Even though I started taking piano lessons at the age of four, reading music has never been my strong suit. I have always been better at learning by ear and improvising.
Sight reading (the act of reading music you’ve never played and playing it as you read) has always been a major source of insecurity for me. It seems like the really good players can do it, and it makes me feel like a fraud when I can’t.
The truth is, sight reading is a learned skill. Sure, some people are better at it than others, but those people may also have had training in sight reading from a young age.
To improve your sight reading at any age, you must practice it purposefully. Here are some tips to improve your skill.
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Practice Sight Reading Purposefully
If you want to improve your sight reading, you may want to start by simply adding in one piece of sight reading every day you practice. This will help, but it won’t be maximizing your practice time.
If you really want to see improvement, you need to practice sight reading purposefully and improve slowly.
Practicing purposefully means establishing good habits. Establishing good habits means that you will have these good habits to fall back on when you must sight read in a high-pressure situation.
Hastily sight-reading a piece of music every day may result in improvements, but it may also result in sloppy technique. Pieces of music are generally written the way they are meant to be played. If you start fumbling notes, adding beats to measures, speeding up and slowing down – you are not playing the same piece of music anymore.
Your goal should be to establish good technique for sight reading so that your sight reading becomes accurate and natural.
Pick An Achievable Pulse
The number one mistake I make when sight reading, is picking a meter that I simply cannot keep up with.
Most pianists will opt to play the piece at its full tempo, and end up tripping over themselves when they encounter tricky bits.
As soon as the meter goes, the flow of the song goes. Songs that are written in 4/4 time should not have random bars of 5/4 when you encounter a tricky passage.
This is especially important if you are sight reading an accompaniment for a soloist or a choir, as is often the case for rehearsal pianists.
When you are practicing at home, you can sight read at any tempo you want. You should sight read at a tempo that you can maintain for the entire piece. You must keep yourself honest!
At first, this was an absurdly slow tempo. I was practicing with the metronome at around 40 bpm initially. You can go even lower than this! Don’t worry, nobody is going to make fun of you for practicing sight-reading slowly.
Before you start, set your metronome and count yourself in. Feel the pulse of the music. Make sure you keep that pulse while you are playing. Your sense of rhythm and the pulse of the music is every bit as important as the notes.
In fact, I would argue that keeping a sense of pulse and rhythm is more important than getting the notes right.
My life experience has led to me subbing into lots of bands. These aren’t usually bands where people are reading music. They’re usually playing from charts or from memory.
In this case, it is incredibly important to keep your sense of rhythm. If you are reading a chart, you don’t want to get lost! Even if you aren’t playing much, but you are in the right place on the chart, you’ll end up playing better than if you are confused about where beat one is or end up several bars behind.
When you are sight-reading, pick an achievable (slow) tempo and don’t stop. Keep the pulse, don’t worry about the notes as much.
Remember, you can only sight-read something once.
After you’ve sight-read a piece, every other time is just reading or practicing. It is different. Sight-reading is a unique opportunity to practice keeping a pulse, being in the moment, and allowing the music to happen.
Here are some resources you may use to help with these concepts:
- The Music Tutor app for iOS will test your sight reading and help you improve. When you are sight reading with this app, the notes you’ve already played disappear when they have been played. No going back! This forces you to practice keeping that pulse.
- This is another app that is made for both iOS and Android – it is a Piano Sight Reading Trainer designed by the ABRSM. It is an excellent app that pairs well with traditional piano training.
- If you are working with a teacher, try sight reading duets. Playing along with other people is also a great way to practice sight reading, because you are both forced to keep the tempo and not stop.
Learn How To Approach The Music
You can do a lot of work on your sight reading before you play a single note. In the first thirty seconds before playing the music, make sure to set yourself up for success. Follow these steps:
- Set a steady pulse at an achievable tempo. This tempo could change slightly as you play and grow accustomed to the music, but it should never stop or go up/down too drastically. Think of it as a heartbeat – it can change but it shouldn’t stop or go too high or low.
- Familiarize yourself with the key. If you can, look ahead into the music and see if there are any key changes. Get the key signature in your head. Visualize the scale related to that key. Think about the song in terms of chords – what does it start on? Are there any chord patterns in the first few measures of music?
- Try to hum through the melody in your head before playing it. Don’t touch the piano, just look at the music and get a feel for the melody and how you think it should sound. This can be done quickly to get a sense for the tempo and style.
- Look through the piece and find the highest and lowest notes. Mentally prepare yourself for those passages. Peek at any parts you think will be challenging. Note where they are in the music.
- Decide which parts of the music seem most important. If things go off the rails, you can always drop a hand and keep the important parts going.
- Look for scales, chords, and arpeggios that seem familiar. Many pieces will have runs and scalar passages that look difficult, but are on closer inspection a scale that is easily played. Keep those in mind!
Obviously, you are not going to be able to do all these things when you are in a real high-pressure sight-reading situation, but you can certainly do the most critical ones.
When you are practicing at home, do the whole list. Why not? You have the time and going through the entire lists helps train your brain to quickly recognize all these aspects of a piece.
Learn To Recognize Patterns/Practice Clumping
Excellent sight readers see music in patterns, clusters, and groups. There are small patterns and big patterns. You can distill music in to bite size patterns of notes or into larger sweeping patterns that span many measures.
As we’ve covered, the fundamental layer in most music is rhythm. Piano music can have many notes and voices speaking at once, but the rhythmic patterns that run through the piece run through all the voices.
When you are learning a piece, you’ve probably encountered a difficult rhythmic passage and had to tap out the rhythms one hand at a time. It’s a slow process, but it is incredible how quickly the notes come once the rhythms are in order.
Again, when you are at home practicing, you can look at the score for as long as you want before you sight read it. Identify tricky rhythm patterns and tap them out without playing any notes.
Look for repeated rhythmic passages. There are sure to be many. It is essential to identify the rhythmic motifs because they will crop up repeatedly when you are sight reading the music.
Next, you need to look for the harmonic layers and patterns. If the rhythmic layer is the foundation of the building, the harmonic layer is the walls. The melody will always be playing within the context of the harmony.
Read the bass line first, as your clues to the harmony are often found in the left hand. Once you’ve read the bass line, read the melody line and try to figure out the harmonic relationship.
Patterns will emerge. Does the music repeat the same harmonic pattern repeatedly? How does the melody change over top of the harmony?
This is hugely important when you are reading jazz charts as well, because they will only tell you the melody and the harmony. It is important to understand how the harmony works first, because that will show you how the whole song is built.
You do not want to think of the music note by note. That is how you get stuck and make mistakes. Think in terms of small blocks of chords and then in terms of larger patterns of chords that have tension and release.
Third, the melodic layer. If you have studied the rhythmic layer and the harmonic layer in advance of sight reading the music, the melodic layer will come quickly.
Look for repeated passages in the melody. Look for places where the melody changes drastically. Is the melody changing in spots where the harmony is also changing?
Usually, between changes in the melody and harmony, you can figure out the A, B, and C sections of the piece.
Finally, there are more layers that get added in as you learn the piece. Phrase length, cadence, dynamics, motifs, etc. As you improve, you will be able to identify these things quickly as well, but when you are starting, just focus on the basics.
Spending time studying music before playing the music will help you prepare better. It can be tedious and boring, but it helps.
It’s just like reading through the entire instruction manual before building a desk. Having an idea of the finished product before you start will help you build that finished product.
Don’t Look At Your Hands, Look At The Music
Have you ever marveled at professional musicians playing complicated pieces without glancing down at their hands? Or jazz musicians simply closing their eyes and improvising complex music? It’s an amazing skill, and it is one that you can develop.
If you are always looking at your hands to make sure they are in the right place, you will have a hard time getting the music on the page into your hands. You need to maintain a visual connection with the notes on the page. Your sight reading suffers when you are constantly looking back and forth from the page to your hands.
Developing this connection between your hands and the piano takes time, so don’t worry if it does not happen right away.
Years of practicing chord shapes, scales, arpeggios, improvising, and playing from memory reinforce the piano-hand connection.
When you are practicing sight-reading, you can try covering your hands with a sheet or a towel to prevent you looking at them. Or, put the fallboard on the piano down and place the music on top of it.
Ideally, you shouldn’t even need to hear whether what you are playing sounds correct, you should just be able to feel where the notes are.
Work Through A Sight-Reading Book
Sight reading can be fun, especially when you are playing pieces that you want to play. That said, just playing any old piece or sheet music in your library is not the best way to improve your sight reading.
Generally, your progress will be improved if you take it slow. Practicing with a book designed to take you through progressively more difficult sight reading exercises will help you achieve results and maintain good habits.
Here are a few options:
Progressive Sight Reading Exercises: Piano Technique
The exercises in this book are not meant to be studies, they are to be played through once, at a tempo slow enough to read and play without hesitations or pauses.
Play through one exercise every day, practice recognizing patterns, and make sure to tap out challenging rhythms before you play the piece. Over time, your sight reading will improve!
John Kember – Piano Sight-Reading – Volume 1: A Fresh Approach
This is another collection of sight reading pieces designed to help you recognize rhythmic and harmonic patterns. This book has a little more reading, as it is designed for the self-learner.
There is also a volume two of this series, so if you like the first book, you can take on the second one as well.
4S01 – Royal Conservatory Four Star Sight Reading And Ear Tests Level 1 Book
This book gives me a bit of anxiety, because it was what I practiced as a young pianist. I did Royal Conservatory exams for several years, and the sight-reading portion of the exam was dreaded.
That said, if you go through these ear and sight reading exercises in a methodical way, you will have an excellent foundation in music. In my opinion, these books are best paired with a teacher that teaches the Royal Conservatory technique.
Why Is Sight Reading Hard To Learn?
Sight reading is hard to learn, because it can be discouraging and boring. Sight reading is also rarely taught properly. Because I did not like sight reading, I was never really forced to practice it, except to prepare for exams. This ultimately did not help me!
You must be careful about practicing sight reading, because you can only truly sight read a piece once. You do not want to squander that opportunity by rushing into it, picking a tempo that is too fast, or not studying the score.
Just practice one piece every time you practice. It can be a great way to warm up – pick a piece, study the piece, and then play it through slowly, keep the rhythm, and try not to look at your hands.
It is hard on your brain! Do this slowly and methodically, and you will improve.
Practice Silent Reading
“Reading” is an essential part of sight reading. When you are sight reading a piece of music, it is comparable to reading a book aloud.
Reading aloud is terrifying for people who are not confident readers. I speak both English and French, and I’m happy to read aloud in English, but switch me to French, and I am going to stumble.
Sight reading music is the same. You are reading a different language. You need to familiarize yourself with that language.
How would you practice reading a book in another language? You would probably spend time reading more books in that language!
You can do the same thing with music. Professional musicians will spend hours and days studying scores – often before they even play the thing.
Excellent sight readers understand musical notation deeply. They can read the notes and the notes go straight to their fingers. A piano score looks much like a book to them.
Spend time reading scores away from you instrument. Visualize where those notes land on the piano. Try to hear the music in your head.
All the exercises I’ve listed so far are just ways to get better at doing this. You need to be able to read the music as easily as a book.
Final Thoughts, Why Should You Improve Your Sight Reading?
We’ve talked a lot about how to improve sight reading, but you may still be wondering why improving sight reading is important.
Honestly, if you are not in situations that require sight reading, you may not find the need for practice.
However, as soon as you are asked to play a piece on the spot, you are going to immediately regret not practicing sight reading.
Sight reading makes you a more well-rounded and versatile musician. You can instantly play songs with friends. You can sub into bands and pit bands. You can get work as a rehearsal pianist.
Most importantly, you can play music for fun without having to practice it. Sight reading can be incredibly fun and rewarding once you are good at it.
Imagine hearing a piece of music, liking it, downloading the score, and playing it that same day. You can do that! And then you can go in and improve the piece – taking your learning beyond.
It is fun, important and rewarding to practice sight reading. Good luck!