This is a slice of a lead sheet of one of my favorite jazz tunes, “Take Five”, made popular by Dave Brubeck. You’ll notice that there are not a lot of notes written here. If you’ve ever heard a recording of it, especially by a combo, you’ll know that there are a lot more notes actually being played. In fact, all that’s notated here with dots and stems and staves is the melody. A saxophone, for example, or a guitar would play those notes, while the band would fill in the rest. What would the band play? How would they know what to play? Well, those instructions are noted by the chord shorthand written above the melody. E flat minor, B flat minor seven, etc… These are the chords the rest of the band would fill out. The bass player, for example, would decide what actual notes he would play to fill out those chords. The pianist, or the guitarist would play those chords in a rhythm appropriate to the style.
The nice thing about a lead sheet is that it makes it very flexible. You don’t need to have separate sheet notations for each part. Let’s say your band has a saxophone player, a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. They would each look at the exact same sheet of music, and be able to render their own parts. Let’s say all it’s just a piano player. She could look at this exact same sheet of music, and play the melody and fill out the chords with both hands.
The point is, that there is no one telling them what notes to play and when to play them. They read the basic instructions and they fill in the sound.
But wait, it gets worse. The notation of the melody is incorrect. Sort of. Notice that all of the first few notes of the melody are all notated similarly. They’re called “eighth-notes” and according to the sheet music, they should all be played equally long. But if you put this in front of a jazz player, he would know that you’re not supposed to play it that way. You’re supposed to “swing” it, which means the first note of every pair is supposed to be a little longer, and the second note is supposed to be a little shorter. Even though it’s written to be played “straight”, any musician should know you don’t really do that.
Here’s the problem: Using a lead sheet assumes that everyone reading it knows what they’re doing. If a beginning or intermediate player doesn’t know how to form those chords, or how to create a stylistic bass line underneath them, or how to swing the rhythm, then the lead sheet is useless to them, and they can’t participate in the band. They would need to have all of the notes written out for them in a technically correct way in order to be able to play the song.
So, now let’s look at it from a different perspective. Let’s say that we’re not looking at a lead sheet, but instead, we’re looking at the priesthood manual for a calling. How closely should one follow it? Is it a lead sheet or is it notated music? Are we all in the choir waiting for the bishop to raise his arm and conduct us, or are we in a combo, where everyone makes up their own part according to the rules and according to the lead sheet? Both are musical, and both are thrilling and inspiring to listen to.
To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is!