Learn to Sight Read Music

Question: I learned piano through the Suzuki method, and when it came to piano theory, I was aurally-dominant enough to fake it, too lazy to want to learn, and not smart enough to know what I was missing. Naturally, without the practice I never learned how to sight read.

I am now 35 and I have worked very hard for the last five years to teach myself how to read music. I have certainly made progress, but I feel that five years hasn’t paid off well for so much of my time! I still cannot sit down to a piece of music and play it – and that is particularly true if I have not heard it before. Thankfully, I listen to a lot of music, and after plunking out a few notes, if I find out that I know it, I’m much better at sight reading it.

What I read in your articles that struck me, however, was that sight reading can only be practiced once per piece! That makes so much sense to me – thus far I’ve been considering myself “sight-reading” while I’ve been memorizing and perfecting the piece, and I can feel myself continually feeling proficient one day, and gradually losing ground as I work through the piece day after day.

I have enough music in my house to last me for years and years, even if I were to only sight read each piece once. Having the good fortune of abundance, do you think I will be able to really start to sit down and read music fluently if I simply practice with a new piece every day?

In my youth, I had a grandfather who was able to play just about anything. He made every family gathering a musical one. The piano tradition has skipped a generation, but I am eager to revive it. Any assistance you can think of to give me would be very well taken.

Thank you very much for this website, for the inbox lessons, and in advance for the answer to my question!

– Maggie (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA)

Albert’s reply: Thanks for your very kind words, Maggie. To address your question, it’s important to understand the distinction between reading music and sight reading. The former involves familiarity with the musical symbols, while the latter means applying that knowledge in real time – which demands rhythmic skill as well as proprioception: knowing where your hands are on the keyboard without having to look at them

Sight reading necessitates a deep understanding of the symbols. Are you able to name any note on any staff, with any key signature, immediately, without any hesitation whatsoever? If you have to think for even a moment, you won’t be able to sight read music fluently. You should be able to look at music notation and rattle off all the note names as fast as you can speak.

If you’re not at that point yet, I can confidently recommend my DVD and workbook course, How to Read Sheet Music, as it’s an extremely detailed and thorough professional method for training the eye to recognize notes as quickly as possible. Since you already have several years of experience, the initial material will be merely a review for you, though I’m confident that the strategies and exercises taught in the course will take you a significant way to your goal.

If you are at the point at which you can read music notation as easily as you can read words, you’ll need a lot of musical material that is sufficiently below your current playing level. You’ll use this music strictly for sight reading.

I recommend keeping several thick volumes of music just for this purpose. You can use Bach’s Chorales (for this purpose be sure to get a keyboard reduction rather than the four-staff original for chorus), the first three volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, and graded repertoire books – the key is to find music that’s just above your current reading level. Keep bookmarks in the scores and read a new piece or two every day, as you’ll make much more progress with consistent vs. intermittent practice.

I also recommend doing preparatory exercises before jumping in and trying to read the music straightaway. First, scan the entire score with the eye at a steady tempo. The key is to train the eye to move at a constant pace. Take in details of the piece such as the range of notes, motives, repetition of motives or phrases, harmonies and fingerings.

Next, close your piano’s fall board to cover the keys and practice only the rhythm. Count out loud and tap the rhythm in each hand, paying very careful attention to the rests. Hold any long notes for their full rhythmic value before lifting the hand!

Although I can’t caution enough against overuse, it is a good idea to use a metronome for this rhythmic exercise. Counting out loud (which you should always do) and tapping will help you to embody the rhythm and prevent your rhythmic sense from becoming mechanical.

In addition to these tips, I wrote an article titled Reading Piano Music that offers additional advice on learning to sight read music.

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