Sight-Reading Techniques    

Teaching Sight Reading   

Sight Reading Myths

Sight Reading Tips


Sight-reading -- working definition: Playing unfamiliar music from scores.

Sight-reading assumes familiarity with musical notation and basic musical structure. Although physical agility is required, it is primarily a mental activity. An advanced physical facility on an instrument does not guarantee the ability to sight-read. In fact, students can learn to play difficult literature and yet often cannot sight-read music beyond the most elementary level. Some students find it necessary to labor for months on a single musical work, or a few pieces, in order to bring a performance up to an acceptable level.

Many students of the classical repertoire also find themselves unable to improvise, or to sight harmonize and "play by ear". These are serious musicianship problems that are seldom addressed in traditional music lessons. Thus, the playing field narrows to a few memorized pieces that have taken an inordinate amount of time to master. The same students are mystified by those who can effortlessly sight-read, improvise, and play by ear, and rightfully, they wish they could do the same. Often, they look enviously upon those who can play music quickly and who demonstrate skills that seem difficult or miraculous. It is to these students that this essay is dedicated.

Theory is a necessary background for effective sight-reading. In fact, sight-reading may even be regarded as applied theory. One needs to be very familiar with formal recognition, intervals, keys, scales, chords, melodic structure, and on-sight analysis. It is also helpful to be familiar with the grammar of music, the principles of voicing, voice leading, harmonic progression, and counterpoint.

Music theory attempts to simplify the complexities of music. It seeks to find general organizational principles and patterns of symmetry. A chord is an example of a pattern that is taken for granted today. But, it took a theorist in the sixteenth century, Gioseffo Zarlino, to discover the major triad. Scales, keys, tonality, and modes are also patterns that come under the heading of theory. These are the basic elements of sight-reading that must be thoroughly mastered.

Contrary to what novices believe, sight-reading is not accomplished by reading individual notes, but by immediately recognizing intervals, chords, keys, shapes, formal and grammatical relationships, and scales. When one is very young and learning to read ordinary English, one may have to look laboriously at every letter of each word in order to recognize the words spelled. This is analogous to reading music note-by-note. A more experienced reader is not concerned about the individual letters, but recognizes words immediately, and moreover, patterns of words that form sentences. Thus, one learns to read sentences at a glance. So, too, in music the immediate recognition of outlines of chords, intervals, shapes, and other patterns leads to rapid reading.

A thorough familiarity with the instrument is also important. One needs to know where the chords are on the instrument and get to them quickly. But, sight reading does not need an instrument. If the ear is excellent, the music can be read and heard in one's head.

An immediate recognition of large scale organization is important to sight-reading. This may be called a formal reading. I recall a student who was studying a Chopin nocturne with me. She could not sight-read, and laboriously worked through the first section, then the second, and finally the third. She spent months learning to play the notes. When she finally got to the last section, I noticed that she was carefully working out the notes, fingering, and rhythm as if she had never seen it before. She was able to play the first section, but did not recognize that the last section was nearly a literal repeat of the first! She did not remember it, a failure of formal recognition. It would also have helped to know that nocturnes are in ternary form, a fact that would have been a great help to anticipatory reading. An understanding of the form of the sonata would help readers of sonatas. A knowledge of what passacaglias are would help readers of these variations, A knowledge of the key scheme of binary dances would be an immense help to readers of these dances, etc., etc.

Reading rhythms and ear-reading are also important preparations for sight-reading. Try to hear the rhythm and pitches of a melody in your head before playing it. Note the meter signature, and "play" the meter in you mind. Watch for rhythmic patterns that repeat -- most music has them. Look for points of cadence (pauses) and imagine how the music is directed toward them.

Individual lines are more easily read by recognizing of the types and direction of motion involved. These are (1) no motion, (2) step motion, (3) small leaps, and (4) large leaps. No motion consists of held notes or repeats. Step motion consists of moving up or down by the interval of a second. Small leaps are thirds and fourths, and large leaps are anything larger. Most melodies move by small steps, rather than by leaps. Large leaps are rare, even in instrumental music. When leaps occur they are usually chord arpeggiations. So, leaping motion should be recognized as a specific chord, which relies on familiarity of chords.

Sight reading procedes by constantly looking ahead of what is being played. There is no reason to stare at the notes that one is already playing. In fact, that is wasteful. Therefore, the eyes and mind should always be ahead of the hands, analyzing the next passage. This can be difficult for novices, but one device that helps is to cover up the music that is being played at one moment, perhaps with a piece of cardboard, while looking at the next block that is coming. The cardboard blind must be constantly moved ahead as one plays. When the eyes have been so trained the blind can be removed and the eyes will always be ahead of the playing.

A novice should not just plunge into reading an unfamiliar score. It is wise to take a few moments to look over the score, determine the key and recognize patterns. Choose music that is well within your reading grasp and is not difficult. Play the scale of the key and a few common chord progressions in the key. A prudent reader should feel at home in the key before beginning. Improvising a short passage in the key also helps as a preparation. A tempo should be chosen that is comfortable for reading the music -- choose a tempo that is prudent to play the most difficult passage with some accuracy.

Once these preliminaries are done, reading may commence. Don't expect to play with 100% accuracy, but the tempo and rhythm should be maintained. Notes can be sacrificed but time cannot. Thus, reading the rhythm alone is of some merit. If notes are sacrificed it is best to maintain the outer voices, bass and soprano, and sacrifice inner voices. The bass is the last voice to sacrifice. Even the soprano is not as important.

Never stop to correct mistakes, and never go backwards. The music must procede forward in time. Always read as if you are playing in an ensemble and have to keep up with other players. If you are reading solo, use a metronome as your ensemble partner with whom you must keep pace. If you cannot, then the tempo is too fast. Sight reading is best done with other players in an ensemble or as an accompanist.

When sight reading it is best to keep going on to new, unfamiliar material, rather than replaying a score to perfect it. In any case, replaying more than three times can no longer be considered sight reading.

Use your ear. Learn to "fake" well if the score becomes too difficult, and always keep time.

Although the following is geared to the keyboard the same principles may be applied to any instrument.

An Outline of Sight-Reading at the Keyboard

  • Physics of the Instrument
    • relaxation; stiff hand & fingers resist motion
      • fingers
      • hand
      • arm
      • body
    • rely on touch to find keys; build tactile confidence; no eyes necessary
    • physical familiarity & comfort with the instrument
    • use weight/gravity, not tense muscles
    • keep fingers and hands close to keys; do not move off keys
  • Physics of Reading
    • Eyes on notation; No looking away
      • use peripheral vision
      • eye glance exercise for leaps in position
      • no head motion
    • Match mental concepts with physics of the instrument
      • practice chords & arpeggios in various positions
      • key familiarity through scales & chords
        • find & play common chord progressions in key before reading
        • play the scale of key before reading
      • find and play common patterns found in music
    • Always read in advance of where you are playing
      • read in blocks of harmonic rhythm
        • memorize one block and play it while looking at next block
        • do not correct mistakes; always move on and keep the rhythm
      • lines are read by relative motion
        • up, down, stationary
        • stepwise vs leaping
        • chord and scale outlines
        • Reduction reading: use a Schenkerian approach
  • Improvise in Keys to Improve Instrument Familiarity
    • Start with chords outside a key (individual chords)
      • invent ways of breaking up chords, like arpeggios and Alberti bass, etc.
      • change chords from major to minor to diminished using same figurations
      • change registers
      • add nonharmonic tones in repeating figurations
    • Use chords in a key
      • start with I, V and V7 chord
      • add IV and ii
      • add vii and vi
    • Improvise melodies from scales
      • shapes: arch, down line, up line, wave
      • end on tonic
      • four-measure phrases
      • question (end on V) and answer (end on I)
      • periods
      • binary forms
    • harmonize melodies with chords in left hand
      • i. start with I, IV, V7
      • ii. add ii, vii, vi, and iii
  • Guess: Hit and Miss
    • Reading involves guesswork
    • be willing to make mistakes to keep the rhythm
    • never correct mistakes or move backwards; move on, as if you are playing in an ensemble
    • learn to "fake" well by using the ear
    • Keep the essential and omit the less essential in difficult reading
      • i. keep rhythm
      • ii. keep bass
      • iii. keep bass & soprano
      • iv. learn to read bass lines with confidence
  • Procedure
    • Before playing look over and analyze the music for:
      • key/s
      • patterns
      • chords
      • changes of hand position
      • fastest notes
    • hear the meter and rhythm in your mind
    • decide on prudent tempo based on the most difficult passage
    • play the scale and common chord progressions in the key before playing the music
  • General Advice
    • read simple music with other instruments and with vocalists
    • accompany often
    • play piano duets
    • do not replay a piece more than 3 times when "reading".
    • always move on to new material
    • chose level of reading material that you can read and play in a satisfying way
    • check out lots of reading material from libraries
    • read with a metronome and think of it as an ensemble instrument with which you must keep pace.
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      Teaching Sight Reading   

      Sight Reading Myths

      Sight Reading Tips


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