Content, Part 7: Free Text-Based Sheet Music Sites

by airturn

A little while back, I was working at a music trade show demonstrating how iPads could be used as digital sheet music readers. Thinking like a classical musician, I thought that setting up the iPads to display pages of – what else? – sheet music would make perfect sense. This is what appeared on the iPad screens:

For the next couple of hours, I watched a steady stream of folks walk right past our booth. Every now and then someone would take a glazed glance over at our iPad farm, but then would continue on their way without so much as a skip in their step. I was perplexed. The iPad had just been introduced to the world with incredible fanfare – why didn’t anyone share my geeky enthusiasm at how cool sheet music looked on the hottest piece of technology of the time? Then it hit me. Duh. I was thinking like a classical musician. I should’ve gotten a clue over the wail of electric guitars and thundering drumset riffs. I quickly changed the iPads to show this:

Almost immediately, a burly guy paused, pointed at one of the iPads, and remarked to his friend, “Hey, look! You can read music on this thing!” It just goes to show that one man’s music is another man’s hieroglyphics. To put this in perspective, this reads like hieroglyphics to me, but makes perfect sense to a jazz musician:

You say “to-may-to”, I say “to-mah-to”…hey, it all works, right? Whatever makes your digital sheet music screen rock! As I hope my convoluted illustration explains, when I refer to “text-based sheet music”, I’m referring to music primarily written using words and chord symbols, as opposed to calligraphic clefs, staff lines for “Every-Good-Boy-Doing-Fine”, and black dots with flags, beams and racing stripes. There are generally four types of text-based sheet music:

  1. Lyrics only
  2. Lyrics and chords
  3. Chords only
  4. Tabs

As you can imagine, there are almost limitless online resources for text-based sheet music, the vast majority of which are free. More often than not, you’ll start your Google search with the name of the song or the artist/band rather than worry about the file formats available, but it may still be helpful to see examples of sites that provide each of the four types of text-based sheet music so that you can narrow down what best suits your needs.

Lyrics only

Lyrics from “Proud To Be Here” by Trace Adkins – How can you go wrong with a site name like that? You’ll find lyrics to just about anything, especially popular songs of today, in languages spanning the globe. Many of the entries include embedded YouTube videos of the songs, so that you can hear how they go and see how they’re danced to. – Yippie-ay-yay! Need I say more for the country song lovers out there?

Lyrics and Chords

Lyrics and Chords for “Amazing Grace” – This is another great resource for lyrics. You’ll find some versions with chords included, but it can be hit or miss, so be prepared to click and wade. – This site has a nifty feature where you can transpose the chords (which appear in blue) to any key. Contemporary worship songs and traditional hymn lyrics and chord progressions can be found at this site.

Chords Only

Chords only example: “I got rhythm” by George Gershwin – Over 1,200 Jazz Charts that can be transposed into any key on this site, then downloaded as image files (which can then be converted to PDF files and used in a PDF reader. See the section on PDF reader apps).

iReal b Forums – Based on the jazz chord formats found in “The Real Book”, this site is actually a discussion forum, where users post collections of thousands of songs in a wide range of styles and genres. You’ll only find chord progressions in these arrangements in the iReal b format – no lyrics, no melody lines written out, presumably in an attempt to prevent copyright issues. Keep in mind that you will need to purchase install one of the iReal b applications for Mac, iOS, or Android in order to be able to view and work with these files. We’ll talk more about this in the upcoming Text apps article. In the meantime, visit for more information.


Guitar Tab example: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift

Tabs – short for “tablature”, not “tabby cats” – are an innovative number/letter/hyphen system primarily for guitar players showing which frets to place your fingers on to strum chords (you can also find tabs for other instruments, by the way – see below). Basic tab sheets (on freebie sites) will only show the chords in succession within sections of a song; “pro” tab sheets (which you generally have to purchase) will include time signatures, measures, and rhythmic indications in the form of “note-less” stems and rhythmic flags/beams. In free sites, most of the non-pro tabs are arrangements of popular songs written by fans. Site visitors can vote for their favorite renditions, with the hope that the better versions climb to the top of the rankings. – The Tabs section of this mega-site does a great job of showing the type of arrangement along with the song title. You can find chords and “pro” tabs, along with the basic tab versions. The chord and tab versions are free, and you can sample some of the pro tab songs before making your purchase. – This site boasts access to over 3 million tab arrangements of almost any song imaginable (within popular reason – no 12-tone Schoenberg arrangements here!) You’ll find tabs for piano, bass, and drums, as well as guitar. Transposable chord versions are also available for versions that include piano tabs.

In the next article, I’ll take a look at applications that take advantage of the unique properties of text-based sheet music to be able to dynamically change things like the key of the song, the size of the words, and other features.