In case you didn’t know, I’m a classically-trained professional musician. I was trained to play classical piano starting the summer after 6th grade (prior to that I played a little on my own and had taken lessons for a few months). I studied classical music almost exclusively for ten years. For that entire time, the music I played was almost always in the form of printed piano sheet music.
Piano sheet music takes the form of two clefs, bass and treble, with a format that ordinarily looks something like this:
This form of music notation is quite exact, where every note is written out, and the idea is to follow it exactly to the letter. To my students I sometimes describe this, half jokingly, as a sophisticated paint-by-numbers approach. It makes total sense when you are playing something like Beethoven or Chopin, or even musical theater, for that matter. Yet it doesn’t always make sense with more modern forms of music (jazz, rock, pop, etc), which are art forms that, I think it’s probably safe to say, were pioneered by improvising musicians, many of whom did not read traditional sheet music.
While traditional sheet music is an amazing art form that I truly admire and love (I have put out two books of sheet music from my two piano albums), while you are reading you generally do little to no improvisation. I have always been an improvising musician AND a music reader, yet, strangely enough, it is only in the last few years that I found and adopted a musical notation resource that is specifically designed for the improvising musician.
That resource is known as a Fake Book. More specifically, a fake book is filled with what is called lead sheets. Lead sheets are simplified instruction sheets that give the musician the basics he or she needs to play the music: the melody, the lyrics, and the chords. That’s it. The rest of the musical choices are up to the musician.
Here’s an example of a lead sheet, one of my songs reduced to simplified lead sheet form:
You may notice how much more streamlined the visual content is here than the sheet music excerpt above. In fact, that example covered only four measures, while the lead sheet picture covers eight, in about the same space. The lead sheet gives you a very compact amount of information to get the job done. The rest is up to you. Although it takes different skills to read a lead sheet than to read sheet music, it doesn’t necessarily take greater skill. Another great advantage of the lead sheet is that, more often than not, you can fit the entire song on one page!
As I said, a fake book is a collection of lead sheets, generally of popular songs that one might play at a gig (this was the original use of fake books, back when it was invented by jazz musicians in the last century). Incidentally, I went down to Kline Music here in Sacramento today and bought two more fake books that I needed. I will use them at a party this weekend.
I have long since put away traditional sheet music when I play popular music for a show or party, unless it’s a special case. I find it much more convenient, and fun, to just have the fake book. I have all the skills I need to come up with my own renditions of songs. And though I love reading sheet music, I love the freedom that improvising gives.
Have Fake Book, will travel!