Sheet Music vs. Soundtracks

Several weeks ago, quite a few readers indicated interest in seeing occasional topics connected to church music. Here’s one: For those of you who are involved in church music—whether on a regular basis or doing occasional features—do you use soundtracks, live accompaniment played with sheet music, or live accompaniment played by ear?

If you had the options of soundtracks and sheet music, which would you prefer and why?

If you prefer sheet music: How do you find sheet music, especially for recent songs? Will you do songs (whether features or congregational) for which you cannot find sheet music?

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50 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Our church does the congregational songs with live music by ear, and most of the specials are soundtrack. I have never been a huge fan of sheet music (I once heard someone refer to it as “birds sitting on a chicken wire fence,” and that sounds pretty accurate to me).

  2. We don’t use soundtracks at all. All music is live.

    We have one family who sings who uses sheet music, because that’s what the piano player in that family does best. But everyone else just plays by ear, including me. I can read music, I’d just rather not. We type the words out so we don’t forget ’em, but other than that we just let ‘er fly! 🙂

    • If only some of the SG groups would take a hint…we would see music like the Hinsons and Paynes return…

      • Well, to be fair, we don’t have to pay our live musicians. We’re all volunteers. 🙂

    • I’ll also note that our music is probably more scaled down compared to most of the people posting here. We always have a piano, organ, and my bass. Sometimes we have couple of folks playing acoustic guitar/mandolin/fiddle. If I’m playing the piano on a special, it’s usually just me.

      So yeah…using soundtracks would be quite a shock to the folks in our congregation. 🙂

  3. Very true…good point. 🙂 Though sometimes I think I would gladly join a SG group on a volunteer basis!

  4. Our church us broadcast on TV, so unless they’re custom tracks, we shy away from using them because of licensing issues.

    Sales of sheet music have dropped dramatically in years past because of the use of soundtracks, plus many people just don’t read music. (A huge frustration of mine.) I transcribe and produce sheet music for various groups and publishers, including the Chuck Wagon Gang, Collingsworth Family and Daywind. If anyone wants a song in sheet music, I’d suggest contacting the artist and asking. The artist could contact me and hire me to produce it for them to sell if they’d be interested.

    • Shawn, interesting! I would think that broadcast TV would be covered by CCLI? (I may be wrong?)

      • It covers the songs, I think, but I don’t think it covers licensing the use of the soundtracks.

      • What CCLI does and does not cover is pretty clearly spelled out here:

        Specifically, you can:
        “Record your worship services (audio or video) provided you only record live music. Accompaniment tracks cannot be reproduced. You may charge up to $4 each for audiocassette tapes and CDs, and $12 each for videotapes and DVDs.”

        This does not extend to broadcasting. They do offer a streaming license, but requires an additional fee.

  5. I’m the main pianist in our Church right now, and I play for a lot of special songs. Usually, when someone asks me to accompany them, they bring me the sheet music, but if I know the song, I can play it by ear (usually) just fine.

  6. We use sheet music and live piano only for all of our music, be it choir, congregational singing, or “specials” as we call them. I sing about 3 to 5 times a month and I would love to use soundtracks at times, but I respect our music pastor’s reasons for not using them. We have very conservative music at our church. We do however now use orchestrated tracks for our yearly Christmas Cantata. So maybe someday that will trickle down to specials.

    Just about all our singers and piano players use sheet music. Some of us will sing with just typed out words in front us occasionally, though many of us do read music to varying degrees.

    BTW Daniel, I check out your site just about daily. Keep up the great work man!

  7. We have a live band 5-6 piece band and a rotating vocal lineup each week. We occasionally do an acoustic service, but for the most part, it’s a full band.

    Since I have had the most music theory training out of all of the band, I am in charge of the arrangements and getting the music to the worship team. Our organist prefers sheet music, our pianist can go either way, our bassist and guitarists prefer chord charts, and the singers just want lyric sheets. The congregation uses projected slides for lyrics to sing along (the majority cannot read music).

    There have been times where I’ve written out piano sheet music for specific parts. We did the GVB’s arrangement of “Send It On Down” a few times, and I wrote out the piano intro for our pianist (who sounded identical to the recording when we played it live) and gave her chords for the remainder.

    I primarily play drums with the band, so I don’t use charts (I just memorize the song/arrangement during rehearsal on Thursday night), but there have been times where I’ve had to fill in on piano or bass. In those instances, I usually just play by ear, but if I need a reference, I will make my own chart using the Nashville Number System.

  8. We may use a track once a year… occasionally, we will use some “stem files” or “custom tracks.” We are blessed with a ton of great musicians, though. I have a piano, guitars, drums, keyboard (typically playing pads), and small orchestra. We use sheet music, more times than not, on Sunday mornings and chord charts on Sunday nights (without the orchestra). I get most of our music from a set of books that Word Music has put together over the last 8 years or so. I also use and Songselect doesn’t have any orchestrations, however, it is a great resource for charts, lead sheets, vocal sheets, and hymns… For our choir, we order music from a number of places. Prism and Brentwood are probably my favorites, right now. Usually, I order collections from them and order orchestrations (pdf files, comes with everything from guitar to oboe). It’s also extremely rare that I would use a soloist outside of the context of our choir (using those collections, or octavos). So we would typically have, or can get, sheet music for every song that we would sing/play.

  9. We have live accompaniment and we play by ear. Our ears get sore and swollen, but you get used to it after awhile. 🙂

    But seriously, all of our musicians play by ear, and can usually pick out a new song on the fly. We do write out the lyrics and place the chords above the words, most of the time using the number system.

    There is a great app for iPad that we use called OnSong. You enter the lyrics of the song and use the Chord Picker, and it creates lead sheets for you. You can share it wirelessly with other band members with iPads via Bluetooth or WiFi, and you can use it to project the lyrics on a screen with a wireless projector. You can also instantly transpose the whole song to another key with the touch of a button. It’s really been a great help for us!

    • OnSong is great! Even if a church doesn’t have a computer, they can use it to broadcast slides on their projector screens. Its a great multi-use tool.

  10. I can tell you as a music publisher that sheet music is disappearing. Some of it is going digital (PDF), but fewer and fewer people can actually read music, and to be honest, I think might be a problem that we will be facing in the near future!

    Also, (as long as Daniel is okay with this) if you are a Church music pastor/minister/leader and would like some sheet music sent to you, specifically Stuart Hamblen songs like, It Is No Secret, Until Then, How Big Is God, Teach Me Lord To Wait, etc… just email me: and let me know which songs of Stuart’s you would like and I will send them to you.

    • No problem! If my songbook/sheet music collection wasn’t extensive enough that I probably have all of his hits already, I’d probably drop you an email myself.

      • I can’t read music and can’t play by ear . I am the pianist at my church I have to have shaped note music to play and that is fast becoming a thing of the past. I have a big collection of Shaped note gospel music. If I want to play a newer song, my husband listens to it and writes me the lead note shape and I play by it. I would love to have sheet music for some of the newer songs.

  11. The option to use quality musicians was always my preference during my 20 years of music ministry in the local church. This is not to say we didn’t use tracks. In fact, they were very useful when our choir or vocal ensembles were presenting a song that called for the “anthem” type of orchestration. The biggest challenge I found with tracks was the varying degrees of quality in how they had been mastered in the studio. It was a must to have a sound person who had the ability to EQ tracks to bring them into a mix that fit our acoustical dynamics and would compliment our worship setting. (Our southern gospel artists using tracks should take these factors into consideration as well – just a thought)

    My experience with including music (tracks or live) as part of our television broadcast was that CCLI did not cover this. CCLI offers a complimentary license for this type of media application called, CVLI. It is affordable and covers a broad range of copyright issues pertaining to video production.

    Finally, I must send “kudos” to the writers and producers in the Southern Gospel music genre. There were occasions where neither sheet music nor tracks could be found. Simply contacting these individuals for permission to use their “creations” was always received with a “thank you” and a more than willing spirit of cooperation. They always made the fees very affordable and were humbled by the opportunity for their music to be used for broader Kingdom purposes.

    • The CVLI is actually for churches that like to use Hollywood movies on the premises, either as clips in their sermons or for showing movies to a church group.

      It doesn’t cover broadcasts of sermons. That would be covered by the Stream license from CCLI.

  12. I like either, depending on what “type” of music is being sang.

    I just wish I could find a church that used something other than contemporary Christian music for the praise and worship service!

    Anybody out there know of one in the “south county” area of southern California?

    I really miss being able to worship to good old southern gospel…sheet music or track!

    On a side note…where have the pianos and alters gone to?

    • Not sure what you mean by the south country area of California, but I know of 2 great churches in the Bloomington/Fontana/Rialto area. One is Truth Tabernacle on 18027 San Bernardino Ave in Bloomington; the other is Inland Lighthouse Church on 1123 South Cactus Avenue in Rialto.

  13. We currently use a 7 piece rhythm section-type band (piano, organ, keyboard, bass, 2 acoustic guitars, drums) and choir for morning worship. The pianist and organist like written out music or hymnal format and the rest of us use leadsheets. The choir uses hymnal format sheet music except on choir specials which are octavos or collections typically. I play bass in the worship band. I also am the backup pianist and use lead sheets for that as well. I have a degree in music but can’t play parts or written out piano music.

    Most of our music is live, but the soloists more often than not are tracks, including when my family sings most of the time.

    For worship music, it largely comes from 2 sources – the 2008 Baptist Hymnal (or LifeWay Hymnal) which has the great hymns and many of the great worship songs and has a digital component which allows them to expand the hymnal through dowloads. They have downloadable orchestrations for almost all of the songs so when we’ve had a couple of occasions at Easter the past few years to have an orchestra from the high school band help us out – we’ve been able to purchase and print the individual parts we need. The other source we use is Our youth worship band uses exclusively – my daughter plays guitar and leads worship in that group. They only use chord charts.

    When I did music ministry for 22 years I gradually started using more and more tracks for choir specials, simply because I wanted to crank out specials each week and our volunteer instrumentalists didn’t have time or abilities in some cases to crank them out that quickly, except in one church where I had an incredible pianist and a guy who could arrange and orchestrate.

    As for preference – for worship live to me is almost always better – though there are situations where tracks are better in that environment as well if you don’t have anybody capable of playing. For specials, live, if it’s good, is always better, but tracks are fine.

  14. We are a very small church.Our choir is only 6 people. Our choir director is also our pianist.We use music from a company called You can download tracks & music from them for a very reasonable fee.Not really Southern Gospel but they have a large library of music.

  15. I have always wished that I could find sheet music for songs that I hear and like-either satb or more preferably ttbb
    I grew up with sheet music and would love to find someone in the Westminster Md area that could provide sheet music
    for those songs
    I try online searches and contact the writer/authors but usually not too successful

  16. At our church we use sheet music for worship and most “specials”. I am blessed to have a small, but talented choir that reads music. My wife is the pianist – she can play by charts if she has time, but can read almost anything. I also have a men’s quartet that reads music, but it is getting harder to find the 4-part hymnal type arrangements of newer songs that we like to adapt for our arrangements. I used to pick up books at concerts, but even the major groups are publishing less and less. The Gaither Homecoming books always came in handy for newer songs, but I haven’t seen a new edition of those in a while. We use a mix of soundtracks and live music – the tracks are a convenience for preparation of our soloists.

  17. There are several talented musicians in the genre that can arrange a song into SATB or TTBB. You may have to pay a little bit of $, but if the song is GREAT then it’s worth it!

    • Speaking of talented musicians, that reminds me of a brief conversation I had with Tim Parton at a Legacy Five concert. We were discussing arrangements/song books etc. He mentioned that there wasn’t alot of interest in the song books. Years ago I can remember buying every Cathedral song book they put out, even though they were mostly if not all SATB. We’d just re-arrange them, combined with listening to the LP or CD and away we’d go!

      Speaking of soundtracks, our church uses 99% live music. My opinion of soundtracks in church is that they tend to promise more than the vocalists can usually deliver.

    • Matt,
      Let’s say for example, that I was looking for a ttbb for He Loves Me-which I heard last month at a Triumphant Qt concert-in the barn- and also the Greater Vision Quartets CD-both involved Eric Bennett-
      How would I proceed and the $ involved can you estimate- are we talking tens, hundreds, thousands?
      Thank You

      • I’m not Matt, but based on what I’ve heard the going rate to be, I think you’d probably be talking in the lower hundreds. You could probably find someone who would do it for less than $200.

      • As long as you assume all the responsibility for obtaining permission from the publisher to create a printed arrangement, I know a guy who will do a simple four part SATB or TTBB hymn-like arrangement for $60-75, depending on the complexity of the song (whether it has a bridge that needs to be included and so forth).

      • I will check and reply when I find out.

      • David’s comment is about spot on for what you would be charged. I’ll be happy to get you in contact if you’d like to proceed.

      • that would be great

      • David:
        Please email me at and I’ll get you on the right track.

  18. BTW, I ride the bus with one of them 🙂
    I can get you in contact with him if interested.

  19. Sorry for the multiple posts…. If you’re interested in some L5 songs, we have some of our most popular songs available as PDF or Print. Here’s the link:

    • No problem on multiple posts!

  20. “do you use soundtracks, live accompaniment played with sheet music, or live accompaniment played by ear?”
    All of the above.

    “If you had the options of soundtracks and sheet music, which would you prefer and why?”
    I generally use soundtracks with the choir and printed music with the congregation. Soloists use both.

    “If you prefer sheet music: How do you find sheet music, especially for recent songs?”
    Choral companies like Word, Benson-Brentwood, Lillenas and LifeWay…plus, I have Finale which I can use to write out my own arrangements.

    “Will you do songs (whether features or congregational) for which you cannot find sheet music?”
    Yes. I occasionally do “sing-alongs” with the congregation when I have a recording that is simple enough for congregational singing. I have also arranged music for the choir and soloists. In some cases, I just learn a song by ear and play the accompaniment for a soloist who also learns their part by ear.

    • You’re nearly the only person commenting here with the talent and training for a full “all of the above” answer! 🙂

      • I just look at each method as a tool for a desired result. Some soloists bring in a track. Some would rather have someone play. I’ll use sheet music if sheet music is available, and we have three other pianists/organists who can also play from music. If no sheet music is available, or I already know the song pretty good, I will play it by ear.

        The lack of variety in church music programs is less about what resources are available and more about personal preferences. It’s good to have options. Everyone, without exception, can use soundtracks if they want, assuming they can afford them. Some won’t or don’t. Most churches have at least one person who is capable of playing either a piano or a guitar to accompany someone else singing, though they may need printed music to do so. It’s important not to marginalize anyone who is capable and willing.

  21. Here is another suggestion for those hundreds of smaller churches that have no musicians available…

    If you ask around, you can usually find a musician in your area who is capable of making tracks for your church to use. This is following up on what Matt Fouch said, more or less, but also pointing out that you can shop locally for someone to make a recording if hiring a professional studio musician is going to cost too much.

    For congregational singing, all you really need is a piano, but it can be nice to have vocals as an option on a split channel, too, especially if it’s for songs the congregation doesn’t already know. It can thicken up the sound and give a small group of untrained singers more confidence.

  22. For those of you who have a pianist who can do a combination of playing by ear and by note, you are lucky. The lack of a good pianist or keyboardist is the main reason why churches and groups go to tracks. For those of you in the south, you are lucky in that those with piano skills pick up the “Southern style ” at an early age by hearing it. Small churches often don’t have a good pianist who can read music and improvise. Besides all of that, it is easier to practice with tracks in that the tempo is always constant, and you can practice anyplace with a 110 outlet.

  23. Before we became involved in our church music, the music was almost entirely based off of chord and word sheets. Since then I have been collecting sheet music to use alongside the chord sheets. That was easy for the hymns, but for newer songs, I have typically had to create a melody staff by ear. Usually the pianist only plays chords and sometimes a melody line. The other instrumentalists usually play melody or chordal rhythm.

    On soundtracks- these are rarely used since a portion of the church views them as a distraction from worship.

    So the preference is for sheet music- at least a melody staff, but a chord/word sheet is practically required for the introducing of a song.

  24. My church, which utilizes a great blended worship approach, has a 5 piece band (drums, bass, keyboard, acoustic, and electric). They all play by the Nashville number system. Several can play by ear, but the NNS is just the quickest way to learn new material for our band.

    Special music and choir songs are done either live or with track. Whatever the preference at the time.

  25. My dream is that sheet music would be printed for all the songs that are recorded as it used to be, and that the groups could have a “sheet music rack” at their product table again. I know it would cost more than $1.00 for a piece of that music, but I get requests all the time for sheet music and none is available. The last of my songs that were printed into sheet music were in the early 1980s. Eventually you can find some of the songs that went to radio available in digital format…but almost never for just regular album cuts. Not very many of mine make the choral books. I’m sure people think I write the music out when I turn in the songs, and that I have it available on everything I’ve written…but I don’t. Maybe that will change someday…that sheet music will be printed again on a wider range of recorded songs.

  26. I have been singing solos and in groups and directing “QUORS” (As the southern baptist evangelists say) since the days of open reel tapes. Were it not for the “canned” music backgrounds, many small rural churches would not have a music ministry. We have 2 musicians who are very uncomfortable accompanying special music and also want to sing in the choir.

    Trying to remain humble here, our church is known for it’s choir by even big city standards. The full anthem like backgrounds leave the choir feeling like they have accomplished worship and a sense of personal accomplishment (however sinful that may sound).

    Oddly enough, our church is growing in the 50-60 years demographic and I have been told it’s because of the music we do and more importantly don’t do. I have nothing against P & W music it just leaves the above mentioned age group out in many instances.

    Just my opinion.

  27. Also – in regards to our choir/praise team – I teach all the parts by rote. Of course I hear them all by ear, but in those rare cases where music is available – I’ll teach from the sheet music, but they still learn by rote. It works for us.