Creating a Lead Sheet

by Keith Hatschek on March 19, 2010 · 39 comments

in Recording & Mastering

There’s some great software on the market that makes it easy to transcribe your music. We compare two programs and give you our take on ease and performance.

For a songwriter getting ready to work with a back up band or go into the studio with session musicians, having an accurate lead sheet of your songs is a great way to save time and money. Rather than asking musicians to follow along by ear as you play your original song while they learn it, having lead sheets to pass out will speed up the process of getting the musicians familiar with your songs and help them to start to add their own enhancements much more quickly than simply working by ear.

With that in mind, I met up with a local songwriter and percussionist, Dan Faughnder, and we tried out two of the most popular software packages for creating lead sheets: Sibelius and Finale Songwriter. For our test, we chose one of Dan’s songs with a simple chord progression. Being as this is my first attempt to use a notation program, I figured Dan and I might be in for an “all nighter.” However, I’m pleased to report that both programs are very user-friendly to the point that in about 1 ½ to 2 hours with each program, we were able to come up with a decent-looking lead sheet for Dan’s song.

At Work with Sibelius
We started by launching Sibelius Pro 5 on an iMac, which had a KORG Kontrol 49 keyboard controller attached. We’d use it to input the chords and melody we wanted on the lead sheet. We selected 4/4 time, 120 beats per minute (BPM) and the key of D-Major. It’s helpful but not absolutely necessary to understand the names of the lines and spaces on the staff, as well as basic rhythmic values for notes, e.g., whole note, half note, quarter note etc.

Next, Dan typed in the information he wanted on the top of his first page of the chart including song name, composer, lyricist, and copyright information. Then we selected “Preferences” under the Sibelius 5 menu and highlighted the Kontrol 49 MIDI keyboard, which the computer recognized when we plugged it in via USB.

Now it was time to start playing the song’s chord progression into the program. Dan wanted a simple piano part that relies mostly on single chords played on the first beat of each bar and sustaining until the next bar. So he chose to input the chords manually, rather than play them in “real-time” which the program is also capable of doing.

Sibelius[Fig 1]
What we saw on the screen as Dan played the chords was that Sibelius was reading the chords accurately. Since we chose the rhythmic value of “Whole Note” in the handy pop-up keypad which Sibelius shows adjacent to your on-screen manuscript page, each new chord was placed on Beat 1 of the next bar. However, we realized that we wanted an additional staff above the piano part on which to notate the song’s melody and lyrics. Dan went to the “File” menu, selected “New” and highlighted “Voice & Keyboard” rather than the original “Lead Sheet” template we had chosen. We had to re input our song title and other information again but once that was done, we were ready to start laying in the chords, on the type of lead sheet we had envisioned.

Sibelius[Fig 2]
Dan selected “Whole Note” on the Keypad and pointed the selection arrow at the first bar, playing a D-major chord. As we heard it, it appeared on beat 1 of the first bar. He then proceeded to play the song’s chord changes and the program placed each subsequent chord on beat 1 of the next bar. While the first 12 bars of the song have only one chord per par, bars 13-20 rely on two chords per bar, hitting on beats 1 and 3. Dan simply went back to the pop up Keypad, changed the rhythmic value from the “Whole Note” icon to the “Half Note” icon, and played this middle 8 section’s chords one after another while the program laid in the chord changes on beats 1 and 3 for the passage.

The song’s chorus returns to one chord per bar, so Dan simply selected the “Whole Note” icon again and proceeded to play the chords for the song’s 8-bar chorus. As he worked, the program automatically added bar numbering into our chart, making referencing any location in the chart a breeze. The Playback Bar at the top right allows you to play, stop, rewind or fast forward through your chart as you put it together. Alternately, you can pause and resume playing by tapping the space bar.

Now it was time to input a bass part on the bass clef staff below the chords Dan had just completed. He played each chord’s root note as a reference, knowing a bass player would embellish the part later. Although he hit a few clams, using the Playback Control Panel, you can simply click back on the measure you wish to replay and start again. After the bass part was perfect, we played the song back and quickly realized we needed to slow it down. By inputting new BPM settings in the pop-up Keypad, we experimented until we dialed in the proper tempo for the song, settling on 84 BPM.

Now for the final steps in creating our lead sheet – inputting the song’s melody and lyrics. The easiest way for us to add the melody was to play it in “real-time” using the program’s “Flexi-Time” option. You’ll want to adjust this feature based on your own keyboard skills as it determines how precisely the program will record the notes you are about to play.

We tested it by recording the melody for the first 8 bars to see how it worked. We quickly discovered that the Flexi-Time note resolution was set too fine. The slightest variation in rhythm or fingering was reflected precisely in what the program recorded and reflected on our chart. So we reset the “Options” on the Flexi-Time to resolve to 1/8th note values and started over from the top. Much better! Like a word processor, now that we had the verse melody the way we wanted it, Dan simply copied it and pasted it into the next verse and then for the rest of the song.

Adding Lyrics
Score With Lyrics[Fig 3]
First, we chose “Create ->Text -> Lyrics -> Chorus” from the drop-down menu at the top of the page. This places the lyrics we would add in the space just under the melody on the uppermost of our three staves. As you type, you use the space bar to move the typing insertion point to align with the next note in the melody. We soon found that there were a few instances in the melody where we needed to slightly alter the rhythmic value of a note to fit the lyrics. In one instance, Dan had played a quarter note, but there were two words, so he used the Keypad to convert that quarter note to two 1/8th notes, hitting the space bar to then insert the next word under its own melody note.

We also found that we had missed a few pickup notes, so we added those notes in and typed the corresponding lyrics under them. The fine-tuning process went on for about 15 minutes as we tweaked a few lyric spacing and capitalization issues, played back the whole song again to double check everything was up to par, then saved the file as a PDF which is a great way to share your chart with friends or other musicians, whether they have a notation program or not. The entire process, including restarting a few minutes into the chart, took us about one hour and forty-five minutes.

Testing Finale Songwriter
Finale Songwriter is a slimmed down version of Finale, an extremely full-featured music notation program that has been used for more than 20 years by many arrangers and composers. We downloaded a free 30-day trial version of the $49.95 Finale Songwriter to my Macbook and were soon digging into the program to create another lead sheet.

We chose “New Document” with the program’s Set Up Wizard, and then clicked on “Create New Ensemble” rather than “Lead Sheet” in order to specify the specific instrumentation you will use for your chart. Finale Songwriter starts out with a default of 31 bars, however you can very easily add or delete bars as you create your lead sheet. We must have missed clicking on a menu box while interfacing the Kontrol 49, but after working through the device set up menu a second time, we had a working keyboard.

Finale[Fig 4]
Dan used the same approach as before, laying down the chords for the song, but now since he had played the song repeatedly, he performed the chords and bass line simultaneously. After a few takes we had a version that worked most of the way through the song, so he went back and made a few corrections. Like Sibelius, Finale Songwriter has two main pop up toolbars, one called the Simple Entry Palette, which includes all of the various rhythm values for notes, the Main Toolbar with a range of tools for functions like clefs, lyrics, zoom, etc.

After checking the piano part to ensure it was correct, we started recording the melody line. Dan simply clicked on the “Voice” staff and then hit the “Record” button, which cued two bars of metronome before he was into the song. As he recorded we noticed that the lower notes of the melody around middle C were appearing on the upper staff of the Piano part rather than staying on the Voice staff. A quick search of the Menus and Dan found the option “Record into One Staff,” selected it, and then picked up playing the melody again. Now our melody was shown only on the “Voice” staff.

Dan commented that the input accuracy of Finale Songwriter seemed superior to that of Sibelius. As we didn’t spend a lot of time tweaking either program’s real-time note sensitivity features, it’s likely that you’ll easily be able to dial in a comfortable level of real-time performing sensitivity in either program that works for your level of keyboard skills.

After confirming we had the melody correct, Dan then went to the Main Toolbar and chose the “Lyrics” tool. He then clicked under the first notes of the melody staff and started inputting the song’s lyrics. This process was very similar to what we had done in Sibelius, with a little tweaking required to nudge in words, revise a few note values to make space for the occasional article, pickup note or extra syllable.

One thing we forgot was to insert chord symbols to our charts so musicians who don’t read piano notation could also play along. Both programs make this simple to add.

After roughly 90 minutes of work, we saved our song as both a Finale Songwriter file and PDF and sat back as our handiwork printed a neat chart of “You’re Not My Dad” for voice and piano accompaniment.

Final Thoughts
Since Dan had access to Sibelius Pro 5 (retail $499) for our evaluation session, the next day I checked online for an entry-level alternative and found Sibelius First, an entry level version of the program that retails for $99.99. Both Sibelius First and Finale Songwriter offer free 30-day downloadable versions that are fully functioning, so you can test out each program to see which best fits your own musical and lead sheet needs.

We barely scratched the top level of what these powerful programs can do, such as playing back your lead sheet with either general MIDI sound banks, or if you have virtual instruments, your whole library of sounds. There are a host of chart, score and lead sheet templates, as well as arranging templates for genres such country, rock, pop, R&B, funk, acoustic, and many other useful and creative options.

While we weren’t quite comparing apples to apples, as Sibelius 5 is a pro-level product and Finale Songwriter is an entry-level product, both offered a good start to learning about creating lead sheets. (After our session, I downloaded the free demo version of Sibelius First and found it fast and easy to start using, just as Finale Songwriter had been.)

Summing up his experience Dan said, “I feel like Sibelius Pro is a bit more intuitive in its design and operation. To me, editing note values in Finale Songwriter was more time consuming than with Sibelius. I also liked how Sibelius allowed me to see the current manuscript page as well as the next one on the screen at once, whereas the options in Finale Songwriter only allowed display the current page or a scrolling view as we worked on the song. (Afterwards, a quick check on the Finale website confirmed that Finale Songwriter’s big brother, Finale, does indeed allow you to view, edit or playback multiple pages at once just like Sibelius Pro.)

Dan concluded, “Both programs have a lot of options, so the more you use either one, the faster you’ll get and the more flexibility I imagine you’d have in customizing individual parts, backup vocals, string lines, or whatever other instruments you could imagine.”

For a modest investment in software and your own time to learn the program of your choice, creating professional-looking lead sheets of your songs will save you time and money. It’s also an investment that will help you to insure your music is played the way your envision the next time you’re ready to collaborate with other musicians. You’ll also have confidence knowing your songs are printed on a lead sheet that clearly establish authorship of your original songs for all to see.

Special thanks to Dan Faughnder for his help in demoing these programs.

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