What is Sight Reading?
Being able to look at a brand new piece of music and play it at sight is a pretty amazing skill to have. Just think—what we’re trained as musicians to do is to simultaneously scan and identify various symbols and visual cues, register and process each one (both individually and collectively), and effectively communicate those instructions to other parts of the body to physically produce the correct sounds. Each element of that split-second process requires its own individual development and understanding, spanning everything from pitch, timing, and dynamics, to harmony, rhythm, and technique—all of which are essential to becoming a well-rounded musician and capable sight reader.
Because of this, for most of us, sight reading is a skill that takes time to develop, often improving in the background alongside overall musical ability. Similar to learning to read a book, a student’s musical vocabulary and comprehension requires years of deliberate practice (and patience!), and will naturally grow as time goes on the more they are exposed to new elements of the language.
Why Sight Reading?
It creates confidence
Being able to successfully sight read music on the spot helps musicians measure their ability and overall progress, and affirms that hard work pays off. Plus, strong sight readers gain an edge in auditions and other professional settings.
Stronger foundation in rhythm and pitch
Improving sight reading fluency also improves the ability to quickly interpret rhythmic patterns combined with interval training and pitch matching.
Better ears = stronger accuracy
Being able to hear the music before playing or singing a note is another incredible skill that sight readers develop, also known as audiation. Even if it’s not possible to sing the exact pitches out loud, sight reading helps the ability to feel the rhythm and get the general direction of the melodic notes and harmony just by looking at the music. This improves overall accuracy tremendously because of the ability to anticipate the pitch and rhythm before playing.
Playing the same or similar warm-ups and routine drills can often become monotonous. Being able to pull out any piece and play or sing it can be fun, challenging, and rewarding.
Expanded musical opportunities
Strong sight readers may find additional opportunities to to be of service to other musicians. For example, pianists who sight read well might find themselves accompanying soloists and choirs. They can also play individual parts for rehearsal purposes.
Musicians who are strong sight readers will find learning new music far less stressful, which can ultimately create more enjoyment and connection with their instrument and encourage long-term playing.
Tips for Sight Reading Success
While sight reading often improves in the background alongside general musical ability, when it comes to deliberate sight reading practice, there are various ways to ensure success. Inspired by Andy Beck’s blog article, 9 Tips for Sight-Singing Success, here are some practical tips for optimizing sight reading practice:
- Sight read often. Every day, if possible. Without a doubt, practice pays off.
- Isolate rhythms from pitches. These are two different skills, so work them separately before combining.
- Gradually increase the level of difficulty. A logical sequence of concepts is critical.
- Have a methodology and stick to it. Is Kodáy better than numbers? Is count-singing better than Takadimi? Not at all. Any of these systems is effective with consistency.
- Tap a steady beat or pulse, and try not to stop. Even if you make a mistake, keep going.
- Review before you start. Notice the time signature and key; determine the starting note; examine the rhythms, notes, and intervals; identify potential challenges; then “sing” silently to yourself—all before the official start.
- Emphasize independence! Perform solo or with an accompaniment that does not double the part.
- Always look ahead. As a matter of fact, never look back. While you are singing or playing bar three, your eyes (and mind) should be preparing for bar four.
- Don’t forget tone and technique! Make sight reading practice musical—a lack of support or confidence might imply errors.