I am extrapolating from reflections on my personal experience here and yours might be different. Please feel free to comment on how “your mileage differs”, or to dispute or confirm statements I have made about reading, the effect of different fonts, etc.
- Please try to resist commenting to the effect that Song Sheets are in themselves a “bad thing”. They have their place – let’s leave it at that. You will be wasting your time anyway – comments are moderated and I will simply delete any that seek to hijack this topic. You have been warned!
Chord names above the line vs in-line and novelty vs familiarity
I have noticed that my preference for above the line or in-line chords depends on my familiarity with the chords in a song, ie. more than familiarity with a particular song.
When I started off playing ukulele, I found in-line chord names slowed me up
- I was unfamiliar with the names
- I did not know what I might see
- it was hard to “isolate” them from the surrounding text as distinct units.
When I became more familiar with “common chord names” I started to find it more efficient to use song sheets with in-line “common chord names”.
I imagine that this might be something to do with the way our eyes scan very quickly forwards and backwards (saccadic eye movement) when we are reading, enabling us to build up expectations and predictions of “what comes next”.
Now, when I am learning to play a song with less familiar chord names, even a song that I have written myself, I still want the chord names above the line at first, so that they stand out better.
Gradually, I get a “sight vocabulary” for the new chord names:
- they become easier to recognise
- I also know how they “translate” into playing chords
- and moving from one chord to another.
Eventually, it becomes a reflex reaction, with the chord name being linked to muscle memory, whether I am told the name of the chord or read it.
At that point, I do not need to have the chord names written above the line in order to isolate and recognise them. It works better to have them in-line so that my visual scanning is not interrupted.
Chord grids above the line
A bit off topic but so closely related that they are worth a mention.
I have always found this type of songsheet impossibly distracting to use – unless I already know how to play the chords. Then, I force myself to “block out” the chord grids so that I am paying no attention to them. I have found that this gets easier with practice; as long as there are not too many chord changes, and the sheet is peppered with grids!
Being the ultimate in distraction, and therefore inevitably putting a foot on the brake, I have a sneaking suspicion that I will come to value song sheets with chord grids above the line at some point. That point when I decide that I want to learn how to play one of those jazzy songs with a death-defying chord change almost every syllable or beat!
Tab and musical scores
Not what this post is about but not completely unrelated. Maybe I should have tried to find research into reading tab and scores? It is more likely to have been done, especially for musical scores, and it might have some bearing.
I will leave it at that and hope that someone might happen by to comment to expand on this.
Accurate Reading vs Scanning, a Font Analogy?
I have not really thought much about this phenomenon before, ie. the difference between reading song sheets with chords above the line vs in-line. I have noticed it but not tried to analyse or understand it. Now that I have thought about it, it makes me wonder if it analogous to the way that different fonts are useful for different types of reading.
“Ugly” fonts for accuracy and learning
“Ugly” fonts like Courier and “fancy fonts” with serifs and obvious descender and risers slow down reading. They are good when there needs to be attention to detail and accuracy, eg. writing computer programs. There is some evidence that they also help children who are behind with their reading skills to “catch up”.
- These would be analogous to chord names above the line, as normal visual scanning with automatic saccadic eye movement is hindered. We are interrupted as the chord names above the line come to our attention and we focus on them.
“Smooth” fonts for fast reading of familiar vocabulary and predictable content
Smooth, regular fonts, often with poor differentiation between different characters, eg. Arial, are good for “speed reading” where we only need to get the gist and accuracy is not critical.
- These would be analogous to in-line chords, but only when we are so familiar with the chord names that visual shape of the name has become a “word” in our “chord vocabulary”: we recognise it and know what it means.
Are in-line chord names the better option for songs with familiar chords?
I think that this would depend on how we are going to play those chords. This would apply whether in first position or other voicings.
Assuming that we “know” (consciously or unconsciously) how we are going to play them and that we are fluent playing them, then we should not need to focus on the chord names individually in order to read and react to them:
- we would be using normal saccadic scanning
- our muscle memory would be kicking in before we were consciously aware of seeing the chord name as it comes up
If I am right in that, then the effect should be even more pronounced with people who know what chords to expect, based on:
- the Key of the song
- the genre of music
- the habits of a particular song writer
- their previous knowledge of that song, even in a different key
Caveats and Conclusion
There really should be references for some of the things I am have said here. However, I know that if I put this on the “back burner” until I have time to look them up then that is where it will stay. I did do a rather cursory search for any research directly related to this subject but did not turn anything up.
There are several other blog posts that have been lurking on the “back burner”, some or them for years, waiting for me to find the time to reference them. I don’t want to add this one to that backlog!
These are just my first thoughts on this topic. I really would be very interested in comments.
I should perhaps explain that my interest in reading and fonts is because I was Speech & Language Therapist for 30 years.
- As well as the “therapy” side of things, I had a serious interest in ensuring accessibility of communication in print and on-screen.
- At one time I had responsibility for auditing information leaflets, signage, etc. in the part of the NHS Trust where I worked.
- However, it is several years since I have worked as a Speech & Language Therapist and some of the points I have made here might have been overtsken by more recent reseach.