What’s the Difference Between a Chord Chart and a Lead Sheet?

What’s the Difference Between a Chord Chart and a Lead Sheet?

Lead Sheets have a notated melody line with chord symbols written above and may include words if it’s a song. Chord Charts simply show chord symbols with no notation. If the chord chart is referencing a pop song, it will generally include lyrics as well. In both cases, it’s up to the pianist to provide the left hand accompaniment in the right style and groove.

If you’ve started embracing a more chordal approach to teaching (and even if you haven’t yet!), then I’ve got a really handy resource of some fun chord progressions you might like to explore.

But before I show you the free download (below), I wanted to ensure you knew the difference between Chord Charts and Lead Sheets in piano teaching.

Chord Charts v Lead Sheets

Lead Sheets have a notated melody with chord symbols above. Generally, the player’s right hand would play the melody as written and their left hand would improvise an accompaniment using the chord symbols.

Skilled players will “hang” a chord under the melody note of the right hand so their pinky mainly plays the melody while the rest of the fingers of their right hand play as many chord tones as possible, using the chord symbol above as a guide.

Recommended: 4 Chord Composing – The power of chords and composition

example lead sheet

Example Lead Sheet. Credit: markjmartin.com

Chord Charts are simply chord symbols with no notation (see Example 2 below). If the chord chart is referencing a pop song, it will generally include lyrics as well.

Some chord charts feature basic information like key and meter (Example 1), others just the lyrics (Example 2).

how to teach piano chords

Chord Chart Example 1. Credit: Finalemusic.com


how to play chords on piano

Chord Chart Example 2. Credit: guitarcontrol.com

Chord Charts are designed to be used for accompaniment, that is, the pianist playing from a Chord Chart generally won’t play the melody. Instead, they’ll be using this chord chart to accompany a singer (perhaps themselves) or other instrumentalist.

In order to play effectively from a Chord Chart, a pianist needs to know how the song goes, the tempo, feel and style of the piece as this information is often not shown (eg. Example 2).

[spp-tweet tweet=”In order to play effectively from a Chord Chart, a pianist needs to know how the song goes.”]

Which Type Should I Use in My Teaching?

In my opinion, students should know how to play from both a lead sheet and a chord chart.

I’ll often introduce chord charts when students come to lessons wanting to learn a pop song. Even if the notated sheet music is available, it’s often better to learn from the chord chart as students quickly get a feel for the outline of the piece, they have quick success and want to practice more.

When working with pop, I always try and encourage students to sing while while they accompany themselves. We all know how hard it is to play the rhythms found in pop music. This is because pop songs were never designed to be piano solos.

Much better to help our students understand that, in modern music, the piano is generally just an accompaniment instrument which supports other instruments or singers.

Chord charts are great for this.

If the student isn’t keen on singing, they can play along to backing tracks available on a couple of apps that every piano teacher should have at his/her disposal.

I go into full detail about which apps and how any classically-trained piano teacher can teach pop music with confidence in my online training course: PianoFlix: Teaching Pop Piano which is available as part of my TopMusicPro Membership.

Teaching Students About Chords

In order to play from either lead sheets or chord charts, students need to have a chord vocabulary.

This means that they’ll need to know how to form a triad and what to play in each hand for a variety of roles.

They should also learn a whole lot of left hand patterns and styles to give a ‘feel’ to their playing.

PS. Stay tuned for this Wednesday’s blog post when I’ll be releasing my Ultimate LH Style/Pattern Sheet.

However, learning a chord vocabulary without a musical structure can be pretty meaningless.

Even if it’s only a small part of how you teach, having ready access to a list of chord progressions that sound good (and, more importantly, that students of all ages enjoy playing) makes life so much easier!

difference between chord chart and lead sheet

Thankfully, I’ve put together a handy guide of Easy Chord Progressions that you can use with students of any age or ability.

You can download it at the bottom of this page:

In the 9-page guide, you’ll find my favourite progressions that work brilliantly in lessons.

Use them as a basis for your own teaching ideas:

  • You can use these progressions for teaching more about composition or arranging;
  • You can play along with students playing these progressions on a digital piano adding some atmospheric string sounds;
  • You can explore improvising over these progressions using the pentatonic scale;
  • Students can come up with their own progressions to add to the list;
  • …and more!

These aren’t recognisable pop song progressions (you can check out my recommendations of the Top 10 Pop Songs for Piano Students here), instead, these are just progressions that sound good and form the basis of great teaching points as students develop.

If this style of teaching appeals, you can also get my 10 chord teaching lesson plan which sets out step-by-step what you can do to teach chords to a student over the period of a term or semester in a logical, progressive manner.

This is also available free to TopMusicPro members and takes you step-by-step through what 10 weeks of teaching about chords would look and sound like, including what the student needs to do each week for practice.

How to Teach the Chord Progressions

If this style of teaching is a bit new to you and you want to see how I teach these chord progressions, please download the handout and watch the video below.

It shows you a little bit about how to voice the chords, what some of the notation means and some of the style/creative activities you can do with students.

I tend to keep things really rhythmic and ‘poppy’, while always being very simple.

Even if you’ve never tried this kind of thing before, I guarantee you’ll have some fun with it and students will really connect to the material because it sounds like the pop music they know so well.



If you want your students to truly understand music (and not just play it), your teaching needs to include a chordal approach.

Chords and harmony are one of the key building blocks of music but so often overlooked in the tradition lesson.

Break out of your old approach, throw some chords into your next less (particularly with a teen or adult) and watch your students thrive (and learn a whole lot more in the process!).

Let me know if you have any questions below.

P.S. We also spoke about chord charts and lead sheets on my podcast episode with Susan Deas. Click here to listen to that episode!

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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difference between chord chart lead sheet
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  1. Please excuse my editing eyes, but under Teaching Students About Chords, it should read ‘what to play in each HAND’ not ‘HAD’.

    Really enjoying all this info on teaching modern styles Tim. My students are both relieved and inspired to. Thank you, Gioi 🙂

    p.s. no need to reply, I’ve disabled all the email notifications as it was filling up my inbox.

  2. There are a lot of chord charts/lead sheets available on the internet for free. Is it legal to use these? If not, where is the best place to purchase chord charts/lead sheets? I have been put off from using chord charts in lessons because I don’t know if they are legal or not.

    • HI Ismini.

      While this is not legal advice, chord charts (lyrics with chord symbols above), like those found on ultimate-guitar.com are free to use for teaching and playing as there is no printed music. The thing to avoid is downloading a lead sheet with a notated melody on music stave that is a published, copyrighted version (unless you pay for it from a reputable site). Sites I like are those I recommend to teachers: noviscore.com, musicnotes.com, etc.

      My lawyer always recommends checking the terms on the website about legal usage. If you’re concerned, you can always send the site owner a quick email and ask them. I’ve done this before; any reputable site will answer.

      • Thanks Tim!

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