January 18, 2021

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

“Jazz standards are musical compositions that are an important part of the musical repertoire of jazz musicians, in that they are widely known, performed, and recorded by jazz musicians, and widely known by listeners… The jazz standard repertoire has some overlap with blues and pop standards.”

Jazz standard – Wikipedia

Autumn Leaves

“One of the most popular jazz standards of all time is “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma… Autumn Leaves is an excellent jazz standard to start with because it covers some basic chord progressions and harmonic concepts found in jazz”.

30 Nov 2017 – How to Navigate Autumn Leaves – Learn Jazz Standards

Understanding a lead sheet

Here is a short synopsis of the consistency of the lead sheet which was discussed in a former article called: “The basics of jazz for the adult beginner”.

The lead sheet is the written music used for known jazz songs that have been given down from jazz players to jazz players over the years, normally by ear. Fortunately, someone took the trouble to start to compile the well-known songs in a few books, from there the Real books. Real books make it easy for today’s students in their jazz training, as well as for a band getting together to “jam” – “Jam” means playing music on the spot without being rehearsed.

What is on the lead sheet?

The lead sheet has a single stave with the treble clef, key signature and the time signature like ¾ time or 4/4 etc. The lead sheet mainly consists of the melody (with lyrics sometimes) and chords written on top of the melody line. Because there are fewer notes to read, reading is quite easy with a single notation melody line.

The lead sheet makes it easy for most musicians to quickly and easily learn songs, jam together and sight-read their music.

The melody line

The melody line is written on the stave in the treble clef and is played by the right hand on the piano. This melody can also be played by other treble clef instruments. Interpretation and rhythm are mostly left to the musician to feel or create.


The chords are played between the two hands. The chord symbol indicates the root note or bass note or the chord, which is played with the left hand in solo jazz piano playing. If the chord is C major 7, it means that the bass note will be C, played on the lower part of the piano. This means that all the chords given indicate the bass notes that need to be played.

The bassline

The bassline can consist of a single bass note or a walking bass line, which is very well known in jazz. The walking bass is as it says – a walking bassline. When moving from one chord to another, the player will play the given bass note then add a passing note before playing the next bass note. The added note is not part of the chord and is a passing note filling in a beat and giving that walking moving feel which is typical jazz. It will usually be 4 beats per bar or double that depending on the speed etc.

Playing with a band

When the piano is a part of a band, the pianist is not supposed to play the bass notes of the chords, as the bass note then becomes the line for the bass player to play. This means that in the case of a band playing, you have to use voicings which omit the bass notes.

Solo jazz piano playing

The chords are played in solo jazz playing with both hands or with the left hand only, while the right hand improvises over the chords. Playing the chords with the left hand and playing the melody with the right hand or improvising with the right hand is a good way to start your development of jazz improvisation.

We now have covered the basics on your jazz lead sheet. We will now go on to analyse a specific lead sheet in order to understand it fully.

If you are venturing into learning a new jazz standard the best way would always be to first learn it by listening to recordings, using the ear. The ear and hearing music is very important in jazz.

Studying the lead sheet of Autumn Leaves – originally composed by Joseph Kosmo.

“Autumn Leaves” is a popular song and jazz standard composed by Joseph Kosma with original lyrics by Jacques Prévert in French, and later by Johnny Mercer in English.

Autumn Leaves (1945 song) – Wikipedia

It might be that you do not have a recording of your jazz standard or that you are playing with a band where lead sheets are handed to be played on the spot. In this case, you need to understand the lead sheet and be able to read it fluently. In the next part, we will be discussing the lead sheet in detail. We are looking at the lead sheet of Autumn Leaves with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer – but originally composed by Joseph Kosmo. Autumn Leaves is a well-known jazz standard which you most probably have heard before, which will make it much easier to follow and read.

Let’s look at the lead sheet starting from the top working down to the bottom.

The single-line stave

First of all, you will note that a single line of the musical stave is used. As you probably know sheet music always consists of a stave with five lines. The notes are notated on the stave. When a single line melody is used the single stave will be used. In classical piano pieces where two hands are used, two staves are joined together with a bracket. This is for the notation of the right-hand and the left-hand. For single-line instruments like the flute or the violin, a single stave is used. In jazz music the single stave is used as only the melody is notated. On the lead sheet, the chords and music are not written out but are left to the jazz player to create.

Let’s look at our lead sheet for Autumn Leaves

The treble clef or G clef

On the single line stave, the first symbol we find is the treble clef or G clef. It is called a G clef because it starts on the G line or G note which is the second line of your stave counting from the bottom up. The G clef is used in piano playing for the right hand and to notate a single melody line like in this song. The Autumn leaves melody line is written on a single stave with G clef or Treble clef.

The sharp sign after the treble clef

After the treble clef, you will find a sign like the “hash” sign which is actually called a “sharp” in music. It is specifically placed on the top line of the stave which is the fifth line. This is the F line and it means that the F note is sharpened and every single note in your melodic line or chords has to be sharpened and played as an F# and not as a normal F note. To sharpen the F means to play the very next black note next to the normal F note and this way sharpen the pitch.

The key signature

The sharps or flats notated at the beginning of the music stave is called the key signature and indicates the key in which the music is written. When we have one sharp (F#) in the key signature it would mean that the music is written either in the key of G major or in its relative minor key which is E minor. The home key can easily be established by looking at the end of the lead sheet where it says “Fine”. There is a double bar indicating that it is finished. Establish the home key by seeing on which chord or note the song ends. It usually ends on the home key or tonic note which in this case is the E. This means that the original key or home key for Autumn Leaves is E minor. E minor is related to the G major key and both use the F# note instead of the normal F.

Autumn Leaves is a great jazz standard that is an excellent example of a song that moves back and forth between a major key and its relative minor key. Originally written in the key of G Major (and its relative, E Minor), it is usually played in Bb Major (or G Minor).

Another great read and analysis on Autumn Leaves can be found here. (By Dan Haerle)

The time signature

The next symbol on this stave is the 4/4 time signature which indicates that this piece of music is written in 4 beats per bar timing. The top 4 notated is giving you the number of beats per bar and the bottom 4 indicates the quality of beat. The bottom 4 notated is used for a crochet or a quarter note. So the time signature indicates 4 quarter-note beats per bar. It means that every bar will have four beats and when counting it would be counted as 1 2 3 4, then the next bar counted as 1 2 3 4 and so forth.

The layout in bars

If you look at the lead sheet closely you will find that it has been nicely spaced into four bars per line which makes it easier to read. Each next line will have its 4 bars at the same interval as the former line. After the time signature, the song starts.

The song starts with a pickup bar

It’s important to see that the song’s first notes actually start on the 2nd beat of a bar and not on the 1st beat. This bar is like an intro bar and is called a pick-up bar. If one counts the bars, the bar with the C whole note will be counted as the 1st bar.

Numbering the bars of the lead sheet

When working on your lead sheet it’s always a good thing to number the bars on your lead so that you can quickly and easily refer to a bar number. This helps when playing with a band to be able to call plays from a certain bar or section. In this song, we will number the 1st bar as the bar with the C whole note. Take note of the repeat. It means that bar 1 will also be numbered as bar 9 for when repeated. The B section (which is discussed below) will start on bar 17 and ends on bar 32. The whole song is built on 8 bars plus 8 bars plus 16 bars (8 plus 8 bars). So go ahead and number the bars of your song.

The repeat sign

After the first three notes, you will find an interesting sign which we call a repeat sign. It’s like a double bar with two dots around the middle line of the stave, which means that you will be repeating from this sign up to the next repeat sign.

Look at bar eight and once again you will find the repeat sign appearing but bent backwards with a double: dot or colon around the third line. When you reach this repeat sign, go back to the first repeat sign and play from there on again.

The 1st time bar and 2nd time bar

Note that there are also n small brackets notated with a number 1 which is for playing the tune from the start the first time. Then when it is repeated you skip the number 1 bracketed bar and jump to the numbered 2 bracketed bar.

When starting to play autumn leaves you will start from the beginning of the music and move up to where there is the small 1 notated. When you get to the repeat sign, repeat the melody from the first repeat sign but for the second time, you need to skip the 1st time bar and move on to the 2nd time bar which appears after the repeat sign on the lead sheet.

The Form used: A A B

Autumn Leaves is written in a A A B format which means that you will be playing the tune for 8 bars (A part), then repeat as indicated for another 8 bars (A2 part) and from there move on into the B part. The B part starts at bar 17 till 32 and ends at the “Fine” which is the Italian word for “finish”.

The “Fine” and next pick up bar

After the “Fine” there is another pick-up bar which is the same as the pick-up bar on your lead sheet just after the 4/4 time signature. It suggests that you can repeat the song again and again, especially when you are playing with a band. Each instrumentalist will want to improvise on the whole tune called the head.

The “Head”

The full song is called the “head” and each instrumentalist gets a turn to improvise on the layout of the tune and the chord structure. When everyone has their turn someone may call the word “head” and the main tune is then played without improvisation and the performance is finished off.

Chords placed above the melody line

Lastly, there are the chords which are written above each bar. These are the basic chords used in the composition of the song. These chords, of course, will be used for improvisation on the tune layout. There is one chord per bar right through the song except for bars 27 and 28 close to the end, where these two bars form two half-time bars with 2 chords per bar. It means that there is a moving forward in the feel of the music and chord changes are faster for these two bars.

The double bar to indicate the end

A double bar marks the end of the written score which indicates the end of the tune.

Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic layout of your song, it’s time for implementing the given material and learning the chords, their extensions or tensions and good voicings. In the next article, we will be looking at the above mentioned. Enjoy.

“Autumn Leaves is a great song to get started playing easy chord melody arrangements on guitar. This famous jazz standard is both a great melody and a fairly easy option to play an easy chord melody. Chord melody is the style or technique where you play the melody of the song and add chords to it.”

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