Most of us who know the basics of music theory and share the "common" musical culture (western mainstream popular songs, mass media, "classical" music from the common practice period), tend to think of musical pieces primarily in the lead sheet scheme. Basically:

  1. Time is divided equally sized small parts (measures) with internal accents (rhythm)
  2. A melody (sequence of notes) "sings" over an harmony (sequence of chords). Additional melodies (eg bass lines) might ocassionally be relevant.
  3. Both the melody and the harmony rely on some scale; the scale is either fixed for the entire piece, or it changes sporadically (modulation).
  4. A chord duration in in the order of a measure (rarely more than 4 measures, rarely less than a quater of measure). Melody notes often move faster (several notes per chords, usually).
  5. Chord progressions (dominant-tonic cadence in first place) mainly determine the piece musical outline.

You get the idea. I want to stress this feature: at each moment of the musical piece, we can identify an (implied) chord. Now, I think it would be fair to say that most contemporary popular music follow this schema, and even most "classical" music? (say, from Haydn to Brahms; including operas from c. XIX). But I'd like to gain some insight about the extent of this way of conceiving a musical piece. Did musicians and composers think in these terms? Did they write -at least in their minds- some sort of "lead sheet"? Is this scheme apt for older music (Bach and before)? (namely: can I always state what the "current chord" is?) What about medieval music (popular or not), and music more distant from the contemporay western tradition?

Feel free to edit this question in order to improve it.

  • pre-1900s "counterpoint" was used to compose music in Europe. this is a method or set of rules for creating independent voices. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this resulted in the same type of harmony that falls into the 20th century notion/theory of harmony. So even though the procedure was different, the end result was very similar. It is possible to listen to a pre-1900s piece of music and identify "chords" and harmonic progression. Jan 22, 2015 at 20:51

4 Answers 4

  1. Most of the time in classical, but not always - sometimes the half-measure ends up being more important (irregular phrase lengths).

  2. Not always in much of classical music. You don't have to look far to find pieces in which the inner voices are absolutely essential, and not just as harmonic filler, but as focal points - just look at some of Mozart's string quintets. The inner voices go along as harmonic figuration, and then a melody or two arises rather stealthily out the figuration, often as the primary melody, equally often as a counter-melody (or counter-melodies). Mozart was reproached in his lifetime for inner voices that were too busy. (The same point can be made for music as late as Brahms, even early Schoenberg.)

    The fact is that, until the middle of the 19th century, harmony wasn't commonly taught as a separate subject. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, even Chopin were all taught primarily species counterpoint, that is, the art of voice leading. Chopin, he of the beautiful melodies and harmonies, is known to have decried the newfangled courses of harmony at the Conservatoire (but then, Chopin's voice leading was more linear than most people realise). All of these people were raised on Bach (and earlier - Froberger even).

    When you get back to Bach's time, harmony as it is currently taught didn't exist. When improvising an accompaniment, what took its place was thoroughbass, that is, intervals (both harmonic and non-harmonic) indicated over a bass line, in contrast to a lead sheet's chords under a melody. Even fully written-out music (solo keyboard, for instance) tended to act like intervals being realised over a bass.

    The idea of chords on the degrees of a scale only came into being with the theoretical works of Bach's contemporary, Jean-Philippe Rameau (and we know that the Bach family was aware of Rameau, and didn't much agree). The emphasis in thoroughbass harmony was on how you got from point A to point B, and non-harmonic notes could be as important as harmonic notes. This emphasis on voice leading goes with a conception of harmony as a framework for voices, which makes sense when you consider that contrapuntal forms still had quite a major place in the repertoire. I really don't think one conceives of a fugue in lead sheet form. (I know I don't.)

  3. I suspect it was also Rameau who fixed in place the idea of modes as scales. Prior to the complete domination of major and minor, modes could best be seen as collections of notes with characteristic ranges, finals (equivalent to a tonic), tenors (equivalent to a dominant, but not necessarily a fifth above the final), and auxiliary notes (subtonium to extend the lower range in certain authentic modes; mediant between the final and tenor, not necessarily a 3rd above the final; participant, an auxiliary note that varied from mode to mode). In certain modes, B/B♭ was a mutable note, a kind of movable mi-fa depending on whether the auxiliary was acting as an upper or lower leading tone. That's to say that modes tended to imply certain melodic formulae (which is how they tend to work in non-Western music - think of ragas).

    By the time you get to Bach, major and minor are pretty much fully in place, but remnants of, and formulae from, the old modal system still show up, and, in effect Bach treats major and minor as modes. It's really debatable that Bach saw the minor mode as an amalgam of three separate scales. It's more likely that he saw the alterations as mutable auxiliary tones. In many cases, it still pays to look at chromatic chords as arising from modal mutations rather than transient modulations.

  4. Harmonic rhythm is controlled in classical music of the common practice period. It can be a harmony per measure, sure, but a range from as small as semiquavers to 16+ bars (the end of Beethoven's 5th - 29 bars of pure C major triad!) can be used, with changes during the course of the piece, depending on what is needed to propel or slow down the music. It is entirely possible to create an ambiguity of levels in harmonic rhythm by creating an ambiguity of harmonic/non-harmonic tones, as in "Do we have a slow harmonic rhythm, with some of those faster notes being non-harmonic, or, because those faster notes are making logical progressions in themselves, are they harmonic?" The answer can often be "Both." (See some of the discussion in iii9 - I progression in Bach?.)

  5. Cadence points mark out section endings in classical music, to be sure, but specific progressions may or may not be critical. Repeated chord progressions define forms like the chaconne, passacaglia and passamezzo (and the passamezzo progression still defines a lot of pop music), and sometimes a kind of progression will define a piece (falling thirds in the Hammerklavier fugue, for instance), but mainly form is defined by tonal areas rather than specific progressions.

I won't say that lead sheet thinking doesn't exist in classical - a lot of verismo opera seems to imply it - but to accomplish more complex textures requires that the composer has at least some idea of the harmonic voices as voices right from the start.

  • I might also add that thoroughbass is also known as figured bass. Very nice answer though! Jan 22, 2015 at 19:32

Interesting idea! It's somewhat 'chicken and egg'. A sequence of 4 or 5 notes may have several chords which will underlie them. Similarly, a sequence of chords may have any number of melodies played over them - ask any jazzer! For some note sequences, there will be one overriding set of chords that will be best fit. Similarly, vice-versa.

Some, if not most. composers will have, at some point before composing proper, made a sketch, either on manuscript or just in their heads.With orchestral works this becomes quite complicated, with instrumental blends, etc.But I think it's easier to wake up with a tune going through your head than a chord sequence. Add lyrics into this equation, and it starts to get complex. Often they come first, at least the first verse, which then spawns the melody, guided by the rhythm of those words, and the chords probably come last. But still I agree that there probably is a 'blueprint' in the form of a 'leadsheet' a lot of the time.


NOTE: Althogh the question sounds specific, it goes to a lot wider discussion. Consider my answer as notes on the subject.

"Melody" sings over "harmony" type instrumental music mostly originates from imitating songs with instruments which already have song forms. Later instrumental music developed more complex structures with respect to the instrumentation and orchestration techniques and some other advancements.

Song form is not the only form for being a base for the classical music culture. For example, there are also other forms in classical music based on "Counterpoint" and "Folk Dances".

At first those and similar other techniques had their specific form but later they became composing techniques being used interchangibly which results in even more complex forms.

After the classical era, the art movements start changing more rapidly resulting in various new forms emerging special to each movement. Impressionism, expressionism, minimalism, repetition...etc...

In the beginning of the 20th century composers started to look for writing techniques and forms totally contrary to the accustomed ways listed in the question. They developed many different techniques based on randomization, abstract notations leaving interpretation to the performers, mathematical methods, mixing ensembles...etc. Actually this genre is known as contemporary music.

World getting smaller and smaller lots of styles and forms are also mixed together coming from other distant cultures. Poly-rhythmic pieces in contemporary classical music are excellent examples of that.

Contemporary western popular music is still based mainly on song forms. This is quite natural as they are mostly vocal music written for a singer and accompaniment.


I'd like to add a bit. (Most of this is based on some of Steve Latham's comments on various boards over the years.) We start with the genera lead sheet for popular music (or what I learned to create to transcribe a song from the radio.) There is a melody on top of a bunch of chords. Diagrammatically:

|||||||| I don't think this quite sufficient (the point of the post) but I need to digress a bit to explain my expansion of the idea (which is real simple and probably obvious by now.) During the Renaissance (and other times) the idea of combining several independent lines (or voices) was popular (at least in "serious" compositions.) Four voices was the most popular configuration. (I always like to use a plural correctly with a singular verb.) Three and five voices were also popular.

etc. The voices had to be independent but combine to produce "nice" harmony and the lowest voice acted like a bass line. It makes for great sounding music. Baroque (and later) fugues use this pattern. Straight chords (like hymns) look like: |||||||| I've seen some popular transcriptions which use this concept. The bass is indicated by a slash and a separate chord is used for each melody note. Personally, I find this to lead to very complex chords (melismatic melodies over a walking bass) and obscure the structure of the composition. But expanding melody plus chords to "melody plus chords plus bass" simplifies things quite a bit. (The rhythm section, at least those with unpitched instruments like drums, guiros, cowbells, etc. sits independently but still has to combine well.) This leads to a structure like:


(Typography not the best, maybe:)


The point is to consider a song (or aria or symphony, anything with mostly homophonic texture) as a melody line, a bass line, and some chords (inner voices so to speak.) In sketching a piece of music, I like to write out the melody and bass separately then fill with chords later. A quick moving melody over a walking bass will show the movement of melody and bass but not need separate chords for each melody note. Melodies tend to move quickly compared to harmonic motion of chords, so does the bass. (Not always, but mostly.) I have found that thinking of pieces this way was pretty easy.

Note that the upper "melody" line need not be a single instrument and when music is written for a large ensemble, instruments may move into and out of the melody line. Similarly for the bass. This is mostly a matter of arrangement.

The melody and bass do really need to written in good two-part counterpoint (any species). This keeps the music moving. Because the bass and melody are "exposed" (usually both higher and lower than the accompaniment) errors in these two are easily heard. I find it useful to just play (or have the computer play) the bass and melody as two solos and check the sound. The "chord lines" are often played by a group of instruments, rhythm guitar, piano, groups of strings or winds, etc. so less strict counterpoint is needed.

Lately I end up with a structure like:


where the top line is either a flute or clarinet or trumpet or trombone (or voice when I have lyrics), the chord lines are mostly piano with a whatever instruments are not playing the melody and the bass being an acoustic bass. (My stuff puts lots of work on the bass player.) Of course, the bass may get to play a melody (as a duet with a another instrument now and then) and the piano takes over the bass for that section. The asterisks represent a bunch of drums (usually congas, bongos, timbales, cowbell, maracas, guiro, claves or a selection of these.)

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