Piano Lessons – How to Interpret a “Lead Sheet!”


A “lead sheet” is a form of music notation that is arranged in skeletal form providing just the melody and the symbols for the accompanying chords.

It is presented in as abbreviated from as possible, with repetitions of sections and even slight variation not written out in full.

Little Sunflower

The actual playing of the song with full accompaniment is meant to be improvised or “faked” by the performer.

For years, fake books (a collection songs in lead sheet form) were used mostly by professional musicians, such as cocktail pianists or those in wedding or society bands.

These books were invaluable to them because the condensed manner in which the music was presented allowed a lot of songs (up to 1000 or more) to be published in one volume.

Also, sight reading a song for the first time is usually a lot easier from a lead sheet than from a full piano score, the latter having many more notes to read and pages to turn.

They also give “pros” the freedom to stylize a song their own way, rather than to play it as arranged in a sheet music version.

The older “pro” fake books were usually not available to the general public.  They could not be sold “over the counter” in music stores because they were illegal!


Because their publishers did not pay royalties or secure permission to reprint the songs from the rightful owners; hence, they broke copyright laws designed to protect composers.

Probably because of their underground or “bootleg” status, these illegal fake books often tended to be sloppily edited, mistake-ridden and difficult to read.

In recent years, however, LEGAL fake books intended for amateur and professional musicians alike have become available.

Players attracted to the obvious economy of these fake books have been buying them, but unless one knows how to use them, the results will not be satisfying.

Here’s what you need to know to play from a fake book…

First, you must possess the ability to read SIMPLE music notation.  If you can’t, you should subscribe to my adult beginners membership program, just click here!

There are two other things you need to learn to play successfully from a lead sheet.

One is how to interpret chord symbols – that is, how to actually play all the various types of chords you will confront.  This isn’t difficult.  Music is fairly logical and consistent, and a chord type in one key will work the same way in another key.

There are, in addition, common chord progressions (chord “changes,” in musicians’ jargon) which will help you make sense of most of the music we encounter.

The other skill you must learn is how to make the accompaniment interesting – how to give some character to the chords and rhythms in order to add flavor and motion to your playing.

Merely fingering the correct notes of each chord is often not really satisfying – the total effect may be DULL and AMATEURISH.  Yet, it doesn’t take all the skill and dexterity of an advanced pianist to sound professional.

My programs focus on those different accompaniment patterns,and on how to play any song in a stylistically correct way.

By the time you finish them, you should be able to play ANY song in ANY fake book in a style appropriate for the song.

To learn more, you are invited to visit the following sites:






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  • Mg  On June 24, 2009 at 9:58 PM

    This is a very interesting article. I have always wondered about the history of the fake book.
    Playing with them certainly frees up the amateur and allows one to improvise and make some pretty beautiful music. I like it because it is so different from the traditional piano instruction!!!

  • Nathan Smith  On January 24, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    Worthwhile blog and useful posting. I really enjoy piano a lot. I’ve marked it to come back later. If at first you don’t succeed-skydiving is not for you

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