Lead Sheets vs Chord Charts vs Sheet Music vs Tabs

Burnt sheet music

There are many different ways to notate music. In this post we will go over the most common ones – lead sheets, sheet music, chord charts and tabs. We will explore the key differences and pros/cons of each notation style.

Sheet Music

The most common form of music notation is sheet music. With sheet music every note that should be played is displayed on staves. Pianists use the treble and bass clef staves although other instrumentalists may use other staves.

Sheet music is used most frequently by classical musicians, and is the most common form of music notation. It is great for capturing a complete musical idea with perfect accuracy as many classical composers desired.

Für Elise Sheet Music
Sheet Music Example

Pros

  • The composer can display exactly what they want leaving no ambiguity.
  • A beginner only needs to learn the notes of the staff to begin playing sheet music. They don’t yet need to learn chords.

Cons

  • The downsides are that there is little creative freedom in interpretation.
  • Students may use sheet music as a crutch and never learn their chords.
  • It is challenging to learn staff notation fluently.

Chord Charts

A chord chart displays the chords of a song in addition to the lyrics and/or rhythm of a piece. A chord chart is on the opposite end of the spectrum from lead sheets. Chord charts lend themselves particularly well to a beginner guitarist.

Sky Full of Stars Excerpt with Chords
Chord Chart Example

Pros

  • Chord charts allow for a high degree of flexibility.
  • Beginner’s to chords don’t have to worry about reading off the staff and can focus on creatively interpreting chords instead.
  • It’s easier to see the overarching structure of a piece and not get caught in the weeds of learning every single note like in sheet music.

Cons

  • With no indication of a melody line, whoever is reading the chords is reliant on another vocalist or instrumentalist to play the melody.
  • You aren’t pushed to learn staff notation which is useful for engaging more technically challenging pieces.

Lead Sheets

Lead sheets include both the chords and melody line of a piece. The melody is written on the staff (usually using the treble clef staff). The chord symbols are written above the staff.

It is like a hybrid of sheet music and chord charts. I like to think of it as the minimal information needed to convey the most important aspects of a song.

Below is an example of a lead sheet.

Amazing Grace Lead Sheet Sample
Lead sheet example

Pros:

  • Beginner and advanced musicians alike can make beautiful music with the same lead sheet arrangement (even if they play very different things).
  • Lead sheets require a well rounded musical knowledge. Musicians must know how to read the notes on a staff as well as how to read chords.
  • There is a lot of creative possibilities in playing a lead sheet as musicians can take liberties in how they play the chords.
  • Most jazz charts use lead sheets.

Cons:

  • For beginners, it can be a challenge doing two different tasks at once – reading a melody line with your right hand and chords with your left hand.
  • The notation style is best for pop songs, but not classical music.

Guitar Tabs

Guitar tabs are a special type of notation system that guitarists use. In a guitar tab there are 6 lines instead of the 5 lines of a typical staff. Each line corresponds to one of the 6 guitar strings and has numbers on them to indicate the frets.

Guitar tab example happy birthday
Mintz l, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pros

  • Even beginners can work off of tabs because it tells you exactly what to play.
  • Similar to sheet music, a composer can notate exactly which notes they want played. Chord charts on the other hand only list chords.

Cons

  • Guitarists won’t grow as musicians if they always rely on tab notation and never branch out into learning chords or sheet music notation.
  • The notation format is not available to non-guitarists.
  • It’s more challenging to see the bigger picture because every single note is notated.

Comparing Notation Systems

To better understand each notation type, let’s directly compare some of them.

Lead Sheets vs. Sheet Music

The main difference between lead sheets and sheet music is that sheet music notates every single note. Lead sheets, on the other hand, notate the melody on the staff, but leave it up to the musician to interpret the chords. Lead sheets lend themselves better to creative interpretation, while sheet music eliminates ambiguity.

Lead sheets are more commonly used to notate jazz, pop, and folk tunes, but are rarely if ever used for classical music.

Sheet music is frequently used to notate music in any genre, but especially classical music.

Tabs vs. Chord Charts

The main difference between a tab and a chord chart is that a tab dictates every note leaving no ambiguity on where to place your fingers, while a chord chart only displays chords allowing the guitarist to choose how and where they want to place their fingers.

If you are a guitarist it can be good to learn both notation systems at some point. A guitarist that knows their chords well can pick up new songs quickly, however, reading tabs can help them explore new finger picking patterns.

Lead Sheets vs. Chord Charts

The main difference between a chord chart and a lead sheet is that a lead sheet displays the melody line on the staff – usually using the treble clef. This makes lead sheets slightly more challenging to read in general. Chord charts are especially used for pop songs, while lead sheets are especially used in jazz music.

Tabs vs. Sheet Music

The main difference between tab vs sheet music notation is that tabs display fret numbers in lieu of notes on a staff. This means that tabs are idiomatic to the guitar, while sheet music is used for any instrument. The key similarity is that both systems notate every single note of the composition.

Conclusion

Sheet music is the most common musical notation system that displays all notes of a composition on staves. Chord charts are a notation system that only display the chords with the lyrics and/or rhythm of a piece. Lead sheets display just the melody and chords. Finally, tabs are used to notate the frets in a guitar composition.

It’s beneficial to your musical development to practice all applicable notation systems as each one pushes you to understand music in a new way.

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