Tips for Reading Lead Sheets

Lead sheets are a wonderful and accessible means to learn favorite songs on your ukulele. Although they do not contain actual musical notation, they do provide a simplified version of the chords and lyrics. Lead sheets are great if you already know the melody and rhythm of a song, but don’t know what chords to play. They are like cheat sheets when you don’t want to spend the time figuring out all those chord changes for yourself.

Because a lead sheet doesn’t provide the rhythm, strumming patterns, or notes of a melody, they are not as helpful in learning songs that you don’t know. We recommend you know the song ahead of time or spend some time listening to it before hand.

Here’s an example of a lead sheet for the traditional classic, “You Are My Sunshine”:

[Verse]

                    C

The other night dear as I lay sleeping

      F                   C

I dreamt I held you in my arms

                F                                C

When I awoke dear I was mistaken

          C             G   C

So I hung my head and I cried 

 

[Chorus]

C

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

                           F                                      C

You make me happy when skies are grey,

                       F                                             C

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you

                                         G               C

Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

There are two primary ways a lead sheet is helpful:

  1. Chords

The greatest benefit to lead sheets is knowing where the chords go in relation to lyrics. In lead sheets, the new chord in the progression sits above the lyric during which it should be played. For example, in “You are my Sunshine”, the player starts the song with a C chord, and doesn’t change again until the F chord during the word “held” in the second line.

Without the lead sheet a player has to use their ears and listen for chord changes while playing the song from memory. By supplying you the chords, that’s one less component of the music a player needs to decipher.

  1. Phrasing 

Lead sheets are great because they break up the lyrics into phrases. The lyrics are arranged in stanzas, like a poem. They are presented the way the singer sings them and grouped that way on purpose. When you’re learning a new song, the lyrics of a lead sheet help you with that phrasing by splitting the lyrics up into lines. 

Here are some tips for learning from a lead sheet:

  • Start with a song you know well.
  • Look at the chords presented. Do you know them all? Are there some you have to learn? 
  • Think about the tempo (speed) of the song you want to play. Strum a steady beat to that tempo, humming the melody and playing through chord changes.
  • As you hum the melody, listen to see if the notes you are humming match what chord you are playing. This is called “singing in tune”.
  •  If you don’t feel like you are singing in tune, check to make sure you are 1) playing the right chord or 2) singing the right note. Oftentimes the note you should be singing can be found in the chord you are playing, just played, or are about to play. It will feel natural once you find the sweet spot.
  • Lead sheets aren’t meant to be exact. The chords may not line up completely with the word they are with. For example, if a word is sung in multiple syllables, it is hard to indicate the exact moment the chord change happens in the melody. That is why we recommend you know a song in your head beforehand.
  • If you are learning a new song, try playing a recording of it while you follow the lead sheet.
  • Once you understand the tempo and chord changes, think about the original song. What is the strumming pattern like? How could you imitate it, or how could you change it to make it your own style? There’s nothing wrong in starting with a steady beat and seeing where it takes you.

Resources

www.ultimateguitar.com has an incredibly large collection of lead sheets. Although the site is geared towards guitar players, there are options for much of their library to look up a ukulele chart. These lead sheets are great because the player can click on a chord if they don’t know the fingering and a small chord chart will pop up. 

The site also has transposition built into it. If you want to change the chords to a song to some that fit you voice or you are more comfortable playing, it’s as simple as pressing the transposition button!

There are many apps you can download on your phone and to save the sheets, having quick access to lyrics and chords. Lead sheets are a great resource for learning songs on your ukulele!