The Lead Sheet in Music
What Is a Lead Sheet
A lead sheet is a written music publication of a song, usually one page in length. A lead sheet takes a "shortcut" to the performance of traditionally-noted music. A lead sheet simplifies the written music's essentials, making the performance of a song easier. Using a lead sheet, musicians who are only partially proficient in traditional music notation can perform a chosen song surprisingly well.
Historically, lead sheets were first used as a notational technique in jazz. "In its purest form, lead sheet notation consists of just the melody or lead line and chord symbols" (Jonathan Feist, Berkley School of Music).
Hand-written (as opposed to type-set) lead sheets whose source is not from the song's composer are "informal." Hand-written lead sheets with no lyrics can be accurate, but they might contain errors or purposely change the composer's notes, rhythms, or harmonies. It is advisable to use caution if the lead sheet comes from a source other than the composer.
While the lead sheet is the most commonly used "song-sheet publication," this lesson will present seven types of "song-sheet publications." These are the: lead sheet, vocal lead sheet, lyric sheet, vocal cheat sheet, sheet music, chart, and fine-art music (a notated arrangement of a song's melody). Each has similarities, but there are important distinctions between them. Before beginning to examine the seven different types of song-sheet publications, some background on the song used as an example in this lesson will be helpful.
George Gershwin is recognized as a "great composer." His "Rapsody in Blue," "Piano Concerto in F," "An American in Paris," and the American opera "Porgy and Bess" qualify him as one of America's most significant composers of fine art music (Daniel Kingman, "American Music: a Panorama").
Early in their lives, George and his lyricist-brother, Ira Gershwin, wrote songs for at least fourteen musicals before George died of a brain tumor at age 38. A few of those songs have recently entered the public domain. One such song is "The Man I Love," which will uniquely fill the example needs of this lesson.
Lead Sheet Example
The instrumental lead sheet is the most common type of song-sheet publication. The ability to perform enjoyable instrumental music from only a lead sheet is a skill music performers develop, especially where the presentation of live jazz music is concerned.
To find the melody on a lead sheet, one would look on the staff. An important role of the lead sheet is to document the song's melody accurately. Knowing the composer's intent for the harmony of the melody is another important purpose of the lead sheet. Chord symbols above the melody tell what harmonies to play with the melody.
"Fig. 1" is a "hand-written" instrumental lead sheet. Lead sheets serve as a way to perform songs in public while the musician is only slightly familiar with how the tune goes.
A fake book in music is a collection of lead sheets, where multiple lead sheets are bound together to form a book. Along with the melody, the lead sheets in fake books also present the "chord structure" ("chord progressions" ) of the included songs, spelled out using lead sheet notation.
Ultimately, performers, especially jazz performers, use the strength of their inner ears to play what they hear. If they know how a melody goes in their head, they often perform it, manipulating misses into delayed hits, much to their audience's interest and amazement. However, sometimes even the best set of jazz-musician inner ears confesses, "I need a lead sheet to play this tune!"
Performers can receive lead sheets to use on the job, but the "keys" of the hired "transposing" instruments must be considered (C instruments are "concert-key" instruments). Some Bb instrumentalists can "transpose" up to the key "concert C" without reading a transposed fake book. Some transposing instrumentalists can transpose to keys further away than a whole step (Bb to C), but few are so skilled.
Many fake books are marketed in the common keys that accommodate transposing instruments. Fake books can come in the key of "concert C" or transposed to "Bb," "Eb," and "bass clef." "Vocal" fake books (fake books with lyrics) are available in the same keys as the instrumental editions.
Most commonly, for live performances, fake books appear without lyrics and are intended to aid the creation of instrumental music. Instrumentalists play together better if they are all reading from the same fake book. Fake books are especially valuable where performers might be the object of "requests" from patrons to perform songs they don't know well. Fake books enable such musicians to please "requesting patrons." Vocal fake books are handy because instrumental-group soloists need to know the lyrics for the song so they can see where to add jazz fills without interrupting the lyrics' flow.
Vocal Lead Sheets
A vocal lead sheet can be a new song from a songwriter seeking a "first recording." Such vocal lead sheets are accurate, primary sources coming directly from the composer's hand. Instead of being type-set, this kind of lead sheet is typically hand-written. However, one should be careful using hand-written vocal lead sheets whose source is not the song's composer.
"Fig. 2" shows an eight-bar vocal lead sheet excerpt that is from "another" lead sheet to "The Man I Love." This lead sheet has different chord symbols and doesn't use repeats, (so the lyrics receive a "neat" presentation).
Songs are most commonly composed with words, so one would think the most common lead sheet is the vocal lead sheet. However, there is validity to the understanding that lead sheets are intended for "lead" instruments other than the human voice. Both instrumental and vocal lead sheets are common because "who is in the lead" is a choice made according to the music producers' desires. Most "live jazz" producers bring forward instrumental music, while "live vocal jazz" is less frequently produced. Therefore, where jazz is concerned, the number of instrumental lead sheets used is greater than vocal lead sheets. Together, instrumental and vocal lead sheets establish the "lead sheet" as the most widely-used song-sheet publication.
Accuracy of the concerned song's words and music is important because a vocal lead sheet is frequently the foundation for a bigger musical work created by a musical arranger. "Arrangers help finish, rework, and adapt preexisting compositions by altering elements such as instrumentation, orchestration, harmony, tempo, and genre" (Berkley School of Music).
Where the writing of songs is concerned, ideally, the lyrics come first and dictate how the melody is composed. For that reason, the words being present for an arranger is essential. Seeing the lyric, an arranger can answer questions regarding why a melody goes the way it does.
Arrangers usually begin with a composer's hand-written vocal lead sheet and notate individual "parts" for ensembles, expanding what was once a tool for "general music-making" to an ability for "specific music-making." The former breeds "functional music," while the latter yields "fine art music." If a lead sheet is all the composer has produced, the arranger, through his specific notation, advances the composer's melody and harmony to music "at a higher level." Arrangers are invaluable in bringing songs forward to be more "serious" rather than leaving them to exist only in the form of a lead sheet.
It is understood that arrangers add their creativity to a song written by someone else. Sometimes the songwriter/composer is consulted before the publication of a collaboration, and sometimes not.
Unfortunately, things get confused and become more complex when the direction goes the other way. Lead sheets sometimes come into existence from musicians seeking a method to perform popular, in-demand recorded music. To the best of their ability, such musicians create a lead sheet, perform the song, and share their lead sheet. Such occurrences can confound knowing the composer's true intent for the song.
Lyric sheets are a well-organized presentation of the song's words and are valuable song-sheet publications. Vocalists use lyric sheets to facilitate learning a song's words and in the recording studio to eliminate mistakes.
"Fig. 3 shows the lyrics to "The Man I Love," including the verse. If the vocalist plans to record a song, researching what was originally written for the lyric, including the verse (even if the verse will be left off, as is commonly done,) is a good idea. (Vocalists researching a song's melody as originally written is similarly beneficial.)
Vocal Cheat Sheets
The song-sheet publication needs of "singer-players" are worth considering. Singer-players are a special breed of vocalists because they accompany themselves. It turns out that singer-players fondly revere the "vocal cheat sheet."
In "fig. 4," one can see a "vocal cheat sheet" is just lyrics and chord symbols. The singer-player knows the melody but can use chord-symbol and lyric reinforcement. In this way, vocal cheat sheets facilitate strong renditions of the concerned song. Since singer-players greatly appreciate this kind of help, vocal cheat sheets are common among them on the job and in the recording studio.
Sheet music is not to be confused with lead sheets. Sheet music specifies the accompaniment to the melody with exact music notation. Sheet music is most commonly a three-staves "system" of piano accompaniment and melody with lyrics underneath the melody. Sometimes sheet music includes chord-symbol notation, but it is not a requirement of "sheet music."
"Fig 5" shows the original 1924 sheet music to "The Man I Love," now in the public domain (https://www.pdinfo.com/pd-music-genres/pd-popular-songs-1924.php). Sheet music includes lyrics, but chord symbols are optional. If sheet music has chord symbols, it is sheet music and a lead sheet combined (creating value as a two-for-one).
Sheet music arranged by the song's composer is the best research reference to uncover before producing a song's sound recording or written publication. The type of product shown in "fig. 5" is formal (type-set) and arranged by the composer, which adds certainty to the accuracy of the product.
A song's sheet music is commonly sold individually, often with nice artwork or photography for a cover, or sheet music can be bound as a collection of songs and published as a book. The notated piano accompaniments found in sheet-music collections can come from one or several arrangers.
The ability to perform sheet music's exact notation requires advanced music performance skills. Due to the exact notation of the accompaniment, sheet music is a valuable resource for performers interested in presenting a reputable rendition of a targeted song.
The chart is a step down from the lead sheet. Sometimes musicians refer to a lead sheet as a "chart," but that is inaccurate.
"Fig. 6" shows a guitar chart based on the "changes" (chords) from the lead sheet in "fig. 1." A chart doesn't contain the song's melody. A chart has rhythm slashes for each beat and chord symbols to indicate the "changes." If all an instrumentalist does is read the chord symbols from a lead sheet, that instrumentalist uses a lead sheet as if it was a chart.
The musicians who play the common instruments of the jazz rhythm section (piano, guitar, string bass, and drums) can often be heard discussing various possibilities for the "changes" to a tune. The reference to a song's chords as the "changes" is only one term from the charming vernacular audible in the world of jazz musicians.
While the notes of melodies don't vary much from lead sheet to lead sheet, the melody's rhythm can vary a bit more, and the "changes" from one lead sheet to another can vary quite a bit. Some lead sheets (and even sheet music) come with "alternate changes" written above the given chord symbols.
Fine Art Music (A Notated Arrangement of a Song's Melody)
A step up from sheet music is an arrangement of a song's melody, harmonized in specific notation by the composer, where the product then qualifies as fine art music.
Fig. 7 shows the 1924 (public domain) publication of Gershwin's The-Man-I-Love "piano arrangement" (https://imslp.org/wiki/The_Man_I_Love_(Gershwin%2C_George). This publication is "fine art music" (music writing at the highest level), where the composer's control of the outcome is the greatest. Music where all involved are subservient to the composer, such that no deviation from the printed music is allowed, fairly defines "fine art music."
The letter name of a chord symbol signifies the harmony's "root." If a C appears above the staff in the lead sheet, the harmony should be focused around the C-major chord triad. For such an occurrence, the note "C" belongs in the bass as the harmony's "root." One would be going in the right direction if one did nothing else but played the melody as one part with the song's "roots" in the bass for another part.
Often, to the right of the letter-name (root), a text description tells if the triad's mode is "major" or "minor." Sometimes, one will see "dim" for diminished or "aug" for augmented, indicating the triad's harmony (mode) based on consecutive minor or major thirds, respectively (diminished and augmented are different harmonies than major and minor).
The "numbers" in chord symbols indicate fourth "harmony-notes" measured the interval from the root indicated by the number. One might also see flats and sharps that indicate lowering or raising the additional fourth harmony-note a half step accordingly. Pluses (+) and minuses (-) instead of flats and sharps are alternately used to make half-step adjustments on fourth "harmony-notes" (accordingly).
Harmonies can have more than four notes and frequently do, but the "voicing" of chord symbols is not specified through lead-sheet notation. Where lead sheets are concerned, the voicing of harmonies is determined according to the artistic taste of the performer. However, it is understood that a "C-thirteenth" chord requires playing the minor seventh while probably including some form of the ninth, making it a six-note chord if one includes the fifth. One should begin to see one can make many choices regarding the voicing of lead-sheet chord symbols, where a large number of possibilities might be acceptable.
One exception to lead-sheet "voicing freedom" is sometimes composers want notes other than the root in the bass, and lead sheets commonly indicate this. After the chord symbol, a "slash " means: play the following letter-named note in the bass. One can see such indications happening in the last eight bars of the lead sheet in "fig. 1." Musicians performing from lead sheets are free to use such "root indications" or ignore them.
An instrumental lead sheet is the song's notated melody with chord symbols written above the melody. If a C appears above the staff in the lead sheet, the harmony should be focused around the C-major chord triad. Vocal lead sheets are instrumental lead sheets with lyrics. Lead-sheet notation includes chord symbols that show letter names followed by various combinations of text, numbers, characters, and symbols. A fake book in music is a collection of lead sheets, can come in different keys to accommodate transposing instruments, and may or may not include lyrics to accommodate vocalists. The seven different types of song-sheet publications include the lead sheet, vocal lead sheet, lyric sheet, vocal cheat sheet, sheet music, chart, and fine-art music (a notated arrangement of a song's melody).
Historically, lead sheets were first used as a notational technique in jazz. Songwriters distribute vocal lead sheets, and an arranger might go to work with such a lead sheet, adding his creativity to the songwriter's work while also increasing the "seriousness" of the composition. Type-set and hand-written lead sheets from composers are "formal," while hand-written lead sheets from sources other than the composer are "informal." Instrumentalists of an ensemble need to know the lyrics to the song so they can see where to add jazz fills without interrupting the lyrics' flow. Lead sheets commonly have words, but they are instrumental most often (within the jazz genre).
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What is a lead sheet used for?
The most common uses for lead sheets are to improve the knowledge of how a song goes and as a reference to research a song's composition. Musicians who are slightly familiar with a tune can confidently perform the song with the aid of a lead sheet. Arrangers can get some questions they might have answered through referencing a lead sheet.
What is the difference between a lead sheet and sheet music?
Lead sheets present the chords, melody, and sometimes the song's lyrics. Sheet music presents the song's words and melody and a notated piano accompaniment. Sheet music often includes chord symbols, but it is not a requirement. If sheet music has chord symbols, it is sheet music and a lead sheet combined (to add value - a two-for-one).
What should be on a lead sheet?
A lead sheet should contain the title, the names of the composer and lyricist, the chords, melody, tempo, and style. The lead sheet should also indicate the song's copyright information.
How do you label lead sheet symbols?
The symbols on lead sheets should be marked directly above the melody according to when they occur. The chord symbols should be notated using letter names, text, numbers, characters, and symbols.
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