Leadsheet Playing

Having recently inquired into Pianologist.com and corresponding with KCLau, the opportunity to share some experiences and teachings, spanning several years, has arisen.

Concerning leadsheet playing

I have seen and played from many different fake books through the years. I have seen them compiled from various cultural backgrounds and periods of time; some without any indicated chords; some blurred and difficult to read; some with errors in the correct order of the original, etc. I have heard arguments concerning their legalities. I have seen many sites on the Internet selling leadsheets on an individual basis, in book form or as included in software manufacturer’s libraries. I have even come to the conclusion that many standard releases of popular music contain theoretical inconsistencies that violate clear logic.

In the past, I have often gone to perform carrying much more written material, inclusive to fake books, than I actually needed (and many tunes were found in more than one book). Although the best reason for doing things that way is to handle requests for songs/tunes that one doesn’t usually play, the whole process can make one wonder, is there an easier way? I have found that through the use of music notation software one can fix most shortcomings, if any, given any collection of leadsheets – it just takes some time and effort.

The piano, too, can seem imposing at times from the simple standpoint that it has so many more keys to play than we have fingers.

The same can be said of music theory. There are many possible chords (two or more notes) with a similar limitation. Some form of a thorough understanding of music theory is indispensable if one is to play from leadsheet. If you already play well ‘by ear’, a further indulgence into the ‘how and why’ behind the scenes will only add to your understanding and increase your communicative skills. However, I have heard stories of some musicians playing extraordinarily well by ‘ear’ who do not read music at all, or read only a little, or read a lot. If you are totally starting as a beginner, a theory course will not keep you from trying things out on the piano – it is necessary to hear and associate the different chords to their names. So even if you start out as a reader, make the effort to bridge the gap from the writing to the hearing by playing. A foundation of scales and arpeggios will aid in your technique.

The theory book I recommend is the Tertain Harmony and Chord Manual at:


Most standard 32 measure songs/tunes have the form AABA – 8 measures of music followed by a repeat but with different lyrics, then a change of tonal center (usually a perfect 4th higher) for 8 measures, ending with a repeat (again, usually with different lyrics) of the initial 8 measures. Another popular form is AB – 16 measures each – the start of each 16 is the same, but they develop differently. In both forms a chorus is considered to be the entire 32 measures.

Leadsheets are generally designed to include the originally released melody and harmonization (chords). The piano accompaniment is omitted for overall simplification – i.e., a written 8 (or more) page piano part can fit down to 2 sides of paper. Providing the accompaniment from the leadsheet is a combination of playing a bass (lowermost tones) and the remaining harmonies as the chords change. The melody already has its shape. So the overall effect is hearing 2 or 3 things happening throughout the entire playing of the leadsheet. It is usual for the chorus to repeat – making 64 measures. Often, between the repeat, one may play ‘solo’ choruses in the course of performing only one leadsheet where improvisation of the melodic line (with a basis in the chord changes) substitutes for the original melody, this is formally called a variation.

Above all – take your time and don’t rush. Piano playing is not a race to the finish – it is a means to an end – the enjoyment of music!

This is a guest post by Edward Palamar. Thanks!

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