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The ChordMark story

Why a new format?

Like many things in this world, ChordMark was born out of frustration, and my frustration was oriented towards existing chord charts formats.

Chord charts are all around the web, and you might find them written as:

  C                 Am
I heard there was a secret chord

Or sometimes as:

I [C]heard there was a [Am]secret chord

Most of the time, they work fine. I've been using them extensively and could learn a lot of songs with those. Their sheer simplicity makes them a universally and immediately understood language, which is good. However, they also have some limits:

  • They are mostly useless if you don't know the song beforehand. And I often get asked to play songs I don't know by other people.
  • They get very confusing when the song contains many chord changes. Sometimes it becomes tough to know how long a given chord should be played or when the change should happen. Not to mention if the time signature changes.
  • They are really tailored to the singer-musician: if all you care about is the song structure or the chord grid, as a bass player or drummer, for example, you will have a hard time accurately getting that information from those chord charts.
  • Transposing them doesn't always work because most software/website fail to recognize complex chords symbols. You end up with a chord chart mixing tonalities that you need to fix manually.

Sounds familiar? And that's only from a player's point of view. From a transcriber point of view, my frustration with chord charts was even bigger:

  • they are painful to write, at least on a computer. You either need to enter spaces to position the chord on top of the lyrics or put them between square brackets (e.g., [A7]) in the middle of the lyrics line.
  • even if the chords are identical for each verse/chorus, you need to repeat that painful process of positioning/inserting the chords every time.
  • whenever you correct/change something, you are at risk of breaking the chords/lyrics alignment
  • they do not easily allow to encode rhythm information unless you manually type the bar separators | and manually space the chords. Which makes the writing process even more painful.

I would always cringe whenever I needed to write a song transcription for all those reasons. I came up with my own way of writing them - that I used to compile in a Word document - manually aligning chords and bar across lines to encode the songs' rhythm structure. While solving the issue about rhythm, it only made the writing process worse while not allowing for easy key transposition.

Enters ChordMark

I slowly came up with the idea of a new chord charts format that would solve the issues mentioned above. After all, the foundations of the current formats have been defined almost 30 years ago and haven't changed much since. Maybe it's time for a new approach!

The first step was to design a new syntax to encode the maximum of information in the shortest possible way, so one could quickly write complex song transcriptions with a minimum of effort. The present documentation describes in detail this new syntax.

The next step was to build an interpreter that would transform the input syntax into nicely formatted chord charts printed or displayed on the screen. That is the purpose of chord-mark, a Javascript/NodeJs module. This module is open source and can be freely integrated by any tool or website interested in ChordMark.

The last missing piece was to build an editor that would natively support ChordMark and leverage all the format possibilities, so people would be able to try it out and, hopefully, adopt it: Chord Chart Studio was born.

ChordMark advantages

Chord charts written in ChordMark present the following advantages:

  • They are quick and easy to write: no need to space anything manually, to enclose chord symbols in brackets, or to mix them with lyrics.
  • Whenever possible, they also avoid you repeating what you've already written once, making the transcription process quicker and more enjoyable.
  • They have native support for rhythm information, e.g., how long a given chord should be played. That way, you can play a song even if you don't know it, and there is no ambiguity in the duration of each chord.
  • Having the rhythm information encoded also allows you to display only the chord grid or the song structure, which is great for other band members.
  • They recognize all possible chords symbols (or almost), even the most complex ones. So transposing always work.

Development history

I've been playing with the idea of ChordMark in my mind for years: looking into my archive, I found some ideas drafted in a document dated February 2015!

It took me four more years to start the development at the beginning of 2019. The first stable version of ChordMark, along with Chord Chart Studio and ChordSymbol, was released in June 2019. I didn't do anything to promote it, though, as I felt it was not ready for public release: some basic functionalities - such as aligning the chords over the lyrics or import/export features - were still lacking, not to mention user documentation which remained non-existent for a very long time.

Nevertheless, I've been using the 2019 version of ChordMark for two years for all my transcription work. I have been so happy with it that I've finally decided to resume the development during the summer of 2021: I started implementing the features I had missed during my two years of "beta-testing", and they turned out so great - at least in my opinion! - that I feel the project is now mature enough to go public. I hope more people will find it interesting!

Previous work

Nothing is ever totally new, and ChordMark takes inspiration from some previous work (non-exhaustive list):

  • ChordPro: the de-facto standard for chord charts interoperability. It has a great community and an extensive documentation. The reference implementation focuses on rendering PDF files.
  • SongPro: a very similar format, with a focus on web rendering (HTML).
  • TabDown: the format used by the Ultimate Guitar website.
  • Markato: share the "chord position marker" concept with ChordMark!
  • LCR: although 2 years younger than ChordMark, LCR also encodes rhythm information in chord charts and has excellent documentation on music notation formats.
  • Playtab: by the author of the current ChordPro reference implementation.
  • Rise up and sing: an innovative way of writing chord charts.