Reading a lead sheet is a challenging, but useful exercise. It improves your knowledge of chords, and helps you to play more creatively. In addition, lead sheets often make familiar songs more approachable. If you are interested in learning how to read a lead sheet on the piano read on!
What is a Lead Sheet
In short a lead sheet is a simplified form of music notation that only includes the melody line and the chords. The symbols you see above the staff are chord symbols.
Typically you play the melody line in your RH and the chords in your LH.
You continue playing notes that correspond to the chord in your RH until you reach the next chord that you see. For example, in “Hey Jude” below, I would play the notes of an F chord in my left hand until I reached measure 2 where I would start to play the notes of a C chord.
With a lead sheet there is a lot of flexibility; there is no one way to play the chords with the melody line. If I were to perform this lead sheet there may be times that I would substitute my own chords, or play with no chords at all.
This is in stark contrast to sheet music where every note has to be played correctly or it’s “wrong”.
You can learn more about the definition of a lead sheet here.
What are the Chord Symbols of a Lead Sheet?
Hopefully you have a brief understanding about the different types of chords.
And if you find chord symbols that include extensions such as 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc these are jazz chords.
- A minor chord has a lower case “m” after the letter name. For example, “Dm” is a d minor chord.
- A major chord has no “m” after the letter name. For example, “D” is a d major chord.
- A diminished chord has a “dim” after the letter name. For example “Ddim.”
- A seventh chord has a “7” after the chord. For example, “Dm7” and “D7” are the d minor 7 and the d dominant 7 chords respectively.
Now we are ready to start learning your first lead sheet!
Step 1: Find an Easy Lead Sheet
I taught a class about learning how to play lead sheets to beginner pianists.
I found it was very important for them to start reading a lead sheet of an easy, familiar tune the first time through.
An easy piece will often have the following characteristics –
- There are lots of half, whole, and quarter notes and few eighth and sixteenth notes.
- There is not much syncopation
- There are just one or two chord changes per measure.
- It’s in a key you are familiar with (often D, G, C or F).
- You already know the song well enough that you could sing it.
- Bonus: it is a folk song or hymn (often melodies are simple in these tunes)
You can find some easy-to-read lead sheets of familiar songs here.
For this tutorial we will use Scarborough Fair, a lovely folk tune from across the lake.
Step 2: Play The Melody Line – RH
The wonderful thing about lead sheets is that only the melody line is notated on the staff! This means that it won’t take too long to learn.
So now try sight reading the melody line to Scarborough Fair in your right hand.
If you did that perfectly, great! Move on to the next step. If not, here is a process that should help.
- Look to the left – Check out the clef, key signature, and time signature. Make sure that you will count the correct number of beats per measure and use appropriate accidentals.
- Tap the rhythm on your lap.
- Write in any fingerings especially where there are leaps.
- Write in note names where there are leaps. (Try to refrain from writing notes above every note).
Step 3: Play the Chords – LH
Now set a metronome or count in your head and try to play each chord in root position using your left hand. If you are advanced enough to attempt a jazz lead sheet, try playing just the root and 7th in your LH – it will sound less clunky that way. (If the jazz chord doesn’t include the 7th you could play root and 3rd instead).
If there are chords that you stumble over, go back and practice them. Before moving to the next step make sure that you can play each chord in root position without stumbling.
Step 4: Put Hands Together
Now that you can play hands separately it is time to put the chords and melody together.
First play just the root position chord in your LH once per measure while you play the melody line in your RH.
At this point I highly recommend playing with a metronome. Put it on a slow tick and keep practicing until you can play everything smoothly.
If you are reading a lead sheet with jazz chords, again I recommend only playing the root and 7th of the chord.
Step 5: Spice it Up
If you’ve mastered steps one through four then now you get to the fun part – arranging the lead sheet. This step is where you get to creatively interpret the lead sheet.
Attempt some embellishments depending on your skill level.
- Play a simple arpeggio in LH using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th of the chord.
- Play a simple arpeggio in LH using the 1st, 5th, and 1st (octave higher) of chord.
- Embellish the melody line by adding a note or two in between leaps.
- Add in chord notes in the melody line below the RH. For example, if the chord is a C chord and you see an E in the melody line then you might play G, C, and E in your RH all at the same time.
- Start using more advanced patterns in the LH. Maybe you will play an arpeggio using the 1st, 5th, and 10th (3rd) of the chord. Or maybe you will play the 1st, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 10th.
- Start playing inversions in LH. For example if you see a G chord you could try putting a B in the bass (this will lead nicely into a root C chord).
- If you have a jazz lead sheet, throw in some one-handed jazz chord voicings in your LH.
- Begin to improvise in the RH based off the key you’re in.
- Start imitating various piano accompaniment styles. For example, gospel, walking bass, bossa nova, ballad, pop, etc.
Lead sheets are a wonderful way to start learning your favorite songs. They display a minimal amount of information, so they are easier to look at without getting overwhelmed.
To learn your first lead sheet pick an easy tune, learn the melody line and chords separately, put them together, then finally start embellishing your arrangement in a way that matches your skill level.