Lead sheet

Entry for EPMOW by Philip Tagg

see also Lead sheet chord shorthand

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lead sheet: sheet of paper displaying the basic information necessary for performance and interpretation of a piece of popular music. Elements usually featured on a lead sheet are: (i) melody, including its mensuration, in staff notation; (ii) lead sheet chord shorthand, usually placed above the melody; (iii) lyrics (if applicable). Such sheets are used extensively by musicians in the fields of jazz, cabaret, chanson and most types of dance music, etc. Lead sheets consisting of lyrics and chord shorthand only are common among musicians in the rock, pop and country music sphere.

Lead sheets originated for reasons of copyright. In the 1920s, the only way to protect authorship of an unpublished song in the USA was to deposit a written copy with the Copyright Division of the Library of Congress in Washington. For example, to protect a song recorded by early blues artists (e.g. Sippie Wallace, Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill, Eva Taylor), musicians such as George Thomas, Richard M Jones and Clarence Williams provided the Library of Congress with a transcription of the melody’s most salient features along with typewritten lyrics and basic elements of the song’s accompaniment (Leib, 1981:56). Such a document was called a ‘lead sheet’, its function descriptive rather than prescriptive, not least because: (i) the most profitable popular music distribution commodity of the time was not the recording but three-stave sheet music in arrangement for voice and piano; (ii) most big band musicians read their parts from staff notation provided by the arranger. However, guitarists and bass players of the thirties usually played from a mensurated sequence of chord names (see lead sheet chord shorthand), i.e. from ‘basic elements of the song’s accompaniment’ as written on a lead sheet in its original sense. With the decline of big bands and the rise of smaller combos in postwar years, with the increasing popularity of the electric guitar as main chordal instrument in such combos, and with the shift from sheet music to records as primary popular music commodity, lead sheets ousted staff notation as the most important scribal aide-memoire for musicians in the popular sphere. Other reasons for the subsequent ubiquity of lead sheets are that: (i) their interpretation demands no more than rudimentary notational skills; (ii) since they contain no more than the bare essentials of a song, an extensive repertoire can be easily maintained and transported to performance venues (see also fake book).


BMI Songwriters’ Guide to Music Publishing Terminology. http://www.bmi.com/toolbox/term.html [visited 13 Aug. 1998]

Circular 50: Copyright Registration for Musical Compositions. Library of Congress, 9 Feb. 98. http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/circs/circ50.html [visited 13 Aug. 1998].

Leib, Sandra R. 1981. Mother of the Blues. A Study of Ma Rainey. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

[472 words, incl. bibl.]