How to Build Essential Musicianship with Pop Songs Students Love

How to Build Essential Musicianship with Pop Songs Students Love

In your quest to help students travel the path of piano mastery, have you ever considered teaching them how to play a lead sheet?

Teaching students how to play lead sheets – melody and chord symbols – of popular songs is the hot new trend in piano studios these days. It’s easy enough to find lead sheets of nearly any current pop song or older standard. But what about taking this idea a step further, by having your student (with your help) notate a lead sheet by themselves?

You might be amazed at the pedagogical opportunities that present themselves.

The Pedagogical Value of Notating a Lead Sheet

The multidimensional pedagogical value of notating a lead sheet became obvious to me recently as I was working with Jade, a bright and creative 12-year-old girl. A new transfer student, Jade had received straightforward classical training before entering my studio. Unfortunately, her ear and note/rhythm reading skills needed substantial improvement.

I suspected that having Jade notate a lead sheet of a favorite song could help her improve all of these skills. I also believed that working on these skills in the context of actual music could be even more interesting and motivating to her than playing a musical game (and I’m pretty sure I was right).

Let the Student Help Choose a Song

Jade was intrigued when I told her what a lead sheet was. When prodded about pop songs she liked, she said she’d recently seen the movie The Sound of Music, and had fallen in love with its songs. (How refreshing when a student likes pop music of yesteryear that is of such high quality!)

Before her next lesson, I considered the difficulty of several of the score’s melodies and chord progressions. The first and title song, The Sound of Music, was perfect, with a straightforward scalar melody in the finest Richard Rodgers style, and only four chords in the A section.

Other things to consider when choosing a song are its tempo, the complexity of the melodic rhythm, and whether the melody and chords are largely diatonic.

These days, a quick search online will unearth the lyrics and chord progressions for nearly any pop song, so purchasing a lead sheet is rarely necessary (sorry, ASCAP and BMI). That said, many of the songs are user-submitted, so you have to keep an eye out for mistakes. I knew the melody well, but if you don’t, a quick trip to YouTube should do the trick.

Five Steps for Helping a Student Notate a Lead Sheet

Since this was Jade’s first stab at notating a lead sheet, I offered her quite a bit of help along the way. (In subsequent projects, she will do more of the work!) Here’s what we did:

  1. The first step was learning to sing the melody. Jade needed help remembering it, so we practiced it together until she could sing the first two phrases. (Singing is helpful for developing a good ear, and a good musical ear is an essential, if underrated, skill for pianists.)
  2. Jade could now commit her aural knowledge of the pitches to paper. (I’ve found that writing pitches and rhythms is a superb way to improve the ability to read them.) I asked Jade to notate the pitches of the melody using whole notes. Actual note values (including stems and beams) and bar lines would come next, after she figured out the melodic rhythm. After she finished notating the pitches for the first phrase, I played them, and she noticed and fixed a mistake (more ear practice).
  3. Now it was time for Jade to notate the rhythm for the pitches she had just committed to paper. Clapping while singing the melody is one of the best ways to help a student figure this out. (They may need to work on two or three notes at a time.) I played the rhythm that Jade notated and asked her if it was correct.
  4. Once the pitches and rhythm of the first two melodic phrases were correctly notated, Jade could consider the time signature and placement of bar lines. (This was also a good opportunity to reinforce other rhythmic concepts such as strong and weak beats, syncopation, pickup notes and incomplete measures, etc.)
  5. Finally it was time to add the chord progression. As this was Jade’s first lead sheet, I wrote in the chord symbols for her and then wrote the notes of each chord – using the easiest possible voice leading for playing them – on a separate page so she could practice them independently. Another fun option is to write out the progression of the chords separately, without telling the student where the changes actually occur in the tune – let them figure this out and notate it.

Notating Lead Sheets Builds More Confident Musicians

Voilà! With a simple, motivating exercise, you can improve a student’s musical ear, enhance their ability to read pitches, give them a deeper understanding of rhythm and rhythmic notation, and teach them new chords and chord progressions. The end result? A student who is a more confident musician.

Postscript:  At Jade’s lesson a few weeks later, I learned that her mom had mentioned a song she liked and said she wished Jade had the music and could play it. Jade told her “No problem – I’ll figure it out (by ear) on the piano.” And that’s just what she did!

Do you teach with Lead Sheets?

Teaching students to read lead sheets is, in my opinion, a fundamental skill for any pianist. Notating them is even better! Have you considered teaching these skills in your lessons? What’s the hardest thing about this type of teaching for you?

Please leave your question/comments below.

Doug Hanvey

Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of 88 Keys to the Blues, a method which helps students master fundamental piano technique and musical skills while learning basic stylistic elements of the blues. The course builds a strong foundation for playing and improvising in blues, jazz, rock, and other popular piano styles.

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  1. Love this idea! I use lead sheets for worship music with my students, and now I’m definitely going to use them for pop songs. Great idea to have the student notate them as well. I can see so many advantages for this. Thank you! 🙂

    • Thanks, Dana. Glad it was helpful!

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