How to make a songbook

Posted: September 2, 2010 in Music Therapy, Techniques

When I was in college, I started on a project where I started making lead sheets to songs I thought I might use in music therapy, or, failing that, just songs I wanted to learn how to play.  I put the pages in plastic sleeves and got a three ring binder.  I’ve been working on the project on and off since then, and call it The Songbook.  I’ve long since abandoned the original binder for a bigger one, and with over 100 songs, I may have to get an even bigger one soon.  That or make volume 1 (A-M) and volume 2 (N-Z).  Flipping through the book, you can tell what the original songs were – I got a different computer that didn’t have the font I was using.

The Songbook has been invaluable to me in music therapy practice.  I didn’t really use it that much when I was working with kids in Arizona, but it gave me something to practice in order to bring up my skills.  Now that I’m working with adults, I have a premade group of songs that I can pull out.  And I’m finding that it’s still growing.  I keep getting requests and adding them to the book.  It’s forcing me to widen my repertoire – I never would have learned Blaze of Glory or YMCA if they hadn’t been enthusiastically requested by a consumer.

So, I thought I’d put together a little primer for how I put together The Songbook.

  1. Decide on a song you want to use.  Obviously, this is the most important thing – if you don’t have a song, you don’t have a reason to go through the rest of this.
  2. Listen to the song.  If you don’t have a recording, look it up on YouTube.  I almost guarantee that you’ll find it there.  You can also look on Grooveshark,, or some other music search engine site.  I would recommend buying the song for yourself – it’s fairly cheap and you can be nice and legal.
  3. Transcribe the lyrics.  You can do this the old fashioned way, by listening and writing the words down, pressing pause every few seconds.  This is very time-consuming, and you will be susceptible to mondegreens (if you don’t know what a mondegreen is, it’s essentially a misheard phrase or lyric – “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” versus “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” for example).  I usually just do a Google search for the lyrics of the song, and many results will pop up.  I’ll usually just copy and paste.  I often find that the transcription needs to be cleaned up – bad spelling, weird punctuation, and yes, mondegreens still pop up.  It’s still easier than writing them all down myself.
  4. Figure out the chords.  Again, you can do this the old fashioned way if you wish – listen and play along on your guitar.  And a lot of people may prefer to do it that way.  I have difficulty with it, partly because some people really love weird keys.  Again, I’ll usually do a search for chords for the song and go from there.  You’ll find a lot fewer results than with lyrics, but a couple of good sites are and  I usually will only look at these two – with others, I get too many pop-up ads.  Once again, you should probably check these chords against the original to make sure they gel – sometimes, the transcriber go crazy with the weird chords when a simple I-IV-V pattern will suffice.  Other times, the transcribers will get too simple, leaving out important vi or V/V chords.  Use your judgment.
  5. Transpose if necessary.  You can only play what’s in your comfort zone.  It’s less important to be in the same key as the original artist as it is for you to be able to play the song.  Personally, I loathe barre chords on guitar, so I’ll often make every effort to transpose so I don’t have to play Bb, C# minor, and so on.  If the register becomes weird, use a capo with the transposed chords.
  6. Put it all together.  My format is that I’ll write out a verse, the chorus, and the bridge with the chords, but will leave the chords off of the other lines.  This cuts down on the amount of paper I need…I only have two two-pagers in my entire songbook.  I also include the title and author of the song, as well as the artist if different than the songwriter.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 as many times as necessary to cover all of the songs you need.
  8. Get materials for the songbook.  As I mentioned, I have a three-ring binder to put the songs in.  I think mine is a 2-incher.  You’ll also need some plastic sleeves for your pages.  This not only protects the paper, but also prevents you from having to punch holes in your song sheets.
  9. Put the book together.  I organize my songbook alphabetically, with two song sheets per sleeve (one in the front, one in the back).  Just having one page per sleeve seems wasteful – it will make the book bigger, and you’ll have to use twice as many sleeves.  As I add new songs, I can adjust as necessary…another nice thing about not punching holes, as the holes may have to switch sides depending on where the page is now facing.  Two page songs should not be in the same sleeve, but should be next to each other in the book.  You don’t want to have to deal with page turns.  If this means you have a gap, then you have a gap – you can always fill it later with another song.
  10. Write up a table of contents.  You probably shouldn’t use page numbers, as that will be difficult to correct when you add more songs.  The table of contents should really just be a list of what’s in the book – since it’s in alphabetical order, you can easily find what you’re looking for.

And that’s it.  It seems like a lot of work, and it is.  But if you’re patient with it, maybe just doing a song or two at a time, it will grow pretty fast.  Songs don’t take me that long to put together – maybe 15-20 minutes.  I would recommend this for anyone.  Even if you don’t work with a population that would benefit, it makes sense to have the book for the future.  It’s also a great practice tool.

That’s enough on this subject for now.  Thanks for reading!


EDIT: I completed this post before listening to the most recent episode of The Music Therapy Round Table, where they actually talk about this very subject.  This is my approach, so you can compare and contrast.

  1. JoelK says:

    Thanks for the practical advice. I’ve been meaning to switch to plastic sleeves for a while now; you can only reinforce paper holes so often…
    Do you know about I think it’s the site I use the most for lyrics and chords.

  2. themtguy says:

    No, I didn’t know about that site. It looks good, I’ll have to try it out. Thanks!

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