Information design and “I’m Gonna Start a Graveyard of My Own”

When you have a song cheat sheet with chords and words (and maybe notes) on it, how come it’s always black and white? Well, because color printing is more expensive, obviously, but also because the value of color is underestimated.

I wrote up a cheat sheet for a song the band was going to learn live, performing it the very first time they played it. So the cheat sheet needed to be excellent, and therefore the cost of color ink was worth it.

Written music is an information graphic like a subway map or graph of annual GDP. There’s visual design being used to communicate quantitative information.

When you think about it that way the value of color isn’t controversial. The GDP of Romania is a blue line, the GDP of Poland is a red line, the color contrast helps you compare and contrast the data.

So here’s my chart. The chords are the most important thing when a band is faking it, so I used color to distinguish the chords from the lyrics. In addition I communicated the arrangement by putting labels for sections on the right margin in all caps.

I'm Gonna Start a Graveyard of My Own lead sheet (click for full size PDF – good for printing out to jam on).

I accommodated transposing instruments like trumpet (needs to see a “d” note to play a “c” note) by naming chords according to their relative position within the key, and went with the convention of using roman numerals for showing those chord names. In the key of G a “g” chord is “I”, a “c” chord is “IV”, a “d” chord is “V” or maybe “V7”.

This would be better if I had actually notated the pitches but I didn’t have enough time.