What, Why & How of Playing Lead Sheets

Have you ever wished that you could be more creative with your interpretation of a piece of music? Or that you didn't have to learn every single note perfectly from a score to enjoy playing a favorite song from the radio? For beginning and intermediate students learning how to sight read, these can be fairly common feelings and frustrations. And there is a ready answer: Lead Sheets!

So before we get into how these work, let's talk some lingo. In my mind, paper music is divided into 3 basic types:
  1. Sheet Music - traditional music on the grand staff with full, classical notation. 
  2. Chord Charts - lyrics & chord symbols only. 
  3. Lead Sheets - treble staff with melody, lyrics if applicable & chord symbols. This is the one we'll be exploring today.
You can see an example of a lead sheet of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" here.

Now that we're on the same page, we can talk about why I love lead sheets as a teaching tool so much. 
  • Sight Reading: Reluctant sight readers are less intimidated because there is only one staff to read. Lead sheets are a great way to build confidence in relying on what you see on the page in front of you. For students who are chronic "memorize-then-forgetters," lead sheets can be an effective way to help break that cycle as a student learns to trust their own instincts in sight reading.
  • Music Theory: Because the chord progressions are clearly marked, lead sheets are a terrific way to incorporate teaching about primary triads, relative minors, cadences, and the structuring of alternative chords (like major/minor 7ths, suspended, augmented & diminished chords etc).
  • Practical Application: Lead sheets are ideal for accompanying a group of people singing. Want to plop down and accompany an impromptu holiday singalong? Lead Sheet. Want to provide a variety of music for an event or party? Lead sheets. This is the music that you can just "sit down and play" almost entirely regardless of level. Not only that, but lead sheets are also an excellent stepping stone into reading Chord Charts (mentioned above). This is important because any musician regularly playing popular music will encounter chord charts in their career. Church musicians, band members, studio musicians, you name it, all see chord charts on a regular basis and are expected to know how to interpret them. Lead sheets help get us there. 

  • Creativity: And my personal favorite part, because there is no prescribed bass clef, a pianist can exercise their creative muscle and build their own two-handed interpretation of a piece of music relying on the chord progression as a road map. They can create an arrangement of the piece in their own voice, perfectly suited to their level. Not to mention, lead sheets are also a great tool for exploring different styles and patterns in the bass clef. Experience has shown us that exercising that creativity helps nurture a love of composing and originality. This is one of the cornerstones we believe creates lifelong musicians.
For these reasons, lead sheet books have become a regular part of my curriculum for most of my students. Especially with so many participating in the 40 piece challenge this year, I am taking advantage of their motivation to learn a lot of music in a short amount of time to curate an environment similar to what performing musicians experience, with several ongoing projects, keeping the traditional sheet music pieces, and supplementing with lead sheets and creativity. The hope is that they will grow into fluent musicians who are adaptable to whatever musical environment they may find themselves in.

I know that more than one parent has tentatively asked, "but isn't this more like guitar music?" when I first introduce the lead sheet book. Hopefully this post has eased your mind, and helps you understand how impactful this tool can be in growing well-rounded musicians, and that guitar players and jazz musicians by no means corner the market on that kind of music education. And in case you're out there thinking, "man, this is really cutting edge stuff," this is not a new idea, not by a long shot. 400 years ago it was standard practice for Bach and his contemporaries to teach their students Figured Bass, which I very recently heard described as the 'lead sheet' of their day by composer Forrest Kinney.* It is high time we bring improvisation back to classical music - but maybe we'll save that conversation for another day, another article.

*Forrest Kinney is a pianist, teacher and publisher, whose goal is to help students become creative, whole musicians. He made the figured bass comment on Tim Topham's Creative Piano teaching podcast.