more effectively and efficiently.

  2. Chord Sheets

    This is the sheet music of choice at many churches, or so it seems. Chord sheets are perhaps the simplest type of musical notation, and therefore are the most limiting. While this example does show key and time signatures as well as tempo, most other chord sheets do not display this information.

    Distinctly missing from chord sheets is any indication of melody or rhythm–in essence, it assumes that the person reading the chord sheet already knows the melody line or doesn’t need to know it.

    It is literally impossible to learn a song with just a chord sheet.

  3. Lead Sheet Notation

    Between the previous two is lead sheet notation, used most commonly in jazz music. It contains most things that standard notation does, but doesn’t contain the harmony–it is expected of the reader to be able to read and understand the harmonies with just the chords.
  4. Tablature (AKA tabs)

    Tabs look strange, and are fairly difficult to read it if you don’t have any experience with them. Tabs are only used for fretted instruments and mostly for guitar. Its main purpose is to teach an instrumentalist how to play a melody on a specific instrument, and can’t be used for much more. Regardless, it is very common for people to use this type of sheet music.

    Tabs also use their own system of notation, using only numbers, letters and non-alphanumeric characters, making it remarkably easy for it to be typed.

Additional Reading