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