Why Lead Sheets?

Lead sheets are an abbreviated form of notation featuring just the essential musical information. Yet, in many contemporary music production scenarios, notation is commonly avoided—leading to miscommunication.
June 1, 2018

The following is adapted from the book Berklee Contemporary Music Notation (Berklee Press) by Jonathan Feist.

Jonathan Feist is the editor-in- chief of Berklee Press. He teaches the course Music Notation and Score Preparation Using Finale for Berklee Online.

What are Lead Sheets and Why Use Them?

Lead sheets are an abbreviated form of notation featuring just the essential musical information. Yet, in many contemporary music production scenarios, notation is commonly avoided. This can lead to miscommunication and unintentional changing of musical concepts. Carefully crafted lines can be lost without a written reference. The exact repetition of a concept—which can be so critically important for making it memorable—is more difficult to accomplish when relying solely on memory or verbal communication.

I’m an advocate for using some form of notation, particularly during collaborative music-making processes. While creating music, notation makes it easier to remember, refine, and craft our work, particularly when the concept is intricate.

Lead sheets are often the most efficient form for communicating musical ideas. They are less cumbersome than full arrangements and allow more creative freedom while providing more specific detail than chord charts (which provide only the chord changes). 

In its purest form, lead sheet notation consists of just the melody or lead line and chord symbols. Whereas the classical notation paradigm specifies every note so that musicians perform the composer’s explicit intent, in rhythm section–based music, players frequently develop their own unique parts. What they play will be based on the essential melody and harmony, as well as the musical genre, the usual ensemble roles that instruments play, the primary artist’s current creative intention, and various other criteria. The lead sheet provides just enough information for everyone to be on the same page—literally—so that they can develop a unique interpretation of the tune together.

Everyone in the band might work from the same lead sheet. The lead guitarist may play the melody or improvise, the keyboard player will comp chords, the drummer will play beats and fills, and the bass player will create a bass line. In some situations, transposed lead sheets are provided for transposing instruments, but more commonly, everyone receives the same lead sheet.

Essential Components of Lead Sheets

Lead sheets typically have the following notation elements.

Chord Symbols. The defining, characteristic component of a lead sheet is its chord symbols. A chord symbol defines the current harmonic region, like a key signature, and it stays in effect until the chord changes.  Chord symbols are set above the staff, centered over the beat where the new harmonic region begins.

Chord symbols include the following:

  1. The root of the chord, indicated by a letter for the note name. The other information provided usually has a diatonic relationship to the given note.
  2. The triad quality (other than major) is indicated with a suffix: minor (mi, min, –), augmented (aug, +), diminished (dim, o), sus4, or sus2.
  3. A 7 appearing after the root (e.g., C7), indicates a dominant seventh chord. A major seventh chord requires a suffix such as Maj7 or Ma7.
  4. It’s common practice at Berklee to set chord tensions such as 9, 11, and 13, in parentheses, e.g. C7 (#11). Symbols for dominant chords, such as C9 and C13, are assumed to include the 7.
  5. More advanced structural information, such as alternate bass notes or polychords, are indicated with slashes (e.g. C7/E).

See the chart below for a list of frequently encountered chord symbols.

Tempo, Styles, Clef, Key and time Signatures. These provide a basic orientation for the musician,.

Melody. Lead sheet notation generally means single-line melody, and occasionally includes a harmony line or chord voicings. The melody might have dynamics and articulations, though many lead sheets don’t specify them.

Roadmaps, Repeats, and Arrangement Directions. To keep lead sheets concise (often to a single page), multiple passes through a section are indicated with repeat signs, multiple ending systems, codas, segnos, and the like. Rehearsal letters or names for different sections (Intro, Verse, Chorus, etc.), are further clarified with double bar lines. Text indications such as “Play 4X” or “Vamp Out” shed light on the form or arrangement.

Slash Notation. Time slashes (////) with chord symbols written above indicate solo sections. Charts exclusively for rhythm section players might feature slash notation throughout with no written melody. In that case, the notation is called a chord chart rather than a lead sheet.

Ensemble Notation. Critical instrumental hooks, ensemble rhythmic concepts (stop time, or kicks), and repeated licks (often for the bass) might appear in smaller notation in a temporary second staff.

Lyrics. While arguably straying from pure lead sheet notation, lyrics are a common addition, and they can greatly clarify communication particularly between collaborating songwriters or between songwriter and vocalist. When there is a tricky rhythmic relationship between lyrics, melody, and beat-stress position within the measure, the best way to communicate that is with notation.

The following are common practices in writing lyrics on lead sheets. Hyphens connect multisyllable words sung over multiple notes. Word extensions clarify that a single-syllable word or the last syllable of a word is held over multiple notes. Phrase marks may clarify that a series of notes is associated with a single word. Several verses might appear under a melodic line, but often just the first verse is written below the melody. Subsequent verses may appear as blocks of text at the end of the score. My tune “Someone Else’s Blues” (shown above) is an example of a lead sheet with lyrics.  


Beyond Basic Lead Sheets

There are many style variations in lead sheets, in terms of what information is included. You might see lead sheets with guitar chord diagrams, written chord voicings under the melody, transpositions to different keys, arrangement directions, and more. I detail the many shortcuts and special conventions in my book Berklee Contemporary Music Notation.

While a relatively codified form of lead sheet writing came out of the jazz era, the Real Book (circa 1972) has become the reference point for standard practice. Other abbreviated forms of notation have always existed in music from the basso continuo of the Baroque era to the Nashville numbering system and beyond. The conventions of lead-sheet writing are far from universal and variations abound. Like most things in music and the universe generally, deviation is the norm.

From a practical perspective, it is helpful to learn the many conventions in use and then focus on creating clear, consistent charts that help to facilitate communication. Which is, of course, the whole point.

This article appeared in our alumni magazine, Berklee Today Summer 2018. Learn more about Berklee Today.
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