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How to Write Out a Jazz Lead Sheet

Making a lead sheet of a song isn’t the easiest task for jazz musicians, but it becomes easier with a some patience and some experience.  While I recommend memorizing standards and your originals whenever possible, sometimes having a lead sheet makes the difference whether or not you can perform a tune.  Maybe the bass player isn’t familiar with the tune, or the drummer doesn’t know the form, or you want someone else to play the melody.  Or maybe you just don’t have it memorized yet…there are plenty of occasions when having a lead sheet comes in handy!

First of all, let’s define what a lead sheet is, just in case:  A lead sheet is a piece of music with the melody (the lead line) and the chord changes written above the melody.  It’s a basic sketch of a tune that allows a musician to play the song if they know how to interpret chord changes.

A lead sheet has several functions:

  1.  A lead sheet lets the melodist know what to play, though if it’s a simple tune like a Great American Songbook tune the melody is usually up for some interpretation with phrasing, adding notes, changing rhythms, etc.  NO ONE plays a standard melody exactly like it’s written. If it’s a more complicated jazz original (I’m making the distinction between the Great American Songbook/standards and jazz originals) like a bebop tune then the melody is generally played much closer to the original.  You don’t want to write out every improvised embellishment of the melody; write out the melody as it was originally intended, and then a good jazz musicians will embellish as they see fit.
  2. A lead sheet tells the rhythm section what to do.  They know what chords to play at a particular measure, but there is a lot of interpretation that happens with the rhythm section!  The sketch of the song is pretty vague for the rhythm section, generally, and there is a great amount of freedom enjoyed by the piano, guitar, bass, and drums when interpreting a lead sheet.
  3. A lead sheet tells the soloist what the chords are to help them improvise.  

There are several different approaches to creating a lead sheet:

Using Another Chart as a Reference

Let’s face it, sometimes you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.  If you can find access to an existing lead sheet, it’s ok to look at as a reference to help you learn the tune.  Checking out the original version of the sheet music to a tune is a great idea if you can find it.

You don’t want to plagiarize, but looking at another chart as a reference can be very useful.

Learn by Ear

Making a lead sheet by ear is a great way to learn tunes!  When I lived in Kansas City, I had a handful of gigs with Monte Muza, who was one of Pat Metheny’s guitar teachers when Pat was a teenager!  Monte would show up to our gig with a big stack of handwritten, laminated charts that he did 30 years ago!  If he wanted to play a tune and no one else knew it, his stack of standards and obscure jazz originals came to the rescue!

Learning a tune by ear is a great way to really digest the tune!

Making a lead sheet really solidifies your knowledge of that tune.  Here’s some tips:

  1.  Listen to 5-15 recordings of the song.  Really dig in and hear how different people play the tune!
  2. Consult the original lead sheet if it’s available.
  3. Set Up Your Page 4 Bars Per Line.  I recommend setting up the page to have four bars per line to help make it easy to see the form, whether you are notating on paper or with software.
  4. Notate the Melody.  Notate it to be played as accurately as possible.  Jazz melodies can be notoriously nebulous, especially at the end of phrases and on the bridge!  Do your best to learn the melody by ear and come to a consensus about how the melody was originally intended.  Your ears will guide you when learning a melody!
  5. Notate the Chord Changes.  Hear the bass notes first, and you can use theory to try to fill in the gaps.  Here is where playing some piano or guitar really helps to check the qualities of the chords.  It may help to hear the bass note first, and use theory to figure out what the quality is likely to be.  Sometimes the obvious quality is wrong!

Some basic tips for hearing changes:

IMaj7 chord is major with a lowered 7th  

iimin7 is minor with a minor 7th

iiimin7 is minor with a lowered 7th

IVMaj7 is major with a natural 7th

V7 is dominant (major with a lowered 7th)

ivmin7 is minor with a lowered 7th but is played as a VI7 dominant chord frequently in jazz.

viidim7 is diminished, with a lowered third, a lowered fifth, and a twice-lowered 7th  

Also, you can really play the II, III, IV, and VI and even VII as dominant 7th chords and it can work in certain contexts.  You’ll hear those sounds on some tunes.  The ii and iii are often played as dominant chords.  The iv can be minor instead of major sometimes.  Remember that jazz tunes often change key centers, especially at the bridge!

I recommend consulting an existing lead sheet to check your work after doing your best to write the chart out by ear.  If you just copy from a lead sheet, you probably won’t learn the tune as thoroughly as if you learn it by ear.  Compare different versions of the tune with each other, because they WILL be different in subtle or obvious ways.  Listening to Sinatra is always a good idea because he sings the melody pretty straight, though of course Ol’ Blue Eyes put his signature flair into everything he did!  Miles Davis played lots of standards, but it’s tough to tell what the melody is sometimes if you didn’t already know the song.  Some players are easier to learn the melody from because they tend to play melodies closer to the original.  It’s perfectly ok to use existing sheet music as a guide, but…



Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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