Standard Sheet music vs Lead Sheets

Hi, it’s been a while since my last post. I’ve taken jazz theory, when we play an actual 32 bar tune we learn from a lead sheet. We don’t worry much about inversions or in using more than three or four registers. So when I am trying to learn from Hayden, I really need to slow it down so I am capturing his notes of choice. There are a couple of problems: I am committed to Hayden’s voicing and rushing to write down Hayden’s exact recommended voicing (really is frustrating). Is there a way around my inevitable block: for example, should I get a copy of the song with the entire treble and bass clefs written out (like the old days) or should I keep trying to use Hayden’s examples and duplicate H’s fingering and lead sheet voicing? Or should I be aspiring to some type of middle ground?

I realize there are commonalities such as the melody lines, rhythm, but is there a preferred style of learning chords, altered chords. extensions… again is there a particular style of learning that doesn’t rely on my slowing Hayden’s voice to .25 speed?

My goal is to simply have a dozen or so tunes in my tool box. I am not aspiring to comping a singer or getting to learn key changes on the fly, I would be happy with learning the opening verse and then AABA with some embellishments. My style would probably mirror any singer’s whose first name is Ella.

If my question isn’t clear let me know. You can probably hint at my frustration.

Hi Sam,

Interesting question and welcome back!

One of the core differences between standard sheet music and lead sheets is that the latter gives us much more freedom to arrange and to interpret the tune.

As you highlight, one option is to find a transcription of a song and simply learn it note-for-note, but this takes away much of the creative freedom which makes jazz so exciting and enjoyable to play.

When playing a jazz standard that I know well, I will have some tendencies to play through the chord changes in certain ways, but as I am not looking at a transcription I am not bound to a specific way of playing it.

An important point here is to memorise the form and harmony of the tunes that we are learning so that we don’t need to look at the lead sheet. This frees up the mind to ‘play in the moment’ and experiment with spontaneous chords, fills, and note choices.

Yes I feel that the best way is to break this down into 3 key areas:

1) Internalising common chord extensions and alterations in all 12 keys

The first area is learning the 251 progression all 12 keys with the most common chord extensions 9ths and 13ths. You can find that lesson here:

Next we have drills to internalise the sounds and shapes of altered chord voicings that include b9s, #9s, #11s, #5/b13s. Here are 6 lessons which cover such drills:

Once we can play and more importantly visualise these extensions and alterations for any 251, we then posses the harmonic knowledge to make informed choices on our voicings when arranging jazz standards.

The above 7 lessons are not an exhaustive list of 251 drills, but they show how we can take a specific voicing combination over a 251 and then apply it in all 12 keys.

The above exercises are based on the sounds that I find to be both pleasing to the ear, and also practical when arranging jazz standards. An important point is that this will most likely not be the case for everyone as we all have our own personal preference.

The key point is the process of taking a specific sound or chord colour, and then moving it around all 12 keys so that it is then part of our ‘harmonic vocabulary’ that we can apply in context of tunes and jazz standards.

2) Listening & Emulating Our Favourite Recordings

The next area is finding our own inspiration which I touched upon above when I mentioned personal taste and preference.

You mention your goal to have a dozen or so tunes. I would recommend creating a playlist on each of these tunes in Spotify or YouTube, and study these recordings to identify things you like which could be harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic.

Once we have found something that we like, we must figure out what it is using our ears, and then apply it to all 12 keys using the process outlined in step (1).

This is how we develop our own sound and take our playing in our own direction, based on the sounds that we like.

3) Apply To Tunes & Try To Create Our Own Arrangements

The third step is to apply what we have learnt in steps (1) and (2) to the songs that we are working on.

By all means use the jazz standard tutorials on the website for inspiration, but understand that this is just one way of interpreting the tune.

The first jazz standard that we learn to play is often the hardest, particularly if coming from a classical background as we no longer have the full 2 staff notation. With each new tune that we learn, the process becomes easier and easier as different jazz standards contain a lot of similar harmony, progressions, melodies etc…

In the same way, when trying to arrange a song ourselves by using inspiration from our playlist of recordings, the first arrangement we create will be the hardest as we are completely out of our comfort zone. But with practice and with each new tune that we try to arrange, this task becomes easier and easier.

I love the process of learning a new tune as I have a completely ‘clean slate’ and the first place I start is listening to recordings of the tune that I have compiled.

A final point is that our arrangements and interpretations are constantly evolving as we develop as musicians. For myself that’s one of the most rewarding parts of the journey when I go back to revisit an old tune and I immediately find new ways to play through the changes, new chord colours/textures to add, new reharmonisation techniques to experiment with, or new fills and embellishments to decorate the gaps in the harmony etc…

So it’s very much an ongoing process.

Having that goal in place is awesome Sam.

What you have outlined is not a small task so feeling frustration is normal.

Hopefully the above info will help you to understand how I go about arranging jazz standards and building my repetoire. I’m sure there are many other approaches too, but I find the above to be fun and effective for the task at hand.


Perhaps you are trying to tackle too many measures at a time, RELAX and get to know a small small segment, Spend time away from the piano watching and LISTENING to that lesson, You don’t have to enunciate EXACTLY like him, it will be ok. I don’t even read sheet music notes, I used to write the LETTERs down on the lead sheet of the the notes/chords, it was awful, and I did that away from the piano, But amazingly in spite of myself, I learned tunes; And I still have to make myself chew on smaller bits of music. Like one phrase only Don’t forget to relax and have fun, and PLAY the tune like YOU. This passion is to nourish our souls, and you can’t do that by only looking at your deficits. I don’t try to match his exact fingering if something else feels more comfortable to me.
Hit the “go back 15 seconds” button several times rather than slowing him down so much; Have fun with it; You will do great



I just want to reiterate some points made by both Hayden and Lori. I am in my third year. The first year was definitely the most difficult. Even as I learned songs, all the theory did not necessarily click. However, as I continued to work with more songs, I started seeing the light. I could see the familiar chord progressions, the shapes of the various chords, the sustained resolving to the third…etc. Stay with it and be patient with yourself. We have all been there. I am now having more pleasure from the piano than I have ever experienced. I continue to learn and grow as time passes. You will too! At first it may not be obvious…but it will happen if you continue to work through the various courses and tunes. Good luck and keep us posted on your progress!