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I'm writing a chord chart in a pseudo-lead-sheet format so I want to be concise.

I can say the bass note of my C chord should be a G by writing "C/G".

Is there a convention for saying - using letter names and symbols - the TOP note of my C chord should be a G without actually writing the note on the stave?

(I can make something up, like "C^G", but I was wondering what people have seen and if there's any accepted format.)

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    Writing just the top note in the staff would be a good way to at least suggest that players make that the top note when they voice the chord, or make it stand out. Is there a reason why you don't want to put it in the staff? Jan 16 at 0:02
  • Not an exact duplicate, but a related question: music.stackexchange.com/q/38624/63781 Jan 16 at 0:51
  • Also not a duplicate but my answer would apply: music.stackexchange.com/questions/130706/…
    – Edward
    Jan 16 at 1:48
  • What's important to consider is that, in general, [western] music harmony uses 3 hierarchical elements: bass + other voices (creating the general harmony) and melody. The bass is fundamental (pun intended) to provide a harmonic reference, and while other voices (and instruments, including amount and dynamics) may affect the general color of a harmony, choosing the top voice of the harmony (which could or could not be the melody) generally doesn't change that much. In a context that doesn't indicate instrumentation, specifying that top note may be ambiguous, if not misleading - or even wrong. Jan 16 at 2:42
  • I agree with Todd. Instead of a pseudo lead sheet, why not use an actual lead sheet. The notes on the stave kind of do specify the highest notes, or at least that's how full piano accompaniment is often carried out from lead sheets. Jan 18 at 2:14

4 Answers 4

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NOTE: This isn't just letters and chord symbols, but I thought it was relevant and worth posting.

TLDR: This thing called 'Leadline' or 'Topline' exists apparently, but it doesn't seem to be documented anywhere else I could find online. It's basically a lead sheet with funny looking note heads and stems extending on both sides.

Staff melody line and chord symbols above.  The notes in the melody have normal stems going up, but they also have stems (without flags) extending downward.

EDIT: Heres the story...

I have been thinking about this for some theater arranging I am doing right now. Some comping stuff really needs a certain note to ring out above the chord, which is difficult with just rhythm notation.

I figured something like that would exist already, especially for more sparse music where every note counts. But a quick search found nothing. So I gave up and moved on to other things.

Later, I figured I could write a melody note and put a chord symbol above it, and mention that the top note should be on the highest note in the voicing. The wording would be pretty cumbersome, but it would get the point across at least.

However, I decided to do one more search with that idea in mind. Lo and behold, my idea had already been done more than 10 years ago. (There's another point to postmodernism, I guess)

I found this thread first, but a bit further down in the search I found another page, which has a brief description of the notation, and a MUCH longer explanation of how to do the notation in Finale and Sibelius. (Probably outdated information now though)

Apparently it's called 'Leadline' or 'Topline' notation, both of which I have never heard before. The gist of it seems to be that you just add the top note of the chord in your music stave, and add stems in both directions from the notehead. Then, you add the chord symbol above that.

Unfortunately that was the only resource I could find on that notation style. Further searches for 'Leadline' basically just shows lead sheets, and 'Topline' seems to reference a pop arrangement thing (I'm jazz focused, so I've no idea whether it's derived from one or the other, but they don't seem to be related at a glance). There was a free topline plugin for Finale, but that seems to be related to the page I found anyway.

Seems like I'll need that cumbersome explanation for my arrangements either way.

Here are the links I found:

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  • The notation can be seen in this question: Meaning of a stem extending to both sides of a notehead Apr 10 at 12:03
  • The “funny looking note heads” (the slashes and large diamonds) are used to indicate the rhythm, without suggesting any particular notes. Apr 10 at 12:35
  • @ElementsInSpace Ah, I haven't seen anything like it in my big band charts, but its good to know that its used there too! I do know about rhythm notation, im just bad at speaking my mind :P I meant to just say weird stems. (The example I found looks weird to me anyway, the big band example from that question looks much more natural to me) Thanks for adding the image!
    – BugBaron
    Apr 10 at 12:48
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There is no convention for specifying anything but the lowest pitch. Anything beyond that would have to be your own notation.

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  • It's obviously the correct answer, but since the note most folk hear best is the highest, maybe there should be a conventional way to name the 'inversion'
    – Tim
    Jan 16 at 9:54
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    @Tim People only hear it best if there are no other melodic lines.  In which case, isn't that top line functioning as a melody, and not simply as part of the chord?  If it's that important, perhaps it should be notated as a melody separately?
    – gidds
    Jan 16 at 15:38
  • @gidds - interesting point. Whenever I've played stuff which needed the melody and the chords under it, those melody notes have been inevitably the highest ones in the underlying chords.
    – Tim
    Jan 16 at 15:42
  • @Tim Yes, it's common to play both melody and harmony on instruments which support it (e.g. keyboard instruments, guitar, lute, etc.) — but ISTM that's often a detail of the arrangement and/or performance technique, rather than an inherent part of the piece; you could just as easily use less-melodic chord voicings and have the melody sung or played on a different instrument.
    – gidds
    Jan 16 at 15:48
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    @gidds: Guitar chords with the seventh on top (e.g. G7 played 3-2-0-0-0-1) call attention to the seventh in a way that those where it is buried (e.g. E7 played 0-2-0-1-0-0) don't. In some pieces, this distinctive sound "works", and in some other pieces it really doesn't, and someone who is sight-reading a chord sheet would have no way of knowing in advance which approach would be preferable.
    – supercat
    Jan 16 at 17:08
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In purely harmonic terms, harmony does not depend on the distribution of chord tones to voices (chord voicing) nor specific octaves, other than the bass being to lowest pitch.

When you go beyond that you get into the details of voice leading and melody.

From OP comments...

@gidds: Guitar chords with the seventh on top (e.g. G7 played 3-2-0-0-0-1) call attention to the seventh in a way that those where it is buried (e.g. E7 played 0-2-0-1-0-0) don't. In some pieces, this distinctive sound "works", and in some other pieces it really doesn't, and someone who is sight-reading a chord sheet would have no way of knowing in advance which approach would be preferable.

There is no need to grope for descriptions like "distinctive sound" or "[it just] works". The musical device at work is melody.

A chord chart that needs to specify the top line really needs to be acknowledged as not just a chord chart. It is a chord and melody chart.

You could write out pitches with sharps, flats, and octave numbers, ex: E4 F4 E4 G♯4 A4 and it will be perfectly precise for pitch data. But, it will likely annoy many people who will prefer either staff notation or tablature.

The highest pitch is usually heard as the main melody unless some other factors like dynamics or figuration patterns bring out the main melody in another voice.

If you are crafting a top pitch in your chord chart, are you not actually making a specific melody? If yes, notate it with a conventional system like staff or tab. If not, what is actually going on in your music? A countermelody?

The quick answer to your question is "no."

You could make up your own system, but it's likely to not be helpful. Staff or tab would be the expectation. Those systems work well so there really is not a good reason to avoid them. You should understand that concerns about a "top note" are not really about chords/harmony and is the stuff of melody. It's important to understand why there isn't the alternate notation system you're hoping to find.

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As a guitar player, I usually see these chords named alternative chords. e.g. the G with the high g (g') is called "G (alternative)".

However, that means that poeple can't distinguish between the different G chords. I think that this is usually no problem or even wanted, since these chords contain the same notes just in a slightly different order. Usually it is up to the musician how they want to play the chord.

If the composer is really picky, they can remark something like "play C with high G". Of course that is only possible if that counts for the whole song. (which is as far as I can tell usually the case)

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    Never come across that in 60+ yrs playing. Where might I find it?
    – Tim
    Jan 16 at 11:27
  • An "alt chord" is a Dominant chord whose 5th has been altered and if it has a 9th (which is typically the case) it is altered too. G (alt) doesn't tell you the highest note in the chord. Jan 17 at 14:37
  • I am indeed a guitarist, and variations of chords with different top notes are common. Feb 14 at 14:44

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