How to play a lead sheet – Part 2

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If you are reading this lesson before reading my first lesson on playing lead sheets, please take the time to read it here before continuing.

To review the last lesson, I explained why I think there is value in knowing how to read lead sheets, and gave you four steps to get started.  Here they are again.

I also gave you a lead sheet to start practicing with.  Don’t be frustrated if you did not get as far with it as you would like–this is not something you are likely to
learn in a week.  Today, I am going to give you one way to play this lead sheet and introduce the fourth step in the process.  Then I am going to let you keep practicing for a while.

Here is one way to play the lead sheet I gave you last week.

If you would like to print this arrangement, click here.

Here are a few things I would like to point out.

  • Notice that you do not have to play anything technically complicated to be beautiful.  You simply need some interesting harmony.
  • I have changed one chord from the original lead sheet.  In measure 9, I changed the first chord from F to Fmaj7.
  • You may wonder why I wrote the E in measure 7 as a grace note.  To avoid
    confusion, I wanted to include an E because it is the 3rd of the chord.  However, it sounds heavy to me when played in the chord as normal.  Playing it as a grace note gets the 3rd into the chord without sounding strange.  In real life, I would likely not play it at all.
  • In general, I have not added color notes to this arrangement.  However, there are a few exceptions. When you stumble across notes that do not seem like they belong in the chord as named, don’t let it throw you.
  • In many cases, the 5th is not included.  As I have written before, it is not necessary, and when I add more color notes, I will use even less 5ths.
  • You may be wondering why I chose the chords I did for this lead sheet.  That
    is a complex subject that I will talk about in more detail later.  However, notice the bass line tends to go in a step motion for much of the song.  That is one of the keys to the effectiveness of this harmonization.

Now, let’s talk about the color notes.  I wish I could give you a simple formula to figure out what notes to add but I can’t.  I could give you a very complex formula, but you would run away screaming.  Suffice it to say that while there are good reasons why some color notes work well in some situations and not so well in others, it is really beyond the scope of these lessons (at least at this point).

If you are extremely anxious to learn the theory behind color notes, it is time for you to get a personal teacher that is an expert in theory and start practicing an hour or two a day.  Otherwise, I just want you to start experimenting and finding out what sounds good.  Take heart–I played these kinds of chords and color notes for years before actually understanding the theory behind them.

Here is the biggest thing you need to know–this is all about context.  A chord that sounds hideous in one spot of the song might make you sound like a genius a few measures later.  Playing a complex chord by itself may sound dissonant and ugly but put in the right context, might be gorgeous.

Want an example of this phenomenon? Play this chord by itself and notice how ugly and jarring it sounds:

Now play this line from “No Not One” and listen to how good the chord sounds in the third beat of the first measure:

Here is what I want you to do this week.  Print my little arrangement of “Take My Life” from above and start trying to add color notes to it. Here are the possibilities for each of the common chords.  By the way, take a moment and memorize that the 9th is the 2nd, the 11th is the 4th, and the 13th is the 6th.

b9, 9, #9, 11, #11,
b13, 13
b9, 9, #9, 11, #11,
b13, 13
b9, 9, 11, b13, 13

Keep the chord from the leadsheet, but feel free to voice them differently from the way I wrote them.  You will have to move notes around to make the
color notes fit well.

To get you started, here are the first three measures with a few color notes added.

OK, time to get to work. Take your time and focus on experimentation.  When you find something you like, make a note of it.  Above all, remember that beauty is the top priority.  Don’t forsake beauty just to get an interesting chord into the arrangement.

Practice strategy:
Continue to work on playing “Take My Life” from the lead sheet and start experimenting with adding color notes.