How to Read Piano Lead Sheets

By Rebecca Carlson
How to read lead sheets for piano with Hoffman Academy.

What is a piano lead sheet? It’s a song that’s been notated with just a melody and some chord symbols. This is different from music notated on a grand staff, where all the notes are written out for both right and left hand.

Piano lead sheets don’t give you as many specifics about what to play. Instead, there is flexibility and room to improvise. Think of the chord symbols on a lead sheet as your guide to creating your own accompaniment for the melody.

How to read chord symbols: the basics 

The first thing to know in order to play piano music with a lead sheet is how to play triads. 

Triads are three-note chords that are built on the note the chord is named for, plus a skip above that, plus another skip above that. For example, a C major chord can be played by playing a C, an E, and a G. 

C major chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

You can easily create any major chord in root position.  This means the root–the note the chord is named for–is on the bottom. Start on the note named by the chord symbol, then go up four half steps (a major third) to the middle note of the chord, and then go up another three half steps (a minor third) to the top note of the chord.

To play a minor chord instead, all you have to do is lower the middle note by a half step. C, E flat, and G make up the C minor chord. You can create any minor chord in root position by starting on the note named by the chord symbol, then going up three half steps to the middle note of the chord, and then going up four half steps to the top note of the chord.

C minor chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

Major and minor triads are by far the most common chords used in lead sheets. Learning how to play them all on the piano will reduce time spent looking for the right notes when playing from a lead sheet.

You can learn more about how to play different kinds of chords here.

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What can you play with triads? 

You can read and play A LOT of pop music lead sheets on the piano once you know your basic major and minor triads. Here are some places for you to start looking for lead sheets:

Free folk and children’s song lead sheets from pianosongdownload.com.

Free folk and classical lead sheets from free-notes.net that can be transposed and printed in any key.

Inexpensive, downloadable lead sheets for pop, rock, and just about anything else from Sheet Music Direct.

Found something you’d like to play? Here are a few steps to get you started. 

Step 1 – Find a recording and listen to the song. If you have the tune in your ear, catching your own mistakes as you play will be a lot easier. As you listen, look at the lead sheet. This will help you connect the notes and chord symbols on the page to the sounds that you hear.

Step 2 – Top and bottom. Learn the melody and the bass line separately. First, play through the melody several times. Once you’re comfortable with the melody, learn the bass notes in the left hand. The bass notes are simply the bottom notes of each chord–the notes the chords are named after. Once you can play all the bass notes, you’ll be prepared to add the entire chord in your left hand.

Step 3 – Flesh out the chords. Got that bass line down? It’s time to play the complete chords. First, without playing, point to each chord on your lead sheet and say the chord name out loud. This gives you less to process as you’re reading the song. It also gives you a chance to look up any chords you’re not sure about before you start to play. After reviewing all the chords, play them on the piano. Make sure you can play every chord with the left hand alone before adding the melody.

Now you’re ready to try playing the melody and chords together.

How to make your own accompaniment using a piano lead sheet

The great thing about using piano lead sheets is that they’re a jumping-off point for creating your own arrangement. There are many ways to create an accompaniment using the chord symbols. You might want to play each chord only when you see a new chord symbol, or you might want to play the chords once every beat. You can break the chords up; for example, try playing the bass notes on the beat and the rest of the notes between the beats, or by playing all the chord notes individually, as in arpeggios. 

Get creative! There are always hundreds of different ways to play a song. As soon as you’re comfortable with the basic arrangement, start experimenting and find your own way to play!

Extra chords for advanced piano lead sheet reading

If you want to read pop music lead sheets, it’s a good idea to understand some of the other chord symbols you may encounter.

Let’s start with the suspended chord. A suspended chord lets you know that the third is replaced with the fourth. In other words, you move the middle note of the chord up one note. For example, if you see Csus, you’ll play C F G.

Csus chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

A slash chord is a triad with a different bass note added under it. For example, if you see C/E you’ll still play the notes of the C major chord, but E is your lowest note.  This is typically for chords that are inverted (not in root position).

C/E chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

Four note chords and seventh chords on lead sheets

You may want to learn to play chords with four notes in them. This can give your chords a richer, fuller sound. For major and minor chords in root position, this means you’ll just play the root of the chord an octave up, placing it on top of the chord.

Another chord you’re bound to see on lead sheets is the seventh chord. To create this chord, start with a triad in root position, then add a minor third on top. You’ll often see this chord built on the fifth tone of the scale, which is also called the dominant seventh chord. For example, in the C major scale, the fifth tone of the scale is G. The G dominant seventh, or simply G7 chord, starts with a G major triad–G, B, D–and then adds a minor third above, which is F natural.  This F also makes a minor seventh above the root of the chord, hence the name seventh chord.

The G7 chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

Another very common and useful four note chord is the major seventh chord. To create a major seventh chord, first build an ordinary triad. Then, this time, add a major third on top.  For example, a C major seventh chord, or Cmaj7, starts with a C major triad–C, E, G–and then adds a major third above, which is B natural.  This note also creates a major seventh above the root. 

C major 7 chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

A great tip for getting all the right notes is to remember that the 7th of the major 7th chord is one half step lower than the note you started on. The D major 7th chord will be made up of the notes D, F#, A, C#, not C as it would be for the D7.  

Learn and practice all 12 seventh chords and major seventh chords and because you’ll probably see a lot of them on piano lead sheets. If you can play 7th chords, you’ll be able to play a lot of jazz and R&B lead sheets for piano. This is especially true if you expand your vocabulary to the minor 7th, half-diminished 7th, and diminished7th chords as well.

Other chords on lead sheets

Sometimes you’ll see a sixth chord, such as C6. This means that you’ll add the sixth note of the scale on top of a regular triad. For C6 you’d play C E G A because you’re adding the 6th note, the A, on top.

C6 chord on piano | symbol, staff, finger positions.

What about 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths? You can keep skipping past the 7th to add extra notes called upper extensions. If you see a C9 chord, that means you’ll be adding the ninth note up from C, which is a D played an octave up. 

C9 chord on piano | Symbol & staff position.

A C11 would add the eleventh note up from the C, or an F past the octave up, and so on. You can even sharp or flat these extensions, which turns them into alterations. When you’re reading a lead sheet, these notes are optional. They add color to the music. At the start, just ignore them until you have a really strong understanding of the basic triads and seventh chords. Once you do, you can start adding extensions and alterations to your own arrangements, but be careful that you don’t add any notes that conflict with your melody.

Have fun playing the piano with lead sheets

Now you know everything you need to get started playing piano lead sheets. It can take a while to master your chords, so practice them often and in every key. Once you master your chords and know how to play piano with a lead sheet, the possibilities are endless.

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