Charting A Song: How To Write What You Hear

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time for us to be thinking about what we’ll prepare for the feast. The list of favorite dishes has grown over the years, and some are now not just expected, they are highly anticipated (sometimes with threats involved if we don’t make them…) Though they will be made from different ingredients in different kitchens with different types of expertise applied, they all have their place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.

So here’s my analogy for this week: figuring out how to play a song is like sitting down to the feast. Where do I begin? Is there anything new here I don’t want to miss? And will there be enough food to go around? (This last one is never a problem at our house.)

Starting Your Song Chart

To chart the song you want to learn, that is, to write it down as you listen, start by drawing a forward slash for each beat you hear. Group them in however many beats you hear in a repeating fashion. Are you hearing 3 beats in each measure, or 4, or maybe 6? Write 4 measures this way for each line of the song, then leave another space between the big sections of the song.

And by the way, if you’ve never tried charting a song, let me encourage you to go for it. You’ll experience new understanding and enjoyment of songs you’ve heard, with new appreciation for the artistry behind them. With practice, you’ll get better and better at it. It will take some focused time, but yes, you can learn how to do it!

Components in 4s

The components of a song, particularly a pop song, are predictable. Rare are the exceptions. Now a composer can create whatever she wants, she has that freedom. But if she wants her song to be heard and embraced by her audience, she will have to stay within normal boundaries most of the time. We expect it.

Each song has (are you ready?) a beginning, a middle, and an end (not rocket science). And we feel the most natural connection with a song when its smallest components are based on the number 4. 2s, 3s and 6s are frequently used as well, but 4 is the default. Historically, 4 beats in each measure is even referred to as “common time”. 4 beats to a measure, 4 sub-divisions to each beat (sixteenth notes), 4 measures per sung phrase, 4 phrases in a verse.

We like 4. So as we start to listen critically to a song, that is what we’ll expect. Try tapping your foot on each beat in the song, and see if it doesn’t reflect the number 4 in some way.

Though the sections within the song will each be built in 4s, the composer might play with timing somewhat. Just for variety, a measure with only 2 beats might be inserted somewhere to make lyrics or the melody flow better. Or, in order to keep energy ramping up, the start of one section may actually overlap with the last measure or two of the previous section. Like the end of a chorus going into an instrumental, for example. As the vocalist is singing the last word of the chorus, the instrumental begins, ignoring the fact that the chorus still had two measures to go. Makes you feel like the instrumental couldn’t wait to get started.

The Beginning

The song’s intro that provides the first impression, maybe a preview of what will follow. Here we’ll find the key, the tempo, and the mood. Soon, as the lyrics begin in the first verse, we get a peek under the hood at the content of the song. The groove, if it is not already in motion, starts here.

The verse may present the problem to be solved or the circumstance to be celebrated or grieved. It introduces the characters in the play and the direction the vocalist wants to go in the song. Might be a story, an intense emotion, or a situation.

The first line of the verse should draw the listener into the second line, the second into the third, and so on. Short or long, at the end of the verse, the listener is intrigued. Not committed yet, but curious.

The Middle

A segment less often included but quite effective might be placed right after the verse. It has been labeled in recent years, the “Pre-Chorus”. It’s job is to build more tension and more expectation that will be brought to fruition in the Chorus itself. Usually this will be just a couple of phrases, leaving you hanging.

Finally, after all this preparation, we get to the Chorus. The song title is probably in here, along with the hook (the phrase you just have to sing along with). It will answer the question or flesh out what was hinted at earlier. Now it is very clear why the composer wrote this song. The Chorus will typically sound bigger and fuller, with additional instruments and vocals, even an orchestra to add to the layers of sound.

After you’ve listened through the Verse and the Chorus, what you’ll hear next is probably another verse. It will be similar to the first verse, but now with more emotion, more detail, more angst. That takes us into the next Pre-Chorus and Chorus, followed by an instrumental section that helps the listener to emotionally breathe. A Bridge, which is really another verse, might follow that, with its own variations in the chord pattern and lyric cadence. It leads us right into… you guessed it… another Chorus or two.

The End

The last Chorus might get louder at the end, or it might calm down, returning us once again to the reality of our lives. A short instrumental may follow, wrapping up the song. Or it might leave you hanging. The cheap way (in my humble opinion) to end a song is to fade the recording out. Maybe they want to give the impression the party will just go on and on. Or maybe the artist and producer just couldn’t agree on an ending.

Filling In The Blanks

Now that you’ve got all the beats and measures plotted out, it’s time to go back and fill in the chords. Some of my earlier posts on how to figure out the key, on naming intervals, and on how emotion can be crafted within the song may be helpful. Again, with practice and time you can get pretty good at this. And it is my hope that you do!

What has your experience been when you’ve tried to chart a song? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about song charting, rhythm, music theory and next-step musicianship to And if you’d like to keep up to date with CaseTunes, sign up to receive updates and weekly posts in your email inbox!

© 2014 Steve Case

What’s In Your Closet?

shirt in my closetHere’s a subject I admit I know little about. And yet it affects my ability to lead worship every single time I step onstage. Every Saturday night, you’ll find me once again poking my head into my closet, wondering what to wear for Sunday morning. I’ve learned over the years if I really get stuck (doesn’t happen as often as it used to), I can ask Sue.

“So what do you think, sweetie, does this go with that?”

“Oh, no.”

“How about this one?”

“Probably okay.”

“Well, what about this one?”

“Let me help you, dear.”

Other than jeans, I don’t buy my own clothes anymore. Sue has done a wonderful job stocking my closet with clothes that usually keep me out of trouble.

Dress For The Gig

Before you walk onstage, whatever the venue, you really should have given some attention to how you look. Street clothes are okay if you’re trying to present an “every man” image but they can also communicate apathy. Like you just don’t care about who you’re playing for.

The eye is naturally drawn to both the best-dressed and worst-dressed people in the room. If you’re leading worship and someone else on the team has raised the fashion bar, people in the room may experience tension over who they should focus on. I’m not one to get really worried about it, but I do believe it’s true. Take it up a notch just to be safe. But only one notch.

Dress For The People

Dave, a friend of mine, is a traditional church kind of guy. Enjoys singing hymns, wears his suit and tie every Sunday. When I asked him why at one point, he said dressing more formally was a sign of respect for the people he would see at church. And respecting the people was one of the ways he would show respect to God.

I agree.

Now, I don’t wear a suit and tie unless its a wedding or a funeral. And (fortunately) we hold pretty informal Sunday services at our church. But I still want to respect those I’m around. So I’ll pay attention to how people dress for our services, then I’ll take it up just a little.

Negotiables For Worship Leading

Jeans or khakis? Street clothes or business casual? Collar or no collar? Plaid, stripes, patterns, colors – these all matter because our clothing choices may set up unintentional reflex responses from service attenders.

I used to be oblivious to this, until Mark, an artist friend, informed me.

“How does this look?” I would ask, inviting his response to my choice of shirt and sweater. I think the shirt had a small checked pattern and the sweater had a stripe or two.

“It’s okay with me,” he would say. “But it will drive my wife a little insane.” Not in a good way, either.

Apparently what I wore had been the topic of conversation in their house on at least one previous occasion. Not really the outcome I’m working toward in the services. I have since paid more attention to how I look, and when in doubt, I’ll ask those more knowledgeable than I.

Non-negotiables For Worship Leading

There are some standards of dress that we as worship leaders do need to adhere to. These are about modesty and propriety. I realize that even these standards leave some room for interpretation. We don’t want clothing choices that distract, and that includes, of course too much skin.

Don’t let tops get too low nor skirts too high. The tighter your clothes fit, the more uncomfortable you’ll make some folks. And yet, if they are too baggy, it looks like you don’t care. We don’t want holes where there shouldn’t be holes, and we don’t want to see what’s underneath.

There, I’ve said it. Here come the emails…

And as an acknowledgment of how life is unfair, women will need to think about dressing up one level above the guys. When they wear the same thing, my wife tells me the women look like they have taken less care than the men. This is totally a perception thing, but it will most certainly affect worship leading.

The Heart Of The Matter

Now that I’ve come across way more like my parents than I ever thought I would, let me just say this: at the heart of these decisions is the desire to help people know they are cared for, and their opinion matters. I’m not walking onstage to prove anything or boost my ego. I want to worship God, and He told me to love people. If how I dress onstage impacts them for better or worse, I need to pay attention.

Have you found that what you wear influences the way you are perceived? You can leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about dressing for the gig or next-step musicianship to

© 2014 Steve Case

Are You Performing With Passion? What We Can Learn From Taylor Swift

Let me say right up front I’ve never met Taylor Swift. I don’t know a lot of her songs. I don’t know much about what kind of person she is. I don’t know what she’ll be like five years from now.

But I am often inspired when I see her perform.

When she walks onstage, she’s ready to rock and roll (or whatever the country and/or pop equivalent is). She wears her emotions on her sleeve, she attacks the stage with purpose, energy and skill. Though she uses her appearance to her advantage, that’s really not what keeps me watching. It’s her attitude, along with her expertise. It’s her passion for the music and for the crowd.

And – I’m just guessing here – I think she has a blast.

What Draws Us In?

We are invited into each performance by several components, all working together to invite us into the experience: the look, the skill, and the passion.

The look is most often the first aspect of a performance that catches our attention. It includes everything we see from the performer(s) to the landscape, architecture, and lighting that surrounds us. It’s true whether it’s on a screen, in a theater, or outside at a summer concert. It has to all fit together. And though many of you are way more visually oriented than I am, the look influences the whole experience, either enhancing or distracting. It starts with the atmosphere of the venue, is enhanced by the lighting and staging, but then is focused on the performer. I’m not judging here, just recognizing the reality that the way the performer dresses and carries him/herself is crucial to first impressions.

The skill of the performer will be the next thing we’ll notice. At first, there is a period of validation – can this artist deliver? When we’re satisfied they can, the next thing we want to know is whether or not they can hold our attention. I joke about having A.D.D., but I think most of us these days are increasingly attention-span-challenged. Are they performing with excellence, are they exceeding our expectations? Then, when we’re convinced they are, we wonder if they will show us something new and fresh. We want to be surprised and delighted.

The passion of the performer, when we’re comfortable with the look and the skill, is what I believe keeps us engaged. Their passion doesn’t just entertain us. It helps us believe. Passion in the performance lifts us up, transcending the mundane and the mechanical. It gives us a glimpse into life on another level, where beauty and excellence are vibrant and alive. We want to live in that place, and the passion we witness in a performance makes us feel like we really can.

Steps To A Passion-Filled Performance

We who perform, though all artists, are all over the map when it comes to our ability to emote onstage, demonstrating our passion. As for me, a guy who has to work at showing emotion when I perform, I admire those who seem to be so good at it. I’m better at it than I used to be (I think). But it takes some deliberate steps for me every time.

  1. Know well what you’re going to sing, play and say. Rehearse the mechanics of your performance to the point of being absolutely comfortable with each facet. Drill the rhythms, pay attention to being in tune. If you are planning to comment between songs, write out what you want to say. Even if you don’t stick to your script, the exercise of writing it out will help you focus on what your message really is.
  2. Look the part. Dress for the gig (more on this in a future post). When you are confident in how you look, you can feel free to focus on the performance. If you are performing for an older crowd, dress up, they will expect it. If your audience is younger, consider the venue and how they will be dressed. Then go just a step up. And never dress in a way that distracts, from too sexy to too sloppy, from clownish to indifferent. Make sure your look fits the experience you are trying to provide for your audience.
  3. Expand your movements. If you feel like you’re moving enough onstage, you’re probably not. This includes, by the way, the look on your face. Are you communicating your passion you’re feeling through your facial expression? You may need a friend’s input for this one.
  4. Let your passion lead you. When you have prepared the music, the atmosphere and your movements the best you can, the next step is to exercise the courage to put your heart out there. It takes courage because you are vulnerable and exposed. But that’s the best way to get an audience to follow you, by showing them how you feel and leading them to the same place. And when you are done, you can be confident you’ve left it all on the stage, you’ve done your job and inspired many through your passion.

Are your performances filled with passion? Please leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about music, performing, and next-step musicianship at
© 2014 Steve Case

10 Ways To Use Silence In Your Songs

My brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. He is quite the astronomer!

The silence of space inspires my imagination. My astronomer brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. These galaxies are in the constellation Hercules, a scant 470 million light years distant. More or less.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is quite possibly the most important part of our songs.

Silence? Not playing the right notes at the right time?


Not using dynamics, tempo, and all the other artistic tools on our workbench? Silence? Really?


We may think silence is a bad thing, like when a musician forgets what comes next, furrows his or her brow and stops playing. We know they’ve blown it big time.

Or we may look at silence as the holy grail our parents tried to get us to adopt. (”Be QUIET!” -remember those wonderful moments from your childhood?)

But the intentional use of silence in our music is good. In fact, it is necessary. And cool.

Reportedly, the world-renowned concert pianist Artur Schnabel, once made the statement (quoted in many places): “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.”

(I found this again on, but I’ve heard about the quote for many, many years. Not sure when he said it, but it nevertheless has the ring of truth in it! Great quote.)

Types of Silence

We should start with an understanding that silence is not always exactly, well, silent. There are several kinds of silence. And each has its place in our arsenal. So what kinds of silence are we talking about?

M51 is one of Steve's favorites. It's called a "globular cluster", also within the constellation Hercules.

M51 is one of Steve’s favorites. It’s called a “globular cluster” within the constellation Hercules.

I think of silence in three primary categories:

  • Rhythmic silence happens when a player doesn’t play for a moment but the music is still going on. This is always useful, whether you’re counting rests in the music or playing short, detached notes (staccato, spiccato, pizzicato).
  • Natural silence happens when you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and the background music has stopped, or when you’re sitting in the audience when the lights dim, and you’re waiting for the Concert Master to walk out onto the stage. (Maybe when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Jury’s still out on that one…)
  • Utter silence is to be found in the vacuum of outer space. It takes some work for us to really experience utter silence here.

The Ten Ways

And so, thinking about silence in these three ways, here are ten ways to take advantage of intentional silence in your own songs.

  1. Punctuating rhythms. Rests, particularly shorter ones, are inherently part of rhythm. They are to be found within phrases as well as at the end of phrases and should be counted just as deliberately as the notes themselves.
  2. Longer silences between phrases you play will help your music breathe. Just as sung lyrics may invite you to take a breath at the end of each line, leaving space between your instrumental phrases really helps you to shape and group your phrases. It also helps the listener to stay with you.
  3. Breathe between movements. When you finish a major section of the larger work, let silence help you take a breath, don’t rush it. Then start fresh into the next movement or section.
  4. Use silence as a surprise, like building up to a chorus and unexpectedly silencing everything on beat 4 before you crash into the downbeat of the chorus. Really fun, makes the band sound tight!
  5. Build anticipation through a longer period of silence. Particularly in a ballad or slower song, if you hold onto a moment of silence for just a little longer than expected, it can really add to the drama of the song.
  6. Use momentary silence to regroup after a long held chord. When you hold a chord or sing a long syllable as the music comes to a halt, take just a quick moment to be silent before you restart. Might only be a literal second. But an artfully placed moment of silence will make your song sound unhurried and relatable.
  7. Silence is your starting point before you play. The air is, to varying degrees, silent just before you begin. Even if you’re playing in a club, the disorganized sound of conversations and incidental noises in the room are the counterpoint to what you’re about to play. Use it to prepare yourself, expect the listener to be preparing themselves, anticipating something great. (Then it’s up to you to not let them down. Just sayin’.)
  8. Repeating periods of silence can add to a general pulsation of the music that feels like an unstoppable forward movement, like you’re in your kayak on the river, gradually getting closer to the rapids. As silences get shorter and shorter in a repeated fashion, the tension will build.
  9. Utter silence for a beat or a measure can make the listener feel like they are in a vacuum, with a complete absence of sound. It is unnatural and disconcerting. Utter silence can make you feel deprived, like something normal is missing. You long for the next sound to take away the discomfort. I’ve heard this used effectively on pop recordings, but it’s never used for very long. It can be a painful moment, followed by relief when the music comes back in.
  10. Explore silence as an experiment. John Cage always seems to enter the conversation about silence because he famously performed a piece in 1952 that he entitled, 4’33” (”Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”). No instruments were to play, the whole point was to discover the ambient sounds in the room. Silence, in his view (and mine) is not really silent.

How do you use silence in your own music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory, and next-step musicianship to

© 2014 Steve Case

Tuning Your Guitar Has Just Gotten Easier

andrew's gibson min-etune les paul demo_Snapshot (3)So Andrew walks into my studio for his guitar lesson, sits down and pulls out his electric guitar.

A shiny new Gibson Les Paul Min-ETune.

I’m not sure what to think. Looks nice. But what’s up with the name? Oh, I get it, it tunes itself. Sure.

Now I am often an old school kind of guy, not fond of short-cuts or technologies that replace the need for self-improvement. Although there are exceptions, I’ll admit. Like my Snark tuner. Or my peg winder. Or my Shazam app on my phone. Or my digital metronome that allows you to turn down the volume so you don’t have to hear the click, you can just watch the moving needle while you play.

Okay, maybe I’m not as old school as I’d like to think.

My student Andrew and his new Gibson

My student Andrew and his new Gibson

Andrew’s guitar is a nice piece of work, any way you look at it. Hey, it’s a Les Paul. He let’s me take it for a spin. Plays nice, feels good. A decent representation of the typical Les Paul quality.

But when I turn it over to look at the back of the head-stock, I now see the magic behind the curtain. A small box is neatly hidden between the tuners, complete with indicator lights telling me which tuning is now in effect.

“So I can just push a button, and it will re-tune the whole guitar for me?”


Apparently this technology has been around for 6 or 7 years, and because I diligently keep up to date on cutting edge musical trends and toys, I’m coming up to speed on this one now.

Handing his guitar back to him, Andrew demonstrated for me. Take a look.

Andrew’s Gibson

The robotic tuning system really does a n ice job, even with significantly different tunings. It will adjust, then readjust the tension on all the strings, anticipating the tension on each string and how it affects the others. Given the amount of stress on the neck overall, each string’s tweak can and will throw all the others off. But it knew that and compensated.

This tuning system will go from standard tuning to DADGAD and back in a matter of seconds. And I found as I played it, the tuning was either perfect, or really close. If you want to see it in action, check out this video clip. The guitarist uses the tuning function in the middle of a song – he doesn’t play for 4 measures, then comes in powerfully in a different tuning. This opens up lots of new possibilities!

The creator of this system, Tronical, has now created after-market systems for several other makes that got my attention, including Fender (for Stratocasters and Telecasters), Ibanez and even Taylor acoustics. Hmm…

I doubt that I will install an E-Tune system any time soon. But it is a fun development that will, I’m sure, catch on. Now if we could invent robotic picks that never missed a string, we’d really have something.

What’s the coolest piece of technology that has helped you play your own music? You can leave a comment below, or email any questions you may have about music theory, playing the guitar, or next-step musicianship to

© 2014 Steve Case


Planning For Change In Life And In Music

Green Lakes State Park
I like change, I look forward to life changing. To new opportunities, new adventures. I grow through the experience of my life constantly colliding with change. Yea, change!

But I also hate change. Fond memories of people and places now relegated to the past when I thought they would be doorways into the future. Losing people I care about because their life changed, too, and now geography, vocation, interests take new trajectories.

I like change when it happens at a pace I can readily absorb and adapt to. When my morning coffee cools just enough, or when most of the colorful leaves are still on the trees in mid-October. I know they’ll fall, but I’m happy to have them take their time this year.

I hate change when it is thrust upon me without my permission, like my ice cream cone melting too fast, or walking into the boss’ office with my job intact one minute, and an hour later, walking out without one.

I like changes in music, because I am easily bored. The refreshment that comes from a new sound, an unusual rhythm, a clever lyric all breathe life into my passion for it.

I hate changes in music when I don’t emotionally agree with them. When the artist seems to have changed something I looked forward to, even emotionally depended on, just so they could do it differently, putting their own stamp of artistry on it.

When it comes down to it, I like change when it results from my exercising free will, when it’s my idea. I hate change when it results from someone else exercising theirs and it doesn’t fit with mine.

Change is inevitable, yet change itself changes. It will happen in all areas of life and takes many forms. And just when you get used the idea of one facet of life changing, get ready to duck for cover. Another change is on its heels.

So how should I navigate the turbulence of change?

With a plan.

Learning To Plan Out The Changes

I was challenged back in my Army Band days by my good friend, Don. He was a kind of spark plug in my life, coming up with crazy ideas, smiling and laughing. He would bring a lighter side of me out, and it was a good thing. He could also scream on his trumpet.

It was 1979, and we were in our jazz band rehearsal for some concert or tour. We starting playing a blues piece, and somehow it came up that Don thought he could write a better one than that. The conversation quickly deteriorated to the point where Don challenged me to write a jazz band piece myself.

Not to let the gauntlet lie on the ground unattended, I picked it up.

from page 1 of my score

from page 1 of my score

For the next couple of weeks, I wrote and wrote. I remember pulling at least one all-nighter.

But what came out was cool.

I had never written anything as ambitious as this before, a 4-minute barn-burner that sang, that grooved, that gave Donny a chance to scream up high again. I had a riot.

The piece changes structure and form several times in those 4 minutes. Yet there seems to be a cohesion that, for me at least, works. And so, in writing it, just going with my stream of consciousness wasn’t enough. I needed a plan.

The Map

I took time to ruminate on it, to play with chords and melodies in my head. Then I created a map. I would list it something like this:

Intro- 6 beats soli / 2 measures drum fill / 6 beats soli / 2 bars drum fill / 3 bars harmonized soli / 2 bars drum fill crescendo uptempo

Section A- 8 bars bass trombone lead / 1 bar drum fill / repeat lead melody in all sections, harmonized /

Section B-

And so on. I had dreamed up the whole thing before I wrote a note.

Next, I grabbed a jazz band manuscript score from a local music store, and started to write. But I had never written for trombones and saxes before. So I would write whatever lead line in each section first, then I added scale degree numbers in a vertical line across all instruments, indicating what voice in the chord they should be playing.

The last step was to actually fill in the notes, transposed for each instrument.

It took some work with each section in the band to make sure what I had written was 1) actually playable, and 2) good. But we did it. The band master subsequently included my piece as part of our songbook, and we performed it several times in concerts and on tour.

The Song

Here is part of the recording, done on a boom-box (so you know the quality will be top notch). I titled it, appropriately enough, In Pursuit Of The Storm.


The plan is what kept me on track and sane with all the possibilities spinning around me. Next-step musicians are the ones with a plan. They don’t just spin in place, and they aren’t satisfied with status quo. Next-step musicians look for the new twist, the next level, the air that becomes even more refreshing as your reach the summit.

Expecting Change

Even with my love/hate attitude toward change, I know more is coming. Time to plan for another step or two.

And after all these years, I’m glad I answered Don’s challenge. It gave me great confidence to complete such a huge project and have it come out so well. Gave me the confidence to keep writing and to keep taking risks.

And I think he bought me lunch.

Are you a planner or someone who shoots from the hip? How has planning helped you in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship to

(c) 2014 Steve Case