In sheet music, is there a standardized notation that tells the pianist/keyboardist to fill in the chords below the specified top note?

EDIT: I was specifically asking about the top note. This is my attempt, although I think it kinda looks weird. Is there a better notation? And please don't say write "C(add2)" instead; there are instances where I need the top note to be, say, the major third in a maj7#11 chord.

example of notation

  • 3
    Chord symbols. See any lead sheet.
    – Dom
    Jan 29, 2016 at 18:37
  • 1
    In addition to chord symbols, you could add rhythm slashes if you need to indicate the rhythm along with the melody but don't want to have to spell out a particular voicing. Jan 29, 2016 at 19:07
  • What do you mean the "top note" to tell the performer?
    – amalgamate
    Jan 29, 2016 at 19:15
  • 1
    @amalgamate I'm pretty sure the asker is talking about the highest sounding note. Jan 29, 2016 at 20:13
  • @amalgamate I was asking a way to specify a specific voicing that has a specific highest sounding note.
    – krismath
    Jan 30, 2016 at 4:15

2 Answers 2


On the one hand, you of course have detailed voicings, where each part is written out exactly in the sheet music. On the other hand, as Dom has pointed out in comments, you have a "lead sheet" which is simply a written out melody, along with chord symbols written above. This mostly looks like what you wrote out, but without the rhythm slashes. Technically, I think this satisfies what you're asking for, since it includes melody (i.e. top note) along with the chord (and the bass note, if you use slash-chords). I'm not aware of any standard piano notation that falls somewhere in between these two extremes, such as including rhythm slashes or more detailed voicing information. For the most part, that can be improvised by the pianist.

Side note: as a church pianist of limited skill, this style of playing is actually how I end up playing a lot of music. Even though it's printed in a standard 4-part hymn book (SATB), I rarely play (or even read) the exact chord voicings that are given, but just read the melody, and "fill-in" the chord underneath (which I'm usually guessing from context, or memorizing during practice) using whatever voicing is most convenient at the moment.

Edit to address comment:

sometimes I want the pianist to play only the melody and other times with chordal accompaniment with top line melody.

This made me think of Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #5. Here Bach wanted the harpsichord to alternate between playing improvised accompaniment (from a basso continuo line), and playing a specific solo part. In the scrolling score that I just linked, you can see that in the accompanying portion, he writes the instruction "accompagnamento" (meaning "accompaniment", according to Google), or just "accomp.", and then only notates the bass line with figures underneath -- the Baroque equivalent of a lead sheet. Then in the portions where he wishes the harpsichord to play a solo part, he writes out the parts in full, without the numbers.

You could do something similar. When you wish the piano to play the melody with chordal accompaniment, write the chord names above the sheet music, possibly with an instruction like "with accompaniment" or "with chords". Then when you wish the piano to switch to melody only, you have a couple possibilities. You could use "N.C." (meaning "no chord") in place of the regular chord symbols, which is a pretty standard practice. If there are actually are still chords (for the sake of another instrument, like a guitar) and you just want the piano to switch to melody only, you would have to give a more specific instruction. Something like "without accompaniment" or "piano plays melody only", followed by something like "piano resumes accompaniment" (or just "with accompaniment" again).

I'm tempted to mention the terms tasto solo and obbligato here, just for completeness, but I don't think either of them is quite what you're looking for. And besides, they're essentially obsolete terms now anyway, and would look very much out of place on a lead sheet.

  • I am actually searching for the notation 'in-between' that you have mentioned. The need arises because with the lead sheet notation, sometimes I want the pianist to play only the melody and other times with chordal accompaniment with top line melody.
    – krismath
    Feb 2, 2016 at 1:31
  • @krismath I've edited my answer to address this case. Does this help? Feb 2, 2016 at 2:09

You can combine notes and chord slashes. From the Rocky Horror PC score:

8 bars from Rocky Horror

This way of notating also has the benefit that the player can still do something even if he doesn't know that much theory. You could do the same thing and just drop everything but the top note.

  • But I would need to spell the whole chord for the pianist in this case. Is there a way that doesn't require me to do so?
    – krismath
    Feb 2, 2016 at 1:34

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