I create a lot of charts. I make them when I’m preparing for gigs or for other musicians’ recording sessions or live shows. It’s something that I have come to enjoy because it’s such a great way of improving your ear. And there’s just something special about having beautiful looking charts of your music printed out, taped and ready to go.
Sometimes it can make or brake a project. Having your music organized, well thought out, and prepared gives you clarity as a music director, producer, or even just as a musician who needs to memorize the set.
Making charts can be a huge pain though. Fooling with software, printers, and PDFs are a nightmare. In this post I want to walk you through my process of making a beautiful professional charts quickly and easily. Sibelius is the software I use, but the principles are transferrable to any program or even to pencil and paper. Simply having a process is key.
[callout]I am also including the template I use to create parts and lead sheets at the end of this post. You can have for free. Having a templates is the single best way to increase the speed of creating charts.[/callout]
My friend Eric Shouse, from Closer By One, let me use his song, Sleeping in My Bed, to illustrate the process. Here’s the song we’ll be working with. Take a listen! And make sure to check out more great music by Closer By One.
Here we go!
Step 1 – Get Prepped
Before doing anything, get your workspace ready.
- Playback. Don’t use iTunes for playback. Use Logic or Garage Band. It’s 100Xs easier to navigate around the audio file and gives you the ability to loop and even slow down sections.
- Speakers or Headphones. You’ll need a comfy set of phones or speakers to hear what you’re working on. I use these.
- Paper/Pencil. Staff paper is best, but I use a yellow pad a lot too. You need to be able to jot down quick notes as you listen. You can download and print some for free here.
- Notation Software. I use Sibelius for my notation software. Finale and even Logic are good options too. The best program is the one you know how to use.
- MIDI Keyboard. For inputing notes.
Step 2 – Very quick rough draft
Once you’re prepped, you want to do a very quick rough draft to grab the form of the tune.
Don’t worry about chords/melody yet. Just get the basic skeleton and phrase lengths of the different sections.
- Ideally you want to do this in about 1 or 2 passes of listening to the song.
- Use paper and pencil for this. Don’t fool with any software yet.
- Don’t worry about how it looks! Just scratch it out fast.
Step 3 – Prep the score
Once you have the form, open your Master Rhythm Template (download below) and transfer your paper version to Sibelius. With my template and the mini process below, this should take about 5 – 10 min depending on how well you know your software.
Title, composer, headers, footers, instrument name, logo
- key signature
- time signature
- total number of bars
- add double bars and ending bar
- add rehearsal letters
- add road map text
Step 4 – Transcribing the parts
Whether you’re doing full parts or just a lead sheet, you should be thinking in terms of “parts” . Here’s my process.
- Go through the tune one instrument at a time. I start from the bottom and work my way up. For example in Eric’s song, I listened first to drums, then the bass, guitars, and keyboards.
- Listen first for the most important elements and parts of that instrument.
- Add rhythm slashes if needed for similar sections.
- Add any necessary text.
- Add chord symbols last.
If you’re doing a lead sheet or master rhythm part, notate only the most important parts of the tune as if you were doing parts and then copy and paste them into one double stave part.
Step 5 – Format parts
At this point you’ve got all your parts in a score. Now it’s time to make parts. Music copying is an art form unto itself, but you can get close by and make great looking charts by following a few key guidelines.
4 bars to a line whenever possible. 5 or 6 can be okay too if necessary. Think in phrases.
- 8 staves on first page (or 4 double staves), then 10 on every other page (5 if double stave) as general rule. Break this rule if it makes it easier to read (Section “B” starting page 2, for example).
- Double bars should always come at the end of line.
- No weird number of bar rests. If an instrument rests for 19 bars, break it up into phrases e.g. 8+8+3. Much easier to count as a musician.
- Bar numbers should be out the way. Make sure they don’t get in the way of dynamics or the notes.
There are a couple great features in Sibelius that will save you tons of time making parts. Do a search in the ribbon for these. My favorites are:
- “Make Layout Uniform” – automatically sets the number of bars/line and lines/page
- “Copy Part Layout” – copies the layout of one part to another so you don’t have to do the same work twice for similar parts.
- “Cue Size” – make text or notes a smaller cue size. Great for master rhythm parts when you have to make lots of stuff fit on a double stave part.
- “Filter” – get good using the Filter. HUGE time saver when you need to select like items such as chords, lyrics, or voices.
Finished Master Rhythm Part
Here’s the finished master rhythm part of Eric’s tune, Sleeping in My Bed. How did I do? Hit play and follow along. You’ll notice that not every single thing is represented in the master rhythm part, just the most important parts of the song.
Click play then click to the image below to open the full chart.
The two big take-a-ways to make creating charts go more smoothly is to: 1. use a template, and 2. follow a process. Your process will probably be different than mine, but hopefully I’ve given you a great starting place when coming up with your own.
[callout]Here is the Sibelius template that I use for making sheet music. All the settings have been tweaked so you have to do as little as possible to get beautiful charts with minimal effort.
If you have any questions let me know in the comments, or you can email me.[/callout]
What do you think of this process? Do you have any tips for creating great looking charts? Share in the comments below.
And thanks, Eric, for letting me use your song as an example. Make sure to check out more music from Closer By One.