AP Music Theory Test Prep / Course / Chapter

The Lead Sheet in Music

Greg Nathan, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Greg Nathan

    Gregory Charles Nathan has taught High School Math, Elementary School, k-12 Music and has served as a Temporary Teacher and Guest Teacher/Substitute for over thirty years. Mr. Nathan has a Master of Arts in Music degree from California State University Sacramento and a Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Education from The University of Oregon. Mr. Nathan has a current Oregon teaching license with endorsements to teach Advanced Math, Foundational Math, Multiple Subjects, and PreK - 12 Music.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn what "lead sheets" are and the role of other "song-sheet publications" in jazz and popular music. See a lead sheet, view other song-sheet publications, and discover how "lead sheet notation" works. Updated: 03/30/2022

Table of Contents


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.

"Song-Sheet Publications"

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.

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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.

Fig. 1. is a complete hand-written presentation of an instrumental lead sheet. It contains the compacted (with repeats) melody and chords to The Man I Love.

lead sheet in music

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. is the first eight measures to a different lead sheet of The Man I Love. In addition to the melody and chords, in this image, one can see the lyrics.

the lead sheet in music

"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

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 verse and refrain of The Man I Love.

the lead sheet in music

"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."

fig 4. shows the lyrics and chord symbols above the words to the first eight measures of The Man I Love .

the lead sheet in music

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

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 sheet music - a system of piano music with melody, lyrics, and sometimes chord symbols.

the lead sheet in music

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Frequently Asked Questions

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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