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How to Read Lead Sheets

How to Read Lead Sheets

by Phil Barrow April 12, 2011

Professional musicians often use lead sheets to learn new songs, but many music students aren’t quite sure what they are. For that reason, today I’m going to discuss lead sheets with you. By the way, lead sheets are sometimes called “fake sheets” and for that reason, a book of lead sheets is usually called a fake book. Lead sheets and fake books are readily available for purchase in music stores and online.

Lead sheets are a simplified version of musical notation. They make it fairly easy to play popular songs because unlike traditional sheet music, lead sheets only contain the basics, usually on a single staff: the key signature, time signature, melody and chord symbols. Lead sheets can also contain lyrics (if the song has lyrics, of course!)

Helpful Tips on How to Read Lead Sheets

If you’re wondering why you should learn how to read lead sheets, there are quite a few different reasons! First of all, they’re incredibly useful if you want to play a lot of different songs. They will also help you improve your music theory and become a better musician. You might find them difficult at first, but lead sheets are a great way to learn songs quickly and easily. The following information can help you learn how to read lead sheets.

  1. Be sure that you know how to read the staff.

    A lot of amateur guitarists claim that they can “play by ear” without reading music, but in order to know how to read lead sheets you’ll need to know how to read the staff. The staff is the set of five horizontal lines that notes are written on. Each line and space on the staff represents a different pitch, or note. Different pitches are named by letters. The musical alphabet is A, B, C, D, E, F, and G in ascending order by pitch. After G, the cycle repeats and goes back to A. The melody on a lead sheet is written on the staff.

  2. Look at the key signature.

    The key signature is written right after the clef symbol on a staff. It is comprised of a group of symbols called sharps or flats, and it tells you what notes are played sharp or flat in a particular key. If no sharps or flats are indicated, then all notes are played “natural.” These are the white keys on a piano.  Sharps and flats are always written in the same order in a key signature. The order of sharps is always F#, C#, G#, D#, A# E# B#. The order of flats is the reverse of the order of sharps: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb.

  3. Take note of the time signature.

    The time signature is indicated by two numbers on top of each other. It’s located at the top left-hand side of the staff or lead sheet, after the key signature. The top number tells you the number of beats per measure, while the bottom number tells you which kind of note gets the beat. For example, in 4/4 time, there are 4 beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat. In 3/4 time, the quarter note would still get the beat, but there would only be 3 beats in a measure. In 6/8 time, though, there are 6 beats per measure and the eighth note gets the beat.

  4. Look at the chord symbols that are written above the staff.

    This will let you know the chord progression of the song without having to constantly look at the notes. Chord progressions are usually written as a letter or a letter followed by a number, such as C or C7.

  5. If the song has lyrics, look at where the words are placed in relation to the melody and chord progressions.

    If you’re reading a lead sheet for a song that has lyrics, the lyrics can be found under the staff. Pay attention to the placement of each syllable in relation to the music. This will let you know on what note and at what tempo a particular lyric should be sung!

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Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.