Lead sheets are a simple form of music notation. It is useful to know how to write a lead sheet so that you can quickly capture musical ideas, or easily play tunes you know and love.
In this post we will:
- define a lead sheet.
- give a step by step process for writing a lead sheet.
- give video examples of writing a lead sheet by hand and computer.
Definition of a Lead Sheet
A lead sheet is a concise form of music notation that displays only the melody, chords, and possibly lyrics of a song.
Here is an example:
Notice how a lead sheet differs from standard sheet music. Standard sheet music doesn’t usually display chords, and it displays harmony notes for both right and left hands. For some, just seeing an example of a lead sheet may be enough to start writing your first lead sheet.
IF, though, you would like more guidance in discovering the melody line, finding the chords, and putting it all together in a readable format, read on.
How to Write Lead Sheets
Before talking specifically about how to write a lead sheet by hand or on the computer, let’s establish the things they have in common.
Step 1: Cleff, Key and Time Signature
When you start out writing a lead sheet you will want to write the clef, key, and time signature to the far left of the top line. There are several ways to find this information.
The first is by looking up sheet music. You may be able to find some sheet music online, and desire to simplify it to a lead sheet. If so, use a treble clef (the default lead sheet clef) and copy over whatever key and time signature the sheet music uses.
The second way is to do it by ear. Again start by drawing a treble clef. To find the time signature tap on your lap as you listen to the song. You will probably start to stress some beats over others. Count the number of beats between one stressed beat to the next and that will help you figure out your time signature. You can learn more about time signatures hear.
To discover the key signature listen to the beginning of the song. Stop the song. Then hum. The note that you hum will probably be the same as the key you are in. Keep on humming and find the note on the piano. This takes some practice and is probably best reserved for intermediate and advanced musicians.
Step 2: Discovering the Melody
The next part of the process is finding your melody line. Again you can find the melody online, or be ear.
To get the melody online, you will want to find sheet music of your song. To do this legally, purchase the sheet music if it isn’t in the public domain. (Side note, once you have created your lead sheet, it is for personal use only unless it is in the public domain, or you have contacted the rights holders.)
Copy the melody line into your computer program, or onto your composition notebook. As I go, I would simplify syncopation and other complex rhythms (I can always ad-lib more interesting rhythms later).
To find the melody by ear, listen to the first measure or so of the song, then hum it back. Hum each note individually and try to find it on the piano. Once you can play the melody line for a measure on the piano, begin to notate it on the lead sheet. Repeat this process until you write the melody for the entire song. As you go make sure that your rhythm is accurate (or close enough for your liking).
You may notice that there are chunks of the song where there isn’t much of a melody, this could be during an intro or instrumental break. For a lead sheet you only need to worry about the main melody line.
Side note: using your ears to find the melody of a song may be too challenging for a beginner musician.
Step 3: Discovering the Lead Sheet’s Chords
Lead sheets are often used in jazz, so the chords can look complicated. I have a full article that explores lead sheet chord notation, but for now let’s give a quick refresher on the notation style by using an example chord.
- “A” the root of the chord. It is capitalized.
- “m” the quality of the chord. “m” implies minor, no “m” implies major.
- “9” the extensions. In this case we extend to using the 9 of the chord and all odd numbers below 9 (1 3 5 and 7).
- “♭5” the modifiers. In this case the 5 of the chord is flatted.
Finding Chords Online
You may be able to find the chords above the staff on sheet music. If so just copy the chords over to your lead sheet.
If you don’t, there is a good chance that there is a chord chart for your song. A chord chart typically displays just the chords and lyrics to a song without the melody.
Before copying the chords onto your lead sheet, though, make sure that the chords match the key of the melody. The chord chart may say what key you are in. If not look at the first and last chord of your chord chart – these chords are often the same as the key you are in.
If the chord chart is in a different key, you will need to use this tool to transpose it.
Finding Chords by Ear
Finding chords by ear requires an explanation much longer than fits in this tutorial. Nonetheless, this is an option, and you can click on the link above to get started.
Step 4: Beautifying Your Lead Sheet
If you followed steps one through three then you have an initial lead sheet draft. Now it is time to make it look nice. Here are some tips:
- Use 4 measures per line. Music is typically split into 4 measure phrases, so it is easiest to read if you have a phrase per line.
- Simplify rhythms. Pop music, and especially the verse of a pop music song uses lots of complicated looking rhythms. By simplifying syncopation, and even removing some 16th notes, the music is much easier to read.
- Only notate a verse and a chorus once. Even if a chorus or verse is slightly different the second or third time through, just notate each one once. That will simplify the music.
- Put in section indicators. If your song clearly has a verse and chorus, go ahead and write that in. If not, you may still have an A and B section to include.
How To Write a Lead Sheet by Hand
If you write a lead sheet by hand you should use the 4 step process mentioned above. Here are some other tips to keep in mind though.
- Follow basic music notation rules. For example, note stems go up if the note is below “B” on the treble clef and go down if the note is above “B”. Also, eighth and 16th notes should have connected stems if they belong within the same beat.
- Mark 4 measures per line. Before writing any notes you can mark off 4 measures per line. Music typically comes in 4 measure phrases so it is easier to follow if you have one phrase per line.
- Write smaller if there are lots of 16th notes in a measure. You don’t want to run out of space.
Check out this article for help writing a treble clef.
Aimee Nolt explains her process of writing a lead sheet by hand.
How to Write a Lead Sheet On the Computer
The other way you can write a lead sheet is on the computer. There are many programs you can use including Sibelius, Finale, Musescore, Noteflight and more. My recommendation is Noteflight since you can get a robust freemium account. If you want a less user friendly, but completely free option, then Musescore works since you can download a open source version to your computer.
The main tools and capabilities you will need include:
- Lyric or text tool (if you want to add lyrics)
- Chord tool (for notating chords above the staff)
- Capability to write for treble clef only
Otherwise follow steps one through four of the general “How To Write Lead Sheets” section.
Below you can watch Floyd Richmond create a lead sheet version of “Amazing Grace” in NoteFlight.
Take Lead Sheets to the Next Level…
Do you want to make the most of your lead sheet reading skills? I teach my students to play lead sheets in my course Favorite Song 101. I teach my students the skills they need to play a song of choice, and arrange that song to match their skill level.
You can get a sneak peak into the course by downloading this worksheet on the 3 steps to learning your favorite song on the piano!
Writing a lead sheet is not a difficult process. You will need to mark your clef, key and time signatures, discover you melody line, and then place chords above the staff line in the appropriate places.
If you write by hand, remember to follow basic music notation guidelines, and split each line into four measures. If you use a computer, I recommend you use the program “NoteFlight” and google search the appropriate tools you’ll need.