I was looking at a book of Beatles chords earlier today and it occurred to me that from looking at the music, I still wouldn't know how to play the song without also listening to the song.

It tells you the chords, but not the strumming pattern. Is this meant to be incomplete? Are you supposed to use it in conjunction with listening to the song to figure out the strumming pattern? I am new to guitar.

Here's a link to the picture of the music I'm talking about.

  • down-strokes sound different to upstrokes and with a little practice you can hear the approximate rhythm. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 7:30
  • 1
    It's supposed to be a guide. After all, they include lyrics but not melodies, too. You're expected to listen to the song, use the chords and learn the rest. Or alternatively, to interpret it differently and develop your own performance.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 9:50
  • Why would you like to play a song you never heard before? ^^
    – moonwave99
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 14:49

5 Answers 5


Are you supposed to use it in conjunction with listening to the song to figure out the strumming pattern?

Yes. Most people find it very easy to hear what the vocal melody is, and the basic rhythmic pattern of the accompaniment, from listening to a recording of the song. However, it's harder to remember all the lyrics and work out the chords. This kind of notation is supposed to fill that gap.

A lot of the time, people who use a sheet like this will already know the song well from listening to it for pleasure. However, if you don't know the song, it's best to listen to it a few times first before trying to use a sheet like this.

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    A lot of music has bits which many performers could quickly grasp by ear, but would be difficult or impossible to notate precisely. A lot of sheet music which is intended for people who already know how the music should sound makes no real effort to notate such things the way they should actually be performed.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 16:55

(To add to the other answers…)

In classical music — that is, the common-practice period of Western classical music — we've developed the idea that a musical score should tell you everything you need to perform a piece exactly as the composer intended: every note and rest, all the speeds and instrumentation and structure, the phrasing and articulation and expression, the ornaments and techniques.  But 'twas not always so…

As I understand it, the earliest forms of notation were no more than an aide-mémoire for music that was already known.  Basic elements like rhythms, speeds, and keys were not always stated explicitly.  Some accidentals were expected to be inferred by the performer, as was any regular rhythmic pulse.

Gradually, over time, written notation became more explicit, and more precise, as composers wanted to provide more information to (and/or exert more control over) whoever performed their work.  But some aspects were still up to the performers' discretion.  (For example, we're still not entirely sure whether a piece like Bach's B Minor Mass was intended to be sung with one voice per part, or more…)

In some other traditions of music, performance is seen as more important than composition, and performers are expected to interpret, arrange, adapt, and bring their own styles and meanings and techniques to the music.  (Think of folk music, for example.)

Rock and pop music mostly falls into the latter category: look at the importance and prevalence — and diversity — of cover versions, especially in the earlier years.  The balance seems to be shifting a little — fuelled in part by the songwriting skills of the Beatles and others.  But in general, performers are still likely (or at least, still expected) to bring significantly more originality to their performances of rock and pop music than in more composer-centric traditions.

That's why a chord book like the one in the question doesn't try to notate every aspect; it simply provides a starting-point and an aide-mémoire, expecting that you will fill in the rest from listening to the recordings and/or from your own creativity.

Certainly, when you're starting out, it pays to listen very carefully and try to understand and recreate every nuance you can; but as you gain experience, you'll be able to make creative decisions for yourself and make the song your own.  And that's something that can't be notated.

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    " but as you gain experience, you'll be able to make creative decisions for yourself and make the song your own." worth also adding that you get better at hearing what is going on so its gets easier to reproduce closely as well as diverge Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 7:31

For the example you provided there is no way to decipher the strumming pattern from the lead sheet. This is like a real book, just an outline of the basic song structure. Some books have strumming patterns in the front or in an appendix. One of my students has a book like this for a different band/artist and there's about 20 strumming patterns in the front. The lead sheet then has the strumming pattern number as a note. I don't see that in the example you provided so it looks like you are on your own. You should definitely listen to the song while reading through the lead sheet to get an idea of the proper way to play it.

Some song books have the guitar chords over piano arrangements. If you cannot read music at all that will not help but if you can read rhythms you will be able to extract a decent representation of the song by strumming to the rhythm in the piano arrangement.

If you really want to learn the song as played on the album you will want to get a better quality transcription intended for guitar. This can be in SMN or TAB, doesn't matter. As long as you can get the information you need. These types of lead sheet are not intended to be an accurate score of the song and the artist that uses them just wants to get the words and basic structure correct. You are free to put any rhythm you want to it. For example you could play Yesterday in a Bossa Nova Latin groove, or Blackbird in a bluegrass style.

The fact is, even a strumming rhythm won't help with a song like Blackbird which has a more interesting finger style approach to the chords. For musicians who have the basic groove in their head these types of sheets are like cliff notes, just there to remind you of what's going on but not intended to be complete or accurate.


The sheet music is there as a basic blueprint. It tells the words, the melody line, and the chords. Sometimes even the bass pattern, if there's a full grand stave. And often just an interpretation, rather than an accurate description.

But the rest is up to the player. Of course it can be listened to - that's how the drummer also gets to know what to play.

However, sometimes it's good just to use the sheet music, but put your own slant on it (assuming you don't want to reproduce the song verbatim). A lot of the time, the lyrics and their own rhythm will give an idea of what the strumming pattern could be, and it's good for your development to try out different patterns before listening to a particular song. But, yes, listening carefully is the way. Although cover versions may not be the same as the original.

Being in the house band at open mics, sometimes it's years until I hear the original track of songs some vocalists sing. It's often a surprise. Sometimes good, sometimes...


Yes. Song copies aren't full performance scores. Listen and copy. And the Beatles' guitars did a lot more than just strum!

You might find this book interesting. Someone DID attempt a full transcription of everything the Beatles did, and got it pretty right! A bit of an eye-opener for those of us accustomed to the approximations of the usual song copies. The 'Look inside' feature on Amazon's site lets you view several complete songs.


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