Learn How To Read Lead Sheets

If you’ve searched through the Musicnotes catalog, you may have noticed pieces scored as “leadsheets.” If you’ve looked at a lead sheet, you may have asked yourself “Where are all the notes!?”  A lead sheet is a type of sheet music arrangement used by many instrumentalists, bands, and even vocalists. They may only be a page or two, but their uses are many!

In this blog, we’ll go over some of the advantages of using lead sheets versus traditional piano/vocal/guitar arrangements, discuss what other useful information a lead sheet provides and find out how using a bit of music theory can open up new doors for our playing.

 So, what’s in a lead sheet anyway?

Lead sheets, also sometimes called “fake sheets,” typically contain only the partial lyrics, chord symbols and the melody line of a song, and they are rarely more than one page in length. Additionally, lead sheets may not have any lyrics at all, and instead may simply display the notes for the vocal line. Many lead sheets are created  specifically for songs that don’t contain lyrics.

When a lead sheet does contain lyrics, most will detail the words for the song’s main melody or “hook” as a guide. A vocalist may simply learn the remaining words and sing the key, knowing they’ll be all set for the chorus and memorable parts when they come around.

This same method is also seen in instrumental lead sheets where only the main “lick” may be written out. The instrumentalist must rely on his or her own musical knowledge to perform the rest.

Let’s look at an example!

We’ll get groovy with the 1-page arrangement for Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” a lead sheet for instrument and chords. You’ll notice right away that there isn’t much here, yet the entire song truly is represented on this one page.


© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

The score begins with the chords F7 and C11 alternating for the first 8 measures. The actual notes from measures 1-4 in the treble clef show us the rhythm that underlines the chord change.

When we get to measure 5 and the repeat we are shown the notes for the melody, which plays while the chord changes in the rhythm notated in measures 1-4 keep on playing.

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

At measure 9 we see the melody return with a slight modification from the iteration before it. Since the notes are different, it too is written out to let us know. The next four measures (9-12) conclude and we are brought to the “B” section of the song which plays from measures 13 to the end and the repeat. Notice the chord above the measures change to C7 at measure 13 and to Bb7 at 14.

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

© 1962 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Many lead sheets are also written without a designated key signature. This doesn’t mean that they should be played in C Major. Instead, this allows the notes and chords written to tell us the harmony.

Looking at the chords shown in this piece, we have F7, C11, Bb7, and C7. Next, let’s consider each note for each of these chords. Even if you are not familiar with chords with 7s and 11s in them, we can still determine lots of information!

As all of these chords are major, we know that they are built upon a Major Triad (1-3-5).

F7 contains the notes F (root), A (the major third), C (the fifth), and finally Eb (the flat-seventh).

Likewise, C7 builds the chord in a very similar way but beginning on C (the bass/root), E (the major third), G (the fifth) and Bb (the flat-seventh).

A chord like C11 is just a 7th chord with the 11th also voiced. This chord will have the same notes as C7 but also contain a D way up on top and would look like the figure when notated on a Treble staff:


Can you figure out the notes which are in the Bb7 chord?

Figuring out the chord tones is a great way to come up with a tonal map. This map will be the beginning of your guide when vamping, improvising and soloing over the chord changes!

 But maybe you want to play in the another key?

Many times, instant transpositions of your favorite lead sheets will already be available from Musicnotes.com. However, even without a key signature or transposition we can still easily change the chords while maintaining the overall intervals of the song. All it requires is a little music theory.

To do so, we’ll first need to figure out the scale degrees.

For this example, F7 is the first chord of the scale, otherwise called the tonic. Let’s take a moment to look at the F Major scale. For reference, a major scale can be determined by using this formula of steps:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half

(Refer to our “How to Read Sheet Music” primer for a review of major scales.)

So, the notes in the F Major scale would be F, G, A, Bb, C, D, and E.


If we count ‘F’ as 1 and continue on, we can imagine the numbers 2 through 7 over the proceeding notes. We know that C11 is the next chord in the song. Which number corresponds with ‘C’ in our Major scale? If you said 5, you’re right! This leaves only one other chord which isn’t a ‘C’ or an ‘F’ chord in the song: the Bb chord. Looking at our guide, you’ll notice that Bb is the 4th note in the scale.

These scale degrees are usually shown in Roman Numerals utilizing upper case letters for major chords and lower case letters for minor chords. We must remember to include the quality of the chord as well when using our scale degree system.

For example, ‘F7’ becomes ‘I7’, ‘C11’ becomes ‘V11’ and ‘Bb7’ becomes ‘IV7’.

Let’s say we wanted to start the song on an ‘A’ chord. If we think of A major as the I chord, we can figure out the other chords for our IV and V positions by simply making a Scale degree guide as we had done with F Major.

A Major: A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G♯

Very quickly we can learn that ‘D’ is the ‘IV’ and E is the ‘V.’ To play ‘Watermelon Man’ beginning in ‘A,’ we would use the chords A7, E11, E7, and D7!

In addition to transposing the chords, one could quickly re-key the melody notes by adding the accidentals of their desired key (to a limit, of course).

As you may have learned, lead sheets can be quite useful and should be included in any musician’s portfolio (and not only because they’re super light-weight.) Shop the best selection of professionally notated, instantly downloadable lead sheets at musicnotes.com, and get practicing!

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and make a purchase, Musicnotes will receive an affiliate commission. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."