What’s the Difference Between Chord Charts and Lead Sheets?

difference-chord-charts-lead-sheets You may have heard of chord charts or lead sheets, but do you know what they are?  More importantly, do your students know what they are?  Teaching your students how to use them will be a fun way to explore new music and help them succeed as future musicians.  This article explores the basic elements of each and how chord charts and lead sheets are different.

Simply put, chord charts show the lyrics and chords of a piece (and not much else).  Lead sheets are more complicated, describing things like melody, harmony, lyrics, rhythms, and key signature.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are examples of each:


Chord charts and lead sheets don’t tell everything that’s going on in a piece (and really, neither does sheet music).    It’s important to listen to the piece, and understand the style, to interpret chord charts and lead sheets well.

Before we dive in further…

I created a summary of this article you can download and share with your students.  It lists the differences between lead sheets and chord charts and includes examples of each (using “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  This would be a great introduction to chord charts for a beginner student.

Or, if you’re looking for something a little more advanced…

Chord charts can be very complex or extremely simple, depending on the song and the arrangement.  In preparing this article, I chose three pop tunes that work really well for teaching students how to read chord charts, and that sound great on the piano.  If you’d like to receive these three pop chord charts for yourself or for your students, simply click below.

Select your preference:


Now on with the rest of the article…




As described above, chord charts show the lyrics and chords of a song.  Because they are so simple, they are easier to find than lead sheets or sheet music.  In fact, you can find many of them for free online.

One great resource for free chord charts is ultimate-guitar.com.  Even though it’s designed for guitarists, anyone looking for chord charts will find this to be a great resource.

However, be sure to check the quality of any online chord charts you find.  Because they are posted by regular people, there are often mistakes in them.  (And unfortunately the reviews on ultimate-guitar.com don’t always favor the “correct” version.)

If you’d like three excellent quality chord charts, click here.

Chord charts are the standard for pop music and every musician should know how to read them.  Because chord charts don’t define the melody (and often give little information about the rhythm), be sure to compare it to the original song.  (Here’s a great tip for listening to music on YouTube.) ***




Lead sheets contain much more information than chord charts.  Lead sheets often have the melody, harmony, lyrics, rhythm, and key signature.  However, as opposed to sheet music, they don’t include things like chord voicings, bass line, or accompaniment.  That being said, some lead sheets will contain things like an important lick, bass line, or accompanimental pattern if it’s part of the identity of the piece.

Because lead sheets have more information, they take longer to create.  They also carry more copyrighted material and so they also cost money.  Musicnotes.com is a great resource for purchasing lead sheets of pop songs.  Just search for the song you’d like, and look for the version labeled as a “Leadsheet.”




You won’t find many free lead sheets online, unless they are songs in the public domain.  (Here’s one resource with public domain songs.)



Keep in mind that there are exceptions to the rules.  Or rather, there are no “rules”.  You will find chord charts with rhythmic notation, lead sheets with accompaniment patterns, lead sheets without lyrics, and so on…  There are as many different types of chord charts/lead sheets as there are ways people write the letter “A”.  This article is simply a basic introduction.


Ready to jump in and try out some chord charts and lead sheets with your students?  Click here to get the article summary, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” chord chart/lead sheet, and three pop chord charts.

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