Reading lyrics on stage? Hmmmmmm.

The top apps for lyric sheets and chord charts
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Relying on lyric sheets or chord charts during a performance

It finally happened. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m thinking about leaning on a crutch on stage: a lyric app, a songbook, some loose napkins scribbled with a few words, anything.

NOT for my own songs, mind you. For shame!

It’s just that the list of cover songs I “know” is getting long enough, and I play each one of those songs infrequently enough, that I just can’t trust myself to remember which nonsense lyric starts the first verse and which inane babbling begins the final one.

Just kidding. I try not to cover songs if I hate the lyrics. But even in a classic like Squeeze’s “Tempted,” it’s tricky to remember when the dude is buying a toothbrush and when he’s buying a novel. You gotta get the order right, otherwise the whole rest of the verse is screwed, much like the character in the song.

So with many hours of cover songs plus 100+ originals in my head at any given time, I’m bound to flub a few lines. I’d rather minimize those instances while performing, so… I think I’m going to get one of those lyric-scrolling apps for tablet.

Is it uncool to have charts or an app on stage?

Probably, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too. The idea of glancing at a lyric sheet on stage DOES give me pause.

I joked on Facebook about Jerry Garcia not needing lyric sheets for the thousands of songs the Dead performed, and a friend of mine pointed out that Jerry had a teleprompter hidden in one of his monitor wedges, and before that he screwed up lyrics all the time. Even Michael Stipe uses teleprompters… FOR HIS OWN SONGS! Surely I can be forgiven for occasionally looking at a small tablet when I’m playing another person’s tune I haven’t performed in 8 months.

Anyway, I asked for some friends’ recommendations.

Here are the top lyric apps they suggested:

  • OnSong
  • forScore
  • Lyric Pad  (Wow, an app that actually doesn’t CamelCase!)
  • MySongBook
  • LinkeSOFT SongBook
  • Ultimate Guitar (Lots of my friends happily use the free version of this app. But one friend also said that Ultimate Guitar was a “super shady company,” which I think referred to the large amount of credit card complaints you can see online — but I have no personal experience with the service, so I’ll let you do the research and figure out if it’s right for you.)

One other creative suggestion from a friend:

A guy who does over a hundred weddings/cocktail hours a year told me he imports the song to a Word doc on his tablet then takes a screen shot. Then he organizes photo albums for each event type. One swipe left and you are on the next song. I’ve done that ever since and it is simple and works great.

What do you think of people reading lyrics or chords on stage?

Do you have lyric and chord app recommendations? Want to chastise me for entertaining the idea? Think I’m being too hard on myself (since brilliant musicians have been relying on sheet music for hundreds of years)? Holler in the comments below.

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  • bbrucato

    I use lyric pad, no shame here. I admit, it’s a bit of crutch, but when you have a catalog of over 600 songs, it sometimes helps to be able to take a quick glance to avoid a mistake. Usually a quick skim refreshes the memory.

    • Yeah. Just a word here and there is usually all I need to jog the memory. Not like I’d be staring at the thing through the whole song.

  • Mark Drummond

    Depends on the show. For casuals, I don’t care. For ticketed shows, I memorize everything.

  • Haha. Glad to be instructive about silly things about CamelCasing!

  • I agree with that. Just a little cheat sheet is probably all you should have in an intimate listening environment.

  • Oh yeah. Christmas music! That’s totally understandable.

  • I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t really provide solid legal advice here. I’d just say you should both honor whatever the initial agreement was. When he asked to be paid per-beat, did you talk publishing splits at all? If not, it seems odd that he’s now requesting half your songwriting royalties. Then again, if he created the music and you created the lyrics, he might be entitled to half the songwriting/publishing royalties. But then that leaves me with the question of why he charged you a flat fee per track/beat. Seems like it should be one way or the other.

  • Oh, that’d be cool! Contact lenses with lyrics. Sign me up.

  • Great points, especially about putting away the binders in favor of a tablet. Thanks for sharing.

  • When you say you come up with your own ideas and songs, are you talking about the lyrics? If he created the musical arrangement (production, beats, synths, riffs, etc.) then it’s possible he might be considered a co-writer. I would consult with a lawyer or copyright expert about this if you can’t reach an agreement.

  • johnonthespot

    Watch Billy Joel today – he has a teleprompter embedded in the top of the piano. He used to use a binder

  • johnonthespot

    Join us in 2017 my friend. iPad

  • True. Context is key!

  • Ha. I know the feeling. You just need to know you have that safety net in order to make the leap. That’s how I am with that song “Tempted” by Squeeze for sure.

    Follow me to the end of the rainbow on Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Instagram, or subscribe to my newsletter and get a free PDF of my poetry chapbook: I Say Potato, You Say Apocalypse.

  • Christopher Scott Hamilton

    As of now, I’m a solo artist. I use several guitars when I play. There all in different tunings and I use capos on different frets to go with the song I’m playing. Very hard to keep up with since I don’t have someone handing me each instrument. It truly helps having something besides tapping a song list on the floor to help juggle all of this. Nothing like grabbing the wrong guitar with the wrong tuning and or capo to
    play Robert Johnson Crossroad blues. I also play Delta Blues. These songs are versus. Not hooky chorus’s. Anything to help you perform.

  • Tom Walker

    I hear guys talking about using lyric sheets etc. as being unprofessional. Tell that to Frank Sinatra (rhetorically, of course). He used lyric sheets in a binder on a music stand invariably, and he was on nearly every night. Give me a break! If you’re a solo act with no band to hide behind, you can’t afford to screw up the lyrics. If you only play on weekends and you play a lot of covers, you can’t be expected to have it all memorized. The key is to not let your lyric sheets, whether digital or paper) command your performance. It’s a tool, and just as with loopers and other tech gear, your tools are not your show. The audience’s attention should be on you and the song, not your tools. Lyric sheets etc. should only be used as a reference, a safety net so to speak. Glancing at them occasionally during a song will not take away from your performance. find what works best for you and practice with it until you’re confident with each song without being glued to the chart.

  • MistyDawn

    I personally use an android tablet with the SetList Helper app for Android. An ironclad, infallible memory should not be a defining characteristic of a great musician/performer. As long as the singer is interacting with the crowd appropriately and using the lyrics as a support tool, not a dependency that they have to stare at for entire songs, I don’t believe there is anything wrong OR unprofessional in any way with having lyrics available during a show. But that is of course just my personal opinion.