Why It’s Time To Switch To Paperless Chord Charts

It’s time for gigging musicians to ditch paper charts and go paperless 

Whether you’re a gigging musician in a cover band, playing on your church’s worship team, or a Nashville session player, it’s time for gigging musicians to face the music…. 

Analog isn’t always a better option. Sure, analog delays are boss. Reel to reel tape machines absolutely have a place in studios. But analog sheet music? No way. It’s time to put our big musician pants on and step gently into the future.  

Paperless sheet music

I’m not someone who immediately flocks to the latest and greatest anything. I didn’t get a smart phone until the iPhone 4. I’m always 2 updates behind. I still read paper books. And I love my analog mechanical watches.  

That said, this newfangled paperless sheet music has completely won me over! 

Beyond being way more environmentally friendly, it’s also extremely practical.  


4 Reasons Why You Should Use A Chord Chart App 

Chord chart app for gigging musicians

1. Less Things To Carry 

I personally have never pulled into a venue and thought, “I wish I had more things to carry!”. If I wanted to lug a ton of gear to a gig I’d be a drummer. 

This is my number one reason for switching to digital chord charts. For an average gig I’ll bring two guitars, a hefty pedalboard, an amp, and all of my stands and cables. I feel like I’m pretty efficient in packing my gear and creating solutions to carrying a lot at once.  

But if I can replace that binder full of paper with a much smaller (and lighter!) iPad, I’m for it.  

With charting apps you can store thousands of charts within the app. Creating and editing a setlist is a quick drag and drop. So you’re not stuck if you need to add a song on short notice. 

2. Cleaner Stages 

Having a single tablet is way cleaner that a binder full of charts. Not to mention trying to squeeze in a music stand large enough to hold your binder. Drummers can get away with this for the most part. But it takes away from the show.  

Even if you have a Sunday morning church gig with 5-8 songs, it’s still better than sprawling them out of the floor (#guilty).  

A tablet is 1) smaller and 2) way more discrete and easier to place. If you do any vocal work you can get a tablet mount to mount it to the mic stand you’re already using. Instead of turning a page, you can discreetly swipe to the next chart. 

If you’re doing any symphony or orchestral work you’ll really appreciate being able to use a tablet with a Bluetooth page turner to turn pages hands-free. More on that in a bit. 

Let’s not forget that your performance is a show. Your audience doesn’t want to see a bunch of music stands all over the place. They want to see the band performing. Interacting with each other. Interacting with the audience. Doing backflips off the kick drum and looking like a crazy person while you’re rocking out. 

Is it reasonable for a band playing 40 songs to need charts as a reference? Debatable, but most people would say yes. Is it reasonable for a band to clutter the stage with these charts and music stands? Probably not. 

3. Easier To Read  

This could be the #1 reason, if I weren’t so infatuated with efficiency. Tablets being backlit make them perfect for dark stages.  

Even on gigs where I know the music well, I’ll still have a setlist with helpful notes. Like keys, capo keys if I’m using capos, whether or not I start the song, talking breaks, that sort of thing. Not having to wait for the lights to come back on gives me more confidence on what I’m doing. 

4. Perfect For Session Work 

If you play any session work you want to show up prepared for anything. I remember hearing a story about a session player who played on the song Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls. He was called in somewhat last minute to write and record some guitar parts, including the immediately recognizable intro.  

Instead of bringing a couple guitars and pedals like any sane person would, he brought an entire truck’s worth of gear (that had to be begrudgingly loaded into the studio). Everyone in the studio thought he was mad, and were reconsidering their decision to bring him in. 

When he talked about this day several years later, he said this was such an important gig for him and he wanted to be prepared for anything. It paid off because he laid down some mandolin tracks too.  

I love the idea of being prepared for anything. While it might be excessive to bring a truckload of gear, being ultra prepared will almost guarantee a successful session.  

Let’s say you’re working with a vocalist who just isn’t feeling the key of the song during rehearsal. How much time would it take to transpose a paper chart? With a paperless chord app you can do that with just a couple clicks.  


What Chord Chart And Sheet Music App Is The Best? 

Onsong chord chart app for the gigging musicians

There are hundreds or thousands of apps out there, some free, some paid. One that works well for me is OnSong. Like I mentioned earlier, setlists are super easy to put together and you can create charts in the app. It also has on the fly transposing for fussy vocalists. That includes Capo charts, which is super helpful for thinking chord shapes. 

It’s cheaper than your bass player’s bar tab, and for me has everything I need.  

(OnSong can also be used for backing tracks if you use them) 

If you play at churches then you might consider Music Stand. It’s part of the Planning Center Online portfolio and your church might already have a paid account. The really cool thing about Music Stand is that you can link devices. Which means you wouldn’t even need to change charts, the band leader can.  

Some other apps worth checking out are ForScore (for Band and Orchestra musicians), Paperless Music, and Mobile Sheets (only for Android).  


How To Use Chord Chart And Sheet Music Apps Live 

Chord chart apps for the gigging musicians

Once you get your app downloaded you can start to import your charts. Apps like OnSong have desktop apps where you can import PDFs from your computer. I recommend this if you have text enabled PDF charts. It’ll make your life much easier.  

If you play really common music and the app has a library, you might be able to download the chart in a Chord Pro format if you don’t already have them. If it’s somehow not in their library of thousands of songs, you can build charts in the app.  

Again, the desktop app will make your life much easier for this (unless you’re using an external keyboard and mouse for your tablet). You can also scan your charts via your device’s camera to import them.  

After the initial chart set up your life is about to get much easier. Simply create a setlist in the app for your next gig. Most have some sort of drag and drop option to make this easy task even easier. After that you’re ready for your gig! Just make sure your tablet is fully charged, or ideally connected to power during the gig. Also make sure your tablet’s screen isn’t set to turn off after a period of time.  

Something else I’ve found really helpful is to use a Bluetooth pager turner. It’s a small footswitch that lets you turn pages hands-free. This is especially important if you’re a musician and don’t want to take your hands off your instrument just to change charts.  

An added benefit is being able to pull up a digital keyboard to make notes or annotations during rehearsals. I personally use the STOMP Bluetooth page turner by Coda Music Technologies. It seems to be the only one I found that’s not made of plastic (it’s in a metal housing like any good stomp box). I also like that I can charge my iPad from the pedal itself. 

Stomp Bluetooth page turner pedal for sheet turning chord chart apps
STOMP Bluetooth Page Turner

If you get the Bluetooth page turner you should pick up the universal tablet mount they sell while you’re at it.  

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