What Are Lead Sheets? A Minimalist Music Notation

Scarborough Fair Lead Sheet Example

What is a lead sheet?A lead sheet is a type of music notation that specifies only the most essential musical elements – melody, harmony, and rhythm. The melody is notated on the staff (typically the treble staff). The note duration of each melody notes indicates rhythm, and the chords are placed above the staff to indicate harmony.

An example of a lead sheet for the folk tune “Scarborough Fair” can be found above.

Lead sheets are especially common in jazz music. The minimalist notation, and the chords above the chart are perfect for improvisation.

A collection of lead sheets is often called a fake book. (They are named fake books either because the original publishers published illegally, or because musicians are only given a melody and have to “fake” the rest.)

Why are Lead Sheets Useful

Jonathan Feist sums up what I think is the most compelling feature of a lead sheet. He says, “lead sheets are often the most efficient form for communicating musical ideas.”

From this efficiency stems a lot of perks, that I mention below.

  • Because they display minimal information, beginners can focus on just playing the melody, while advanced players can elaborate on the chords they see.
  • They allow for creativity. In typical sheet music every note is notated and there is little creative freedom. Alternatively, a player can interpret a lead sheet in an almost infinite number of ways, in fact they must make creative decisions in some capacity.
  • Lead sheets are a good introduction into jazz playing. Most small jazz ensembles read off of lead sheets.
  • Lead sheets are written in a way that reinforces music theory. You need to be comfortable reading in certain key signatures, reading chords, and melody notes.
  • Lead sheets force students to learn a little bit of everything. You need to know a little bit about the notes on a staff to read the melody line, a little bit about note duration to read the rhythms, and a little bit about chords to read the chords. This really widens a students skill set.
  • Learning to read chords is like learning to read words. Can you imagine reading a sentence one letter at a time? That’s what it’s like if you read sheet music one note at a time. By learning chords, students will improve other skills like site reading.

The Main Components of a Lead Sheet

Let’s review some of the essential elements you will find in a lead sheet.

Chord Symbols

Chords are found above the lead sheet and look something like this:

C Cm D7 Edim

I won’t go in depth here, but these four symbols are short hand for chords.

  • C – a C major chord. Since there is no lower case “m” after C we assume it is major.
  • Cm – a C minor chord. It is minor because there is a lower case “m” after the the “C.”
  • D7 – a D dominant 7 chord. The “7” alone after the chord letter means that it is a dominant 7 chord.
  • E dim – an E diminished chord. Learn more about diminished chords here.

Lead sheet chord symbols can be very complex. You can find a comprehensive guide to writing and interpreting lead sheet symbols here.

A Single Staff

Lead sheets display melody lines on either the treble or the bass clef. Usually lead sheets display on the treble clef, but instrumentalists like bass players and trombonists may prefer a bass clef lead sheet.

Basic Symbols

Symbols that you find on any staff – like time signature, key signature, dynamics, clef symbol, etc – will likely show up on a lead sheet.

Treble clef and other lead sheet symbols
Examples of basic symbols you find in a lead sheet

How To Play Lead Sheets on the Piano

I’ve taught a course on learning lead sheets. I found it was most helpful for my students to focus on learning the melody line alone, and then learn the chords alone before putting them together.

The first time you put chords with the melody, play a single block chord per measure in your LH as you play the melody in your RH. Over time you can start learning chord patterns in your LH, and embellishments in your RH that fill out the sound.

Eventually you may even drop the melody altogether and start improvising off the chords.

You can learn more about how to play a lead sheet on the piano here.


So what is a lead sheet? Lead sheets are an efficient form of music notation; they display the melody line with chords so that the most important aspects of music – melody, harmony and rhythm – are preserved.

Lead sheets are approachable to beginner and advanced musicians alike, and because of their minimal presentation force musicians to be creative.

If you are an instrumentalist, learning lead sheets is a wonderful skill to add to your tool belt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *