Chord Charts : A Universal Musical Language
D. L. Stieg

In the performance of classical music, the process by which musicians come together to create ensemble music is relatively direct and straightforward. The composerís intentions are expressed in a musical score that details each of the parts of the ensemble arrangement, and the parts are aligned vertically to show that they are meant to be sounded simultaneously. All that is required is for the individual ensemble members to read and sing (or play) their respective parts. Choral ensemble members generally read from a full score of the ensemble arrangement, while orchestral and brass ensemble members generally read from a part score showing only the music for their part. In non-classical music, however, the process of creating ensemble music is not nearly as direct and straightforward.

Since the parts are seldom written, non-classical ensemble musicians are generally responsible for fashioning their own parts, and the process by which this is done is different for different musicians. A vocal melody (a song) can be learned from notation, but a certain amount of interpretation is required to translate the unadorned and rhythmically simplified lead sheet (staff) notation for a song into a musical rendition of the melody. Far more often than not, non-classical vocal melody is learned by listening to recordings and imitating other singersí interpretations of songs. This learning method allows for the mastery of intricate vocal techniques that would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to express in staff notation. This is how most non-classical vocalists learn to sing.

Although vocal harmonies are not included in the lead sheets for songs, they are sometimes given in expanded notations for songs that include parts for ensemble arrangements as well as the melody. In any case, like the melodies, vocal harmonies for familiar songs are normally learned by listening to recordings. And like original melodies, vocal harmonies for which neither a written score nor a recording is available are normally derived by ear. The non-classical vocalistís art, then, can be developed to a very appreciable degree without recourse to musical notation of any kind.

Like vocalists, instrumentalists in non-classical ensembles usually learn their parts in the arrangements for familiar and popular songs by listening to recordings. Non-classical ensemble arrangements are usually based on a rhythm piano or rhythm guitar part, which serves as the foundation on which the arrangement is built. Expanded notations for songs usually include a rhythm piano or rhythm guitar part, in staff notation for a piano arrangement or in TAB notation for a guitar arrangement, but a completely accurate account of the actual rhythm music played on popular recordings is seldom given. In any event, experienced rhythm players can duplicate exactly a rhythm piano or rhythm guitar part in an ensemble arrangement, even when multiple rhythm parts are used, by listening to a recording, and without recourse to musical notation.

Like rhythm players, other non-classical ensemble instrumentalists such as bassists, lead guitarists, and instrumental soloists usually learn their parts in the arrangements for popular songs by listening to recordings. The expanded notation for popular rock songs often includes TAB for the bass part and the lead guitar part, but bass and lead parts are not normally included in printed music for any other genre. Competent non-classical musicians are generally fairly skilled at learning their craft by listening to recordings, and a great many accomplished non-classical musicians make only limited use of musical notation, or do not read music at all. The process of fashioning ensemble arrangements is entirely different, however, in the case of music for which there is no recording, and in the case of original music.

The lead sheet notation for a song consists mainly of the staff notation for the melody together with the lyrics. The lead sheet for an unrecorded or original song contains very little information that can be of direct help to an ensemble instrumentalist in the matter of fashioning a part in the ensemble arrangement. None of these musicians normally plays the melody of the song, and if they do they usually play it in a highly stylized manner that bears little resemblance to the lead sheet notation. The lyrics are only of direct importance to ensemble instrumentalists who are also singing harmony or lead (melody) vocals. The only features of a lead sheet that are of direct relevance in fashioning instrumental parts are the chord symbols that are typically included, which show a progression (sequence) of chords that can be used to harmonize and accompany the melody. Different instrumentalists interpret these chord symbols in different ways.

Rhythm players translate the symbols into chords about which rhythm arrangements can be fashioned. Bass players fashion their parts around the root notes of the chords, with an occasional emphasis on other notes of the chords. Lead guitarists and instrumental soloists make extensive use of scales (specific patterned sequences of notes) based on the root notes of the chords in fashioning their parts. The function of other monophonic instrumentalists in an ensemble arrangement is usually mainly confined to filling in the harmonies. An awareness of what the notes of the chords are is therefore of some importance for these musicians as well, although like vocal harmonies these parts can be, and frequently are, derived by ear.

The common denominator of the contributions made to an ensemble arrangement by instrumental musicians is that they are all based on chords. But merely knowing the identity of the chords governing an arrangement is obviously not enough, since the timing of the changes from each chord to the next must also be considered. In lead sheet notation, the timing of the chord changes is shown by the vertical alignment of the chord symbols relative to the staff notation of the melody. Presumably mainly for the benefit of those who cannot read staff notation, the lyrics to songs are often published separately, with the chord symbols placed above the words that coincide with the changes of chord. The melody and the lyrics can and should be considered in ensemble arranging, but the fashioning of ensemble parts is nevertheless based almost entirely on chords and the timing of changes of chord, which together are more correctly referred to as the harmonic rhythm of the music.

Original non-classical ensemble music is usually composed by the ensemble members themselves, rather than by a composer or arranger. In the creation of this music, numerous and various shorthand methods have been devised for showing the harmonic rhythm of the music (the chords and the timing of the chord changes) independent of the melody and lyrics. Chord charts of this type serve a very useful purpose by showing only the most relevant information for ensemble instrumentalists concisely and in written form. The exact format of the chord chart notation is of far less importance than the fact that each instrumentalist needs to have an accurate written account of the harmonic rhythm that makes sense to them. In the fashioning of arrangements by ensemble members, the only alternative to the use of chord charts is repetition. Even though repetition is required further along in the matter of perfecting and memorizing arrangements, the fashioning of arrangements by means of repetition is boring and tedious, as compared to when the harmonic rhythm is known by all the players. The lack of a viable chord chart notation, in addition to an aversion to discipline and practice, has undoubtedly been a contributing factor in the dissolution of a great many ensembles.

Another interesting and telling use for chord chart notation is implied, in the formal study of classical music, in the harmonic analysis of scores. Harmonic analysis consists of vertically scanning the notes of an ensemble or piano score, and identifying all the harmonies (chords) sounded by the simultaneous sounding of notes. The chords are represented by symbols that indicate their function in the context of the key of the music, and the spatial placement of these symbols indicates the timing of the changes of chord. Any classical ensemble or piano score can be analyzed in this fashion. The purpose of harmonic analysis is to gain a better understanding of the many different progressions of chords that are possible in the context of a given key. Harmonic analysis is an important component of the study of music theory, and the Bach Chorales are often used for this purpose because they contain a wealth of ideas relating to harmonic progression.

The chords that are identified by means of the harmonic analysis of a score can be represented in chord symbol in actual terms rather than in terms of the chordsí function in the context of the key (for example, in the key of G, am7 instead of ii7, or D instead of V). This would in effect produce a chord chart of the music, and this chord chart could be used to good advantage in fashioning a fusion arrangement in which classical music, or music composed in a classical style, is combined with other musical genres. Even though many musicians of all persuasions believe that the classical and non-classical traditions should remain separate, fusion music of this type is fairly common in the contemporary musical scene, and much of it is interesting, imaginative, and effective. The debate regarding the desirability of merging the classical and non-classical traditions into one musical tradition will likely continue for some time, and the question may never be entirely resolved. But the underlying truth is that the common denominator of all music, at least in the Western world, is harmonic rhythm.