Lead Sheet: Function, Elements & Notation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Is it necessary to write out every note of the composition? In this lesson, we'll see why this may not always be true and examine one system of notation musicians use to get around it.

The Lead Sheet

Have you ever watched a group of musicians who have never met sit down together and suddenly start playing a tune that they've never rehearsed together? It looks pretty impressive. Well, this is actually an important skill for musicians to learn.

In the world today, this sort of impromptu performance is largely thanks to the use of lead sheets, which are notated and simplified scores. If you imagined the sheet music for Beethoven's Fifth, you'd be looking at pages of melodies and harmonies arranged into orchestral sections. A lead sheet simplifies this into the barest essentials: melody, harmony, and lyrics. It's a way to compress a lot of musical information into a page or two of music. Impressive, right?

A lead sheet

History and Uses of Lead Sheets

Lead sheet notation is among the most widely used in the world today, but where did it come from? This simplified system was primarily developed for jazz musicians in the early days of the style. Jazz musicians were expected to know dozens of standard pieces, but that's a lot of music to carry around. So, they developed the musical shorthand of lead sheets to compress an entire composition into a page or two. Eventually, music publishers started selling entire books of lead sheets. These are often called fake books, the joke (and sometimes reality) being that the lead sheet can helps musicians fake their ways through songs they don't know by heart.

This is possible because the lead sheet strips away the ornamentation and strict composition of most songs. Instead, it presents the melody, lyrics, and harmonic structure in simple terms. Musicians performing from a lead sheet aren't expected to play every note the same way, every time. Instead, lead sheets require a degree of improvisation. Musicians are given the structure of the music, and asked to perform within it. Today, jazz musicians still rely heavily on lead sheets, as do pianists who accompany singers or ensembles, as well as many popular and rock bands. If you understand chord structure, know how to sight read, and can work your way through a lead sheet, you've got what it takes to sit down with a bunch of strangers and rock out a groovy tune.

Elements and Notation of Lead Sheets

Now that we understand the theory, let's take a closer look at the elements of a lead sheet. Lead sheets compact a composition into three elements in order to indicate the structure of a song. We'll take them one-by-one.


Lyrics are probably the simplest element to understand in a lead sheet. When the song contains lyrics, those lyrics appear as text underneath the staff. It's important to include the lyrics to the notated lead sheet because the other musicians may base their decisions around the singer. If you want to add a fun little trill, wait for an appropriate point, like when the singer has a pause between sections of the lyrics, instead of adding it during the most important lyrical line.


The second element of the lead sheet is the melody. Generally, the melody is expressed as a single musical line, written using standard notation on the scale. It exists in part for the musician who is performing it, but is also a reference for the other members of the ensemble. Just as with the lyrics, musicians will base their improvisational decisions on the melody. If the melody is building up to something big, or contains a lot of eighth and sixteenth notes going up and down the scale, then there's enough going on. No need for you to add extra ornamentation as another member of the ensemble. If the melody has a few more half and whole notes, then maybe now's a good time to toss in a little flavor of your own.

The melody in the lead sheet appears as notes on the staff, while the harmony is notated as a chord above the staff

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