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Sight Reading: A Guide to Development

Sight Reading Music

A musician who can sight read has the ability to play any score of music regardless of familiarity with the piece. Like learning to read in school, musical sight reading abilities start from the basics and then build on each other as you move further along in your practice. Sight reading is a skill that develops slowly and quietly alongside general proficiency. The constant practicing, studying, and challenges that make up a music-learning experience are the perfect ingredients for sight reading success.

However, for many people sight reading skills are slow to develop. This may happen for various reasons, but there are three areas often at play and will be addressed. Firstly, deficiencies often arise as a result of accelerating through the grade levels. Another culprit is lack of attention to rhythmical training. The third one is not spending enough attention to technical training such as learning scale and chords (or leaving it out all together!). In addition, developing sight read skills, requires practice time set aside for this purpose.


As a rule of thumb, when working with the RCM Syllabus, a minimum of three pieces should be learned for each list (historical period). Often students learn only the pieces required for the exam. In other words they learn 3 pieces (junior levels) in stead of 9 and they do this one grade after another. By reducing the amount of repertoire by two thirds, it is not hard to imagine the detrimental effect this will have on the development of sight reading skills.

Rhythmical Training

Rhythmical training is a key factor in our ability to sight read. A well developed facility to handle rhythms is clearly and advantage. Learning to handle rhythms in various time signatures is a good place to start. For further discussion on rhythmical training refer to the following posts, namely Conquering Difficult Rhythm and Does the Metronome Help?

Practice your Scales

For pianists, knowing your scales will help you tangibly memorize your key signatures. It will also create muscle memory for fingerings and hand placement for each key signature so that when you begin to sight-read, your hands will do what they are used to doing! The post Why do I have to Learn Scales addresses this topic.

Standard Approach to Sight Reading Practice

For your formal sight reading practice, began by restricting your reading to simple scores. As a rule of thumb, aim for difficulty that is two levels below your current level and utilize the following procedure:

  1. Before playing, study the music silently, taking special note of the key and time signatures.
  2. Clap the rhythm.
  3. For pieces in a distinguishable key (tonal), play the scale in which the piece is written to fix the tonality in your ear.
  4. Keep your eyes on the score at all times.
  5. Read from the bass upward.

Sight Reading Tips

  1. We’ve all used safety nets when it comes to sight reading. For example, we might look down at our hands while attempting to sight-read. Do your best to not look down. It’s good to make mistakes. Without them, how can you learn?
  2. Before you begin to play, take a moment to mentally digest the music in front of you. Take a moment to identify any spots that may cause you trouble.
  3. Sight-reading isn’t meant to be perfect. And just like anything else you do, the more you practice, the better you will get! So don’t focus on the mistakes that you make during the performance, and don’t feel as though you have to stop and correct them.

“For me, sight-reading was never a chore but a pleasure. I remember at age fifteen visiting the Newark Public Library every Saturday morning and staggering home under a mountain of piano scores—original works and transcriptions of operas and symphonies. It was quite a feat to maneuver the stack through the bus door, but I certainly improved my sight-reading.”

Bernstein, Seymour. With Your Own Two Hands . Manduca Music Publications. Kindle Edition.

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