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A lead sheet is a form of music notation that specifies the essential elements of a popular song: the melody, lyrics and harmony. The melody is written in modern Western music notation, the lyric is written as text below the staff and the harmony is specified with chord symbols above the staff.
Use of Lead Sheets by Musicians 
A lead sheet is often the only form of written music used by a small jazz ensemble. One or more musicians will play the melody while the rest of the group improvises an appropriate accompaniment based on the chord progression given in the chord symbols, followed by an improvised solo also based on the chord progression. Similarly, a sufficiently skilled jazz pianist should be able to accompany a singer and perform a song by himself using only a lead sheet.
Lead sheets are also called fake sheets and collections of lead sheets are called "fakebooks," as in the old cliché "I don't know the song but if you hum a few bars I can fake it." The most famous fakebook is called The Real Book.
Role of Lead Sheets in the American Legal System 
Together, the melody, lyrics and harmony define what a song is. In the music industry and entertainment law, a lead sheet is the document used to describe a song for legal purposes. For example, a lead sheet is the form of a song to which copyright is applied—if a songwriter sues someone for copyright violation, the court will compare lead sheets to determine how much of the song has been copied. Or if a song is considered for an Academy Award or a Grammy, the song is submitted for consideration in the form of a lead sheet.
The lead sheet does not describe the chord voicings, voice leading, bass line or other aspects of the accompaniment. These are specified later by an arranger or improvised by a performer, and are considered aspects of the arrangement or performance of a song, rather than a part of the song itself.
See also 
- Chord chart
- Chord symbol
- Impro-Visor, GUI and text-based editor for leadsheets
- MuseScore, free and open source music notation program with lead sheet template
- Wikifonia, online repository of lead sheets in musicXML format
- Melissa Manchester and James C Ronning (1975, 1976). Alley Music Corp., Trio Music Co., Inc., and Rumanian Pickleworks Music Co. Cited in Benward & Saker (2003), p.76.
- Krasilovsky, M. William; Shemel, Sidney; Gross, John M.; Feinstein, Jonathan, This Business of Music (10th ed.), Billboard Books, ISBN 0823077292
- Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.76. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
- Wikifonia - A wiki for Pop/Rock/Jazz/... Lead Sheets in high-quality pdf.
- Leadsheet Notation Textual notation for creating, communicating, and playing leadsheets.