The ability to read a lead sheet is a not-super-difficult skill that every musician needs to have. No more struggling through challening fully notated piano music; a lead sheet is a form of musical shorthand that empowers would-be pianists to fake piano skills that would ordinarily take years to develop. In this tutorial I am going to teach you how to read a lead sheet. Let’s go!
A lead sheet is an abbreviated form of sheet music that only shows the most important facets of a song: the melody, the chords and the lyrics. From this basic information, a pianist can “fake” or make up any accompaniment that they want using whatever skills they have available to them.
What are lead sheets?
Lead sheets are a simplified shorthand to a song, which is much easier to work from than fully notated sheet music. You have all of the fundamental material in front of you and as long as you know how to read chord symbols, you are all good to go.
Lead sheets can be found in “Fake Books”, which are songbooks that are full of lead sheets. There are hundreds of them on the market for every imaginable style of music from jazz to pop to classic R and B. You can also purchase individual lead sheets from online sheet music distributers like Sheet Music Direct or Music Notes.
First steps to reading lead sheets
The first step to reading lead sheets is knowing how to read chord symbols. If you don’t have a strong sense of chords and you plan to play mostly pop music, you should check out my tutorial on Major and Minor Triads. If you plan to learn jazz, R&B or music with more extended harmony, then check out this tutorial on How to Read Chord Symbols.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s go through my simple process to read from a lead sheet. This process is a great one for pianists and for singers who want to learn to accompany their singing on piano.
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How to work from a lead sheet
Step #1: LH Root, RH Melody
In this step, you are going to get familiar with the melody of the song. Play through the melody several times to make sure you have it secure in your fingers. Once you have done that, play the Root of the Chord in your Left Hand (that means the chord note name) while you play the melody.
Step #2: LH Root, RH Melody, Sing the Melody
Now we are going to add vocals to what you were playing in Step #1. This step is important, because ultimately you can use this method to learn new songs and even teach them to your students or choristers.
Step #3: LH Root, RH Chord
This step is our first one towards true accompaniment. Your right hand will play the chord, while your left hand takes the role of the bass player and plays the root of the chord. This is a great first step into accompaniment. (Want to dig deeper into accompaniment strategies? Check out this post)
Step #4: LH Root, RH Chord, Sing the Melody
Now it’s time to accompany yourself singing. Before you start singing, make sure you give yourself your first note. This is something that is easy to forget!
Build your repertoire
Run through this process with one song at a time until you have developed a well-rounded repertoire. Remember to start with easier songs first until you get the handle of this process.
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