I like to make lead sheets of songs like this to learn to improvise from, condensing the published sheet music down to a single page with no turns. In working from my two copies of It's Only A Paper Moon I ran into this difference

The Harold Arlen Songbook

The Great American Songbook - The Composers

It's a subtle difference, but an interesting one. But who decided it? I can see the guitar chords being added by some editor, and I understand there are different chord choices to describe a given half-measure of notes. But are the notes themselves usually Harold Arlen's, or somebody else's? And who would have made that decision to change the bass note to fit their chord choice better?

The first source, The Harold Arlen Songbook, lists a David Bickman as the editor, and the second source The Great American Songbook - The Composers, doesn't list an editor, though both are published by Hal Leonard.


2 Answers 2


@Aaron is right in that arrangers and/or music editors hired by the publisher are responsible for the contents of sheet music. One thing to be aware of is that there is actually no exact formula for doing this and also no way of knowing how much input the actual composer had in the creation of the sheet music.

You have a recording/performance of a composition which the publisher decides to sell as sheet music. It is then arranged for piano/vocal (with the melody line usually included in the piano arrangement) then the chord symbols are added, usually with a guitar in mind, that may or may not match what is in the piano arrangement. Case in point: in your first example, the Gsus (or sus over G, that’s a new one!). Whoever wrote that obviously only looked at the right hand and saw G-C-D but didn’t bother looking at the root note in the left hand. Bottom line, the published sheet music can potentially be very different than the original source material. This holds true for songs that are days or decades old.

If you are looking to practice improvising I suggest rather than create your own lead sheets get yourself a good fake book (Sher has some excellent ones although there are many others too) or if you only want chords get the iReal app for a few bucks and download free chord progressions for songs in the forums. You can literally download hundreds at a time. They are not always completely accurate but they can be edited and transposed easily. The benefit to using one of these two methods is you will not have to decipher the old ways of writing harmony and chords in the early 20th century and you will get versions that are in line with how these songs are performed and played today.

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    One factor that complicates such editorial decisions is that not all chord voicings are created equal. If a piece of music will sound reasonable but somewhat bland with almost any voicing of chord X, and some voicings of chord Y will sound better but others will sound horrible, should a publisher list chord X or Y?
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 17:40
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    @supercat I believe the sheet music should be an accurate representation of the actual song so my vote in general terms would be for chord Y. A musician reading chord symbols has to try and be a little logical and sensible in their choices. A chord that is voiced badly, for example putting the 3rd above the 9th on a minor 9th chord or the tonic above the major 7th on a maj7th chord will sound bad in any context. Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 18:09
  • 1
    Some chord voicings will sound bad in any context, but there are some chord voicings that will sound good in some contexts but not others. Further, in something like a piano-vocal-guitar arrangement, the optimal chords for use when performing with both a guitar and a bass may be different from the optimal chords that could be performed by a guitar when no bass player is present.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 18:45
  • Also, what chord symbol should one write if a measure would sound okay with a triad strummed for a whole measure, and would sound better with a bass note played on the first beat and the rest of a seventh chord strummed on the second beat, but it wouldn't good with seventh chord strummed on the first beat, nor with a triad strummed on the first beat and a seventh chord strummed on the second?
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 19:14
  • @supercat I can't tell if you're offering criticism of this post -- i.e., looking for the post to be revised -- or if you're just adding additional commentary on the difficulties of arranging.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 19:22

The arranger or editor will make those decisions. Often they are simplifications (or someone's idea of a simplification) or clarifications, sometimes alternative harmonizations, sometimes the composer created different versions, sometimes they are based on particular recordings that differ from each other, sometimes they're just mistakes (I'm looking at you, Real Book).


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