How to Select the Best Font or Typeface for Chord Sheets and Lead Sheets: Know Your Typography
In order to choose the best font to use for the chord sheets and lead sheets that you prepare on your word processor, there are several factors to consider. You need to think about who will be using the chord sheet, in what physical location, and under what circumstances.
- Is the chord sheet strictly for instrumentalists or also for vocalists – or for those who will sing and play simultaneously (some guitarists, keyboardists and others)?
- What is the age and visual acuity of those using the chord sheets?
- Will this be read for the first time in a crowded, low-light, smoky bar or will there be at least one run-through in a well-lighted location?
- Is the music itself upbeat and fast, or mellower and slow? How quickly do the chords change? (This may be totally different from the overall speed and rhythm of the music.)
Your Goal in Making Your Own Chord Sheets
Your goal, in preparing or revising chord sheets, should always be to make it as easy as possible for the musicians to perceive and execute quickly whatever the chord sheet says. So, it is worthwhile to take extra time upfront with details like aligning chords with specific syllables, creating printed lines of text that mirror the musical phrasing of the text, and spacing the words (and/or chord names) to suggest the music’s rhythmic pattern. Yes, these details are time-consuming, frustrating, and boring – but they definitely pay off in a big way, when you end up saving valuable rehearsal time and when you see that you have a chord sheet that contributes to a flawless performance, rather than standing in its way.
In well-lighted locations and/or with performers who have good eyesight, it is possible to use smaller-point sizes of type and more crowded or lighter-weight fonts. With older performers, with any who have compromised vision, and in poorly lighted situations, you will want to select a bolder and wider-spaced font. This is likely also true when you have musicians who will sing and play at the same time, especially when the song is new or unfamiliar.
If the chord sheet is primarily for the instrumentalists, not the vocalists, then the lyrics are there on the printed page only to help give the musicians confidence that they are staying together with the vocals. In that case, you could probably get by with smaller print for the lyrics and larger, bolder print for the chord changes.
Many, if not most, instrumentalists would probably prefer to have the entire song on one sheet of paper only, even if that creates some degree of crowding – but it really does depend on the individuals (and their vision). One great bass player I know, now moving into the Senior Citizens category, always enlarges every lead sheet or chord sheet that he uses, because his vision is steadily deteriorating. I didn’t understand … until it was time for me to get trifocals. Man, am I ever singing a different tune!
Please be kind to the musicians in your band who are not as blessed as you are! :)
A Sampling of Good Fonts
Did you know that the initials at the end of some font names in word processing programs may be abbreviations for the name of the font manufacturer?
BT = Bitstream
MT = Monotype
FB = Font Bureau
MF = MatchFonts
GD = Galapagos Design
ITC = International Typeface Corp.
Some of the abbreviations refer to descriptive qualities of the font:
Now to the Specifics
If you have ever thought about checking out some new fonts, you have probably seen that you can download over 100,000 different fonts! (Think about that!) And the list is growing every day. Students in graphic design classes are often required to create a new font as a class requirement – multiply the number of students per class times the number of classes at colleges, universities, and community colleges and consider how many new fonts may be created every year. Most of those will never see the light of the computer screen, but even so….. There are also graphics designers at every font manufacturer, and part of their job may include creating new fonts.
There are numerous qualities that distinguish one font from another. The first, most obvious categories for our purpose would be serif fonts, sans-serif fonts, all caps fonts, and specialty fonts. Serifs are the slight flares or lines at the edges of letters in that kind of font. Sans serif fonts use letters with only straight or curved lines, without serifs. All caps fonts may be either serif or sans serif styles, but they are not very useful for chord sheets for two reasons. All cap type is somewhat harder to read than “sentence case” (mixed-case) – over the long term – even when it is not online where it would be considered to represent yelling; but also, if you are including actual chord names or traditional music theory chord degree names (not the Nashville Numbering System), it would be harder to specify minor chords with all caps, because of the lack of lowercase letters. It could be done (using smaller size capital letters), but it would be somewhat confusing – and the whole point of selecting a good font is to avoid confusion. One other place to avoid confusion is in the letters l (lower case of L) and I (uppercase of i). Especially in some sans serif styles, like the one you are reading now, they are easy to confuse.
The specialty fonts are really attractive and fun – great for posters, captions, newsletters, you name it… but not so great for chord sheets. Chord sheets are not intended as the expression of your creativity and fun, but rather as a tool for making it possible for the musicians to express someone’s creativity and perhaps fun through their music. Specialty fonts include: Gigi, Magneto, Snap, Jokerman; beautiful script fonts like Edwardian, Kunstler, Brush Script, and Script MT Bold; and even the simply “artistic” fonts like Bernhard Fashion BT, Harrington, Kristen, and Papyrus. Some of these are really attractive, and they provide great and very welcome variety in some specific situations.
The ascenders are the lines or portions of the letters that rise above the mean line and descenders are the portions that extend below the baseline; “x-height,” also known as the corpus size, is the basic or central portion of the letter, the part that lines up with the other letters in the word, the portion between the baseline (the “line” that you were told to write on in school) and the mean line. Its name came from the letter “x,” which is the standard for measuring the corpus size.
But for chord sheets, it is best to stick with a plain serif or sans serif style. The choice between the two really is a matter of personal preference. Some people really prefer one and some really prefer the other. The norm nowadays seems to be that in everyday printed matter the serif styles still tend to dominate and on the internet the sans serif styles do. (Somebody probably took a survey, and it didn’t include me.) Some publishers even recommend using one for headlines and the other style for text. See if you can notice this wherever you are reading.
As to the serif and sans serif fonts, there are still hundreds of choices within these categories, and they all differ in some way from each other. Some are lighter in weight (and therefore in color), and some are heavier or naturally bold. Some are wider and some are narrower (or condensed or compressed). The spacing between letters may be different or the measure of the ascenders and/or descenders in relation to the x-height.
A Sample Chord Sheet Line in Sans Serif Typefaces
Technically the terms font and typeface mean two different things, but in everyday use they are used rather interchangeably, especially since the advent of desktop publishing. In typography, the typeface is what we frequently mean by “font” – that is, the typeface is the consistent visual look or style or design of a set of letters, numbers, and characters. Technically (in typography), a typeface has many fonts that are distinguished by size and style (roman vs. italic, normal vs. bold). So, the typeface Gautami may contain the fonts 12-point italic, 6-point roman, 16-point bold, etc.
Take a look at some of the examples of various typestyles included here (above and below).
In these pictures, I have accumulated the typefaces (in 16-point roman font) that I consider to be the best suited to chord sheets, and I have included examples of one line of a chord sheet using five serif styles and five sans serif styles (all in a 20-point size). These are designed to show a fair range of possibilities, in terms of boldness/lightness and compression or expansion. One of the best ways to make a descision about the typeface or font to use is simply to make up a sample chord sheet and then make copies of it using various options, try them out, and see what advantages or disadvantages each one has. As mentioned above, some of the choice is simply personal taste. When you are changing from one style to another, though, remember that the size of the spaces (and therefore the tabs) will be different too; the chord names that you aligned so perfectly with specific syllables will no longer be where they once were, when you change to a different typeface.
Do remember that you can make one simple distinction between lyrics and chords by bolding the chord names and leaving the lyrics normal. If you are more ambitious, you might use a serif style for one and a sans serif style for the other. Also remember that the qualities that you want, in order to fit the bill of being quickly and easily read and executed, may create other problems. For example, if the words are spaced too widely, then you have to use more than one sheet of paper, or the lines may become unwieldy. Or, if the words are too bold, the letters will tire the eyes more quickly than normal or only slightly bold letters will.
The final word of advice, though, is to listen to your musicians. If they are requesting plainer or larger or darker or lighter or simpler typefaces or fonts on their chord sheets, pay attention to them – because they are the ones who will make use of them, and they need to be able to read painlessly.
A Sample Chord Sheet Line in Serif Typefaces
My Personal Recommendations/Preferences
I often just go with Times New Roman, but I also enjoy trying new typefaces. Good alternatives for serif typefaces would be Garamond and Palatino Linotype. The sans serif typeface Arial is ubiquitous and I am really tired of it, but the narrow font is not too bad. If I had to choose a sans serif face, I would prefer Lucida Sans or Gautami, even though they don’t distinguish well between the letters l (lowercase of L) and I (uppercase of i). For that feature, check out MS Reference Sans Serif and Verdana.