How to Play Lead Sheets on Piano

Posted by Yoke Wong on 5/18/2016 to Piano Improvisation

Many instrumentalists and vocalists use lead sheets. If you've spent any time browsing online music stores, you may have noticed items marked “lead sheets.” On first glance, a lead sheet may look confusing or intimidating because it doesn't have a lot of notes. How are you supposed to know what to play or sing? However, the simple layout offers a number of benefits over traditional musical arrangements, which may open up new doors for your piano playing.

What is a lead sheet?

A lead sheet or “fake sheet” generally contains only part of the melody line, chord symbols, and lyrics. It's rare to find lead sheets that are more than one, at most two, pages in length. Most lead sheets don't contain lyrics. When they do, typically the song's main melody or “hook” is used as a guide for following the vocals. For an instrumental lead sheet, generally only the main melody is written out. The musician must rely on his own musical knowledge to play the rest of the song.

Why do people play lead sheets?

Arguably the biggest benefit of lead sheets is their versatility. With just the bare bones of a piece of music, you have enormous freedom to experiment with the arrangement and composition and to try new improvisation techniques. Most lead sheets are written without a specified key signature. The notes and chords provide adequate detail to change the key signature as needed using scale degrees.

Lead sheets also provide quick access to a staggering range of songs without having to learn them note by note. When you become comfortable reading lead sheets, you can “fake” your way through playing virtually any tune, especially tunes already familiar to you. For example, if you sit in with a jazz band at weddings on a regular basis and you're familiar with Frank Sinatra's repertoire, you'll be able to play Fly Me to the Moon from a lead sheet without rehearsing it for hours ahead of time.

How to play lead sheets?

Using a popular tune is a great way to learn how to use a lead sheet. Choosing a tune that is familiar allows you to focus on the process of using a lead sheet. Consider the tune “Ode to Joy”. Once you've reviewed the melody line, you can use your piano chord knowledge to add the harmony notes to the right hand. From there, you can add the chords to the left hand. Suddenly you're playing the whole song, all from the single note right hand melody line on the lead sheet.

Reading a lead sheet takes time and practice. As you develop your piano skills and expand your musical knowledge, you'll feel more and more comfortable picking up a lead sheet and trying out varying chord patterns, arrangements, and improvisation methods.

To learn more about piano chords and improvisational techniques, I recommend Learn to Play Piano & Improvisation in 7 Days course if you are a beginner.

For intermediate and advanced players, I recommend the award-winning course - Definitive Piano Improvisation.

To learn how to play popular songs with lead sheet, try our Play Piano with Fake Book Course

If you are a late beginner or intermediate player, Play Piano with Fake Book Series 2 is more suitable.

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Date: 5/19/2016
hello I am trying to find a book which shows and explains how to play piano lead sheets and how to improvise do you know any I have no trouble playing piano from music sheets
Date: 5/19/2016 4:12:00 AM
Hi Colin. Our Play Piano with Fake Book courses will teach you how to play piano using lead sheets and improvisation. Here are the links to the courses:
Eva Gunaratnam
Date: 5/20/2016
Could I order the sheet music for "My heart will praise thee"
Date: 6/2/2016 4:38:00 AM
Here is the order page of the sheet music.
liem tran
Date: 5/22/2016
I am very happy when I received your emails. Thank you so much.
Glenda Taylor
Date: 5/24/2016
Could I order the sheet music for "my heart will praise thee"?
Date: 5/24/2016 9:38:00 PM
Here is the order page of the sheet music.
Glenda Taylor
Date: 5/24/2016
Charli Smith
Date: 2/16/2020
I am at a somewhat advanced level, no where near high-caliber. I can't think of what piece I should play next. My favorite composers are Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Debussy, basically the more famous Romantic and 20th century composers.
Charli Smith
Date: 4/1/2020
I am fourteen years old and I can read music notes pretty well and i wanted to know about how long it would take to learn piano, and actually play decently.
Date: 9/5/2020 8:31:06 AM
If you are only 14 and can read music you are so fortunate! Playing chords is a whole lot of fun, though and you should learn your chords. From there you just play like a guitar player, different rhythms and notes. Left hand for your basic chord and right hand you break up that same chord any way you want to. Experiment! You'll get it in no time! I wish I could teach you!

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