There are three essential aspects of music: rhythm, melody and harmony.
A lead sheet is a form of music notation showing a bare bones representation of these three essential aspects:
Rhythm or feel is the beat of the song – that feeling that you dance to – and is sometimes denoted as part of the tempo marking. Some examples include ballad (slow to medium tempo, typically with even or straight 8ths), up tempo (a fast tempo), and bossa nova (a rhythmic feel from Brazil).
Melody is the singable part of the song, the part that you remember and that you hum when you forget what the name of a song is and go to ask your friends. It is shown by the notes on the lead sheet.
Harmony (the chords) is shown by the chord symbols above the lead sheet staff.
Properties of the Human Ear
To create an effective, interesting arrangement from a lead sheet on the piano requires an understanding of how the human ear works. The melody usually goes on top, as the human ear recognizes the highest notes in a song as the melody. To see why, try the opposite: play a melody with left hand and the chords with right hand, and notice how much harder it is to hear the melody. While it’s not impossible to make this work – a melody played by the left hand, like Chopin’s Prelude #6, can work beautifully – most often it’s best to play the melody above the chords.
The human ear can more easily discern between notes played in the middle of the piano’s range vs. the extremes. This is demonstrably obvious – play block chords at the bottom of the keyboard and listen to how muddy they sound, vs. block chords in the middle register, which sound good, vs. chords in the higher registers which sound thin. Understanding these differences will help you choose which register to place the melody and chords to ensure that each sounds best.
One of the simplest, easiest ways of playing music from a lead sheet is to use shell voicings. A shell voicing involves playing only the most important tones of a chord – specifically, the root, 3rd and 7th. For a Cm7 chord, only C, Eb, and Bb would be played. For a G7 chord, only G, B, and F. This is typically accomplished by having the left hand play just the root note, while the right hand plays the 3rd and 7th and the melody (with the other fingers, unless the melody is one of the notes you are already playing). Another approach is having the left hand play the root and 7th while the right hand fills in the melody with the 3rd.
Though at first glance, it may seem difficult to split your right hand into two, where some fingers are playing part of the chord while the other fingers play the melody, this is a core tenet of effective piano arranging – adding chord tones in the right hand so that the tones of each chord are distributed between the two hands (not just played by left hand). Here’s an example from a simple arrangement of Autumn Leaves:
Another effective strategy is to move the notes played in the middle range as little as possible. In the second measure of the above arrangement, the right hand plays G and C, in the third measure it plays F# and the same C, and in the fourth measure it plays the same F# and a B just one half step lower than the previous measure, etc. This accomplishes two things: the harmony sounds connected and flows well, and the chord tones played by the right hand don’t distract from the melody by changing too much. Even when two sequential chords don’t have any common tones, it is still usually most effective to move each voice of a chord by the smallest possible interval (known as smooth voice leading) to the next chord.
The feel of Autumn Leaves is straightforward, so here the left hand simply plays the chord roots, but it will often play more complicated rhythms if the rhythmic feel calls for it.
Learning some common chord progressions can help you understand the patterns that many songs have, which makes arranging easier. At Boston Piano Lessons, improvisation and how to read lead sheets are a core part of what you learn. It’ll surprise you how much you can learn in just a few hours, especially if you already have experience, and are stuck on how to improve.
The author of this post, Benjamin Shparber, is a composer, singer/songwriter, and practicing musician, as well as a piano teacher at Boston Piano Lessons, a Boston, MA based piano studio.