Why are Chord Symbols written above melody notes?

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Here are 4 bars from a lead sheet…

Note the chord symbols notated above the melody. I am often asked, by piano players new to lead sheets, why aren’t the chord symbols written underneath the melody? It’s confusing to see them above the melody when you are playing the piano chords with your left hand. Why not place them underneath the melody like the bass clef staff found underneath the treble clef staff in most classical music?

OK, let’s put the chord symbols on the bottom…

Better? Hmmm. I like to play chord notes underneath the melody notes with my RH to give it a richer sound. Sometimes I forget what I want to play so I write them in like this....

If the chord symbols were on the bottom it would look like this (I’ve coloured the chord symbols Red to make them easier to see)…

It doesn’t work. The chord symbols get in the way, and, those chord symbols not only tell you what to play with your left hand, they tell you the chord the composer wants with that melody note... played with any hand or any instrument. If you are accompanying a singer, you may not even play the melody note but you will play that chord on the piano with both hands. By placing chord symbols above the melody notes it gives you, the player/interpreter/improviser, more room to scribble in your piano chord voicing. When you are just starting to read lead sheets you will likely write in a lot of piano chord voicings. As you progress you will rarely write in chords, just the odd one that is not in your musical vocabulary… yet.

When Bill Evans played at the Village Vanguard in New York people from the audience would approach him occasionally, hand him a paper napkin, and ask him to write out a particular chord voicing that he had just played. Bill would smile graciously and hand back the blank napkin with the comment “finding the voicing on your own is more than half the fun”.

So feel free to write in some extra notes below the melody notes to enrich your lead sheet playing. Everyone does it!

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