The sheet music reader’s guide to chord charts

Music is, in many ways, is a language.  It has its own grammar (structure for melody to follow) and vocabulary (motifs, “riffs” or “licks” that cluster sounds together). 

Also like music, language (with the exception of signing) is first and foremost aural communion. (What matters is one person’s mouth reaching someone else’s ear). However, that hasn’t stopped people from creating ways of trying to record music/language  and write it down.

Sometimes, the same language can have different “scripts” – or different styles of writing. Japanese makes use of three scripts, the pictorial Kanji, and the phonetic alphabets Hiragana and Katakana. Likewise, using your computer, you can write something   that’s still understandable with different fonts

For most of Western music, (beginning with the publication of Graduale Laon in 930), Western music has often been noted with a series of notation that looks something like this: 


Each sound you are supposed to play is signaled by a particular note. The relation of one note to another up and down lets you know the difference in pitch between one note and another, and they are written from left to right as the piece moves through time.

For many classically-trained musicians, this system of “sheet music” is the main way they understand music – so it can be a pretty big shock to the system when a bandleader or church music director hands you something that looks like this mess.

If this has ever happened to you, have no fear. Take a deep breath, and remember – It’s the same “language,” just a different script.  Here’s how a “chord chart” like this one can be decoded.  
A) Listen – Compared with modern sheet music, a  chord chart is, comparatively, a low-information form of communication.  It gives you a series of chords, written above the sung lyrics. The basic principle is that, as the song gets to a certain lyric, the chord changes to something that belongs under that particular part of the melody.  That’s it. If you want to know what the melody or rhythm actually sounds like, you’re out of luck.  Fortunately, you have another resource at your disposal, recordings!:

(To those of you, like me grew up with Christian music in the 90s, Michael Tait of DC Talk fame is now in the Newsboys, apparently. Shocking, I know. That said, it works about a million times better than whatever happened to AC/DC after Axl Rose joined.)

Anyway, in lessons, the influential violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki would be happy to help you with your fingering, bowing, expression, or any aspect of your technique. However, if you struggled with actually playing the piece, forgetting what note came next, he would simply look stoic and say nothing but “Go home and listen more.”  He believed very strongly that the way to “learn the notes” was by listening to the piece – so that you could have the song playing in your head even before you try playing it yourself.

Listen deeply, and listen often. Listen until you know the song inside and out, until you can sing along exactly. Listen so you can hear each instrument’s part, and how they interact with each other. When you reach the point of getting sick of the song, and of getting it as an “earworm” (stuck in your head) – you’ve almost reached the point of listening enough.

B) Outline all the chords  – Ok, let’s take a look a the song in question (Thanks to one of my readers for the question!). Think of each chord as a “menu” outlining a series of notes from which you can choose to play.   Each chord is basically a collection of 3 (sometimes 4) notes. A chord is like a scale, picking and choosing the “most important notes,” which are usually the 1st, 3rd, and 5th. Work out what all the notes are. 

The verse is as follows:

D                     Dsus4      D

In this time of desperation
                             Dsus4      Bm
When all we know is doubt and fear
There is only One Foundation
    D           Dsus4
We believe, We believe   


Repeat that chord structure one more time, and you have yourself a full verse.

So here are the notes.  

First up we got a D major:

    D F# A

A Dsus4 (suspended 4th) just means that we play the 4th note of the scale, rather than the 3rd:

    D G A

(to keep it simple, at first, you can ignore this one, and just play D major the whole time)

Next up is B minor:

    B D F#

G Major:

    G B D

And back home to D- D4

Now onto the chorus:

   D                             A
We believe in God the Father, We believe in Jesus Christ
    Bm                                 G
We believe in the Holy Spirit, And He’s given us new life

Three out of four of these have already been done.

Our only new friend is A Major:

    A C# E

Cycle through that once more, throw in “We believe, we believe” over a D and D4 tag, and that’s your chorus.

Another verse, another chorus, and you come to the bridge:

      G                     A
Let the lost be found and the dead be raised!
      Bm                F#m
In the here and now, let love invade!

Once again, lots of stuff that isn’t a surprise.

Except our new friend, the slightly feisty but still lovable F# minor:

    F# A C#

That cycle (a line of G to A, and a line of B minor to F sharp minor) is played 4 times.

Then you do the chorus at least more time, maybe changing things up to make it all dramatic-like.

C) Practice the chords – OK, so you know what notes to play. The next step is to play them in order they appear in the song. Basically, arpeggiate (play the triad as separate notes) in the sequence.  The following are all sheet music writing out what that would look like, for a violinist comfortable with first position.  If you play with a different cleft, or an transposing instrument, your teacher would be happy to help you figure out how to do this for your instrument.




D) Actually doing the thing – So, practice and listen a bunch. When actually playing with your church band, you have several options.

1) play slow chord tones, moving to a new note as you hear the chord change

2)  play simple riffs that emphasize a chord tone, in the background

3) play two chord tones in a rhythmic way

4) play portions of the melody (which you can learn by ear)
Here’s how that works in practice:


We Believe © 2015 Integrity Worship Music, Integrity’s Praise! Music, Life Worship, and Travis Ryan Music.  Referenced in accordance with Fair Use principles, which allows copying and performing selections of copyrighted music for an educational purpose.  

Interested in (online or in-person) lessons on violin, improvisation, or performing contemporary sacred music? Contact me at for more information.


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