For most piano students, reading piano music is one of the biggest hurdles in learning to play the piano. I've therefore assembled a series of practical, general tips that will help you read piano music with greater ease. (Be sure to subscribe to this site, as specific tips and exercises are added regularly.)
This should be so self-evident that I needn't mention it, yet it continues to amaze me how many music students don't make time for regular practice and then wonder why they're not improving quickly. Good practice habits are absolutely essential if you wish to learn to read music or undertake any serious musical activity. When reading piano music, this means first and foremost practicing regularly. Clearly, regular practice will bring results far more quickly than will intermittent work. Make a commitment to practice reading music at least five days a week. It's useful to start practice sessions with reading music. This will quickly grow into a habit. As progress is cumulative only with regular work, 10 minutes a day is all most music students need to learn to read music proficiently. By working consistently, with proper practice habits, you'll astonish yourself with how fast your music reading skills will improve. Improvements on improvements will accelerate your progress. It's like getting compound interest on your sight reading skills!
Like all music skills, it is perfectly normal to be able to read piano music well one day and less well the next. The mind must be receptive, and a tired mind can no more learn to read music than it can do any other activity that demands concentrated effort. Foreign language learners are well aware of this phenomenon. Some days you might be fluent and on others you can barely get the words out and you end up making a fool of yourself. Those are the days you get to tell your friends about (I certainly have my share of embarrassing stories), but in music it simply doesn't work this way. Never practice in a state of fatigue.
Music of any complexity can always be broken into its constituent components. In reading piano music, this means first and foremost that rhythm must predominate. A valuable warm-up exercise to sight reading is simply to tap the rhythm while counting out loud. (It's best for this exercise not to be done with the metronome!) The simplest way to do this is with a single line, either melodic or accompanimental. If you're working with polyphonic music, or if the accompaniment has a different rhythm from the melody, it's incredibly valuable to tap one voice in each hand while counting aloud. Only once you're confident with the rhythm should you proceed to actually reading the pitches. Indeed, if you can't accurately tap the rhythm while counting evenly, it's impossible to expect to be able to read the music at sight! It is surprising how many music students continue to struggle with learning to read music but who never bother to first learn to tap the rhythm accurately. Much of the battle can be won by that alone.
The right material is essential to reading piano music successfully and sustaining that effort over a long enough period to become proficient. Imagine a personal trainer forcing a weak body to push the crushing weights that professional athletes lift! While this analogy might sound extreme, in my experience this is certainly part of the reason so many music students struggle with reading piano music—they see a tall mountain and are afraid to take the first step. Since every student will be at a different stage of development it will be impossible to make specific recommendations here. There is no need to limit yourself to music stricly for your instrument... song accompaniments can make for useful sight reading material, for instance!
It should be axiomatic that every aspiring music student must find the best teacher possible. Let your teacher know about your new goal of reading piano music proficiently and ask him or her for appropriate material regularly. Work with your teacher to select the proper material as mentioned above, find a volume of music at or just beyond your level, and set a goal to read through the entire book. Use a bookmark to mark your progress. Read a little each day until you've finished, then select the next volume.
Avoid at all costs the very bad habit of continually sight reading pieces you're learning! Truly sight reading music can only be done once per piece, since the brain will already begin absorbing the musical information. A key distinction is that reading music favors rhythm even at the expense of some wrong notes, while actually learning a piece must be absolutely precise in all aspects. Therefore, repertoire pieces may be sight read once, and fresh material must always be sought out for sight reading work.
When reading piano music it is imperative to keep your eyes on the page, not on your fingers or the keyboard. This is one of the most difficult tasks for many students, but it is the major hurdle to be overcome. The technical term for the essential skill required in sight reading is called proprioception. Proprioception is a sort of "sixth sense," an awareness of the body in space. Athletes and dancers, for instance, have highly developed proprioception, and musicians need to develop this skill as well. There's really only one way to develop proprioception in learning to read music, and that is to keep your eyes focused on the music rather than your hands.
On the piano, there is a simple exercise you can do that will help you to develop this "sixth sense." The piano keyboard has two groups of black keys per octave, one consisting of two black keys and the other three. By orienting yourself by means of the black keys it's possible to find any key relatively quickly. Try closing your eyes and challenging yourself to find all the D-flats, then all the E-flats, working your way through all the black keys. Then practice finding the white keys blindly by first feeling their relation to the black keys. This, by the way, is how blind pianists are able to play.
If you're versed in harmony and know all your scales and chords, learning to read music can become relatively easy. Once you can immediately recognize all the key signatures and know all the notes within each scale, you'll be able to feel your way within a given key. Sight reading music well demands the integration of many musical faculties, including full knowledge of the common harmonies and all scales. This is why genuinely musical material, rather than random notes as some misguided electronic methods use, is essential for learning to read music. Good musicians are able to recognize harmonic and rhythmic patterns and to anticipate what comes next. In this sense, reading music is exactly like reading language—a context is necessary.
Read the following paragraph, for instance:
$$I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?$$
Since we know our own language so well and because we have a context (i.e., the words form whole sentences and the sentences make sense), we're able to understand the paragraph. Learning to read music works exactly the same way: We learn to recognize patterns and make inferences based on subconscious expectations.
Yet imagine how difficult it would be to have to read a series of nonsense syllables! Instead, we learn to read music as well as language by practicing with patterns of notes and words that we come to know. Sight reading methods that use random notes are therefore to be ignored for any but the most superficial tasks.
Reading piano music is simultaneously absolute and relative. That means that the brain recognizes not only the absolute note names for each clef by memorizing them, it also should recognize the intervallic relations between notes. To aid in reading music, each clef has two notes that serve as references for the eye. By convention, C is common to all clefs. The treble clef is also called the G clef because the spiraled symbol is centered on the G above middle C. Therefore, C and G are the two reference notes for the treble clef:
The bass clef is also called the F clef because its two dots are centered on the F below middle C. Thus, C and F are the reference notes for the bass clef:
Like the treble clef, the C clefs (soprano, mezzosoprano, alto, tenor and baritone) also use C and G as their reference notes. Most piano students have never encountered the C clefs, and essentially only alto and tenor clefs are used nowadays for a handful of instruments, including viola, trombone and bassoon. Here is the alto clef:
It is a very good idea to familiarize yourself with all clefs no matter which instrument you play. The goal is not to learn the absolute note names for each clef, which will only confuse you, but simply to be able to find any note in relation to its closest reference note. Thus, for instance, if you understand that the C clef symbol is centered on middle C, you'll immediately know that the note directly above it is D, no matter which of the five C clefs you are learning to read.
If you have the opportunity to work with other music students, by all means take advantage of it. If you don't yet have this opportunity, make it. Reading piano music with others is one of the best ways to learn to read music, since you'll be forced to stay in rhythm. I often play duets with my students to help them acquire this skill. You can play with any combination of instruments and accompany singers. The more variety, the better.
Work according to these suggestions and you'll be surprised at how rapidly you progress! Best wishes in reading piano music and in all your musical work.