How to chart a song

This lesson is for those of you who are sometimes asked to listen to a song and learn how to play it without music. Most church pianists are asked to do that kind of thing from time to time. Often, a vocalist will give you a MP3 or CD and tell you they are singing a particular song on Sunday.

If you play by ear well, you may be able to wing it. But even if you play by ear, you might need to actually note and memorize the specific chords used on the track. Once you have the chords down, you can just improvise on them and play the song.

The process of notating the chords used in a song is called charting, and today, I am going to teach you how to get started or at least tell you how I do it. This process will be time intensive at first but you will get better over time. I have watched studio pianists such as Tim Parton listen to a song once and jot down the chords as they listen. People like that make me sick but that kind of speed is a goal that most of us can actually reach if we work hard enough.

You can greatly improve your efficiency if you have the right equipment to play the track. You will find yourself starting and stopping and backing up the track quite often. A computer is the best option for most people because you can use a slider bar to visually back up to the right place. Cassette players are horrible for this.

I use a Edirol R-09 HR digital recorder. This tiny unit records very well but also functions as a player; it is sort of like an ipod on steroids. It has a few handy features to help you if you are charting. First, it has slowdown capability which allows you to slow down the playback speed.

Secondly, it has a A-B feature that allows you to play the same clip of a song over and over. So, if you want to play four bars several times while you work out the chords, you click on the A-B button at the beginning of the four bars and again at the end. From then on, those four bars will play over and over.

Now, here is a process to chart a song. It is certainly not the only way to do it, but it works.

1) Listen through once and draw a horizontal line for each measure (bar). Group the lines together to match the form of a song. So if the verse has 16 bars, write 2 lines of 8 bars and then start the chorus on the next line. Mark each group of lines with labels such as Intro, V(erse), C(horus), and Tag.

2) Break the song into segments and use the A-B type of playback to listen to the segment over and over until you can work out the chords. Depending on your skill, you might do eight bar segments or smaller segments. I usually start with eight bar segments and if I am struggling, go down to four bars or even two.

3) As you listen to the segment, start writing in the chords on the horizontal lines on your chart. If a bar contains only a C chord, write just    C   . If it contains C and moves to F, write   C  F  .

4) Work your way through the song segment by segment. When you are done, you will have a chart of chords that works with the song.

This is the process that studio musicians often use. It is a very handy skill, and needless to say, it may be hard to pick up.  Here are some tips to help you identify chords.

* Sit at the piano while you listen and try to play along with the track. When you play something right, write the chord on the chart.

* Listen for the bass note first. Note how the lowest instrument is moving. That will be your first clue to the chords being used. Especially listen to the downbeats. Remember that just knowing the bass note does not give you the chord because it could be an inversion.

* Note the melody note. If you know the melody note and the bass note, it will often become easy to identify the rest of the chord.

* On chords you do not know, keep experimenting with different chords that match the melody note and bass note.

* Remember that most chords in the average song will be I, IV, and V chords.

* Learn to identify cadences. You will hear V-I cadences over and over again. You can quickly write those in once you start recognizing how that cadence sounds.

Have fun and expect your family to throw things at you! This kind of exercise is not necessarily pleasant for everyone else in the house.