As experienced musicians, we acquire many insights that become effective sight reading habits. We are probably not even conscious of the thought processes involved in our music reading. These skills become automatic over the years.
I have tried to identify the numerous skill sets used in my own music reading. These insights have been gained over time from playing “any hymn in the hymnal” at religious services, reading a piece of pop sheet music brought in by a student, reading a new manuscript submitted by a composer and reading audience-selected pieces at a sing-along. Many years as a choral accompanist have also contributed to my sight reading skills.
As we have discovered in our own musical development, good sight reading involves being able to keep one’s eyes on the music about 90% of the time. An occasional glance at our hands is sometimes necessary when there are wide intervals or spread-out broken chords in the music. The keyboard may also be kept in view peripherally while sight reading. Through experience, we have learned to look ahead in the music. This may be a whole measure or maybe part of the next measure. In a complex piece, we may be able to look ahead just one or two beats. Being able to look ahead is enabled by using the sense of touch to navigate the keyboard.
Sight reading involves training the eyes to read music analytically. For best results, eye training should be coordinated with ear training and training the sense of touch. For example, the student sees the interval of a 3rd, while simultaneously being aware of the sound of that 3rd and how that interval feels in the hand and fingers.
Students should be shown how to recognize elements and patterns that help make music reading more fluent and accurate. This article will suggest a progressive plan of various sight reading concepts for the early levels of music study. The ideas presented here, although primarily intended for sight reading, will also help in the learning and memorizing of a piece of music.
The development of sight reading skills is both accumulative and progressive. Concepts presented at first need continued development as additional ideas are taught.
There is no substitute for the experience of reading and playing a large variety of musical styles at each level. However, the effectiveness of such sight reading can be greatly improved when the student is made aware of concepts designed to make reading music easier and more efficient. Many teachers have a lending library of music in their studio for sight reading, so a pupil can practice sight reading at home, as well as during the lesson. The cost of maintaining such a library can be built into the lesson fee or added as a surcharge once during each semester.
Early Levels (Early Elementary through Upper Elementary)
A beginner starts by learning how to find notes in the treble and bass staffs, along with rhythmic values of notes and rests. Note movement (up, down or repeated) is also presented. The student is shown how to compare two notes and how to identify the movement of one note to the next. This is probably the most elementary concept of sight reading.
It’s a good idea for the student to sight read each new piece assigned at the lesson, before taking it home for practice. Workbook pages (in note spellers or theory books) may also be used for sight reading before the written work is done. As time allows, additional sight reading may be done at each lesson, even if it is only one short piece.
When working with flash cards, the goal should be to find the note at the keyboard quickly. Although it may be helpful for the student to recite the note name as it is found, the main emphasis should be to simply find the note. When flash cards have answers on the back, they can also be used at home if parents understand how to use them with their child.
Another idea is to randomly point to different notes in a piece, asking the student to find the each note at the keyboard quickly. Skip around using a mixture of line-notes and space-notes in both clefs. This may be done with a new piece before playing it for the first time, or with an old piece as review.
As the student becomes aware of note movement up and down, melodic intervals of 2nds and 3rds (sometimes simply called “steps and skips”) can be presented. In addition to visual recognition, the student should be made aware of the sound of the intervals and the feeling in the hand and fingers as various intervals are played.
Eyes should also be trained to be aware of the vertical position of notes. That is, notes that are above one another are played at the same time, even when in different staffs.
As students progress, they encounter a wider range of notes on the staff and beyond. New key signatures and time signatures are added. There is more frequent use of accidentals, leger lines and dynamics. Rhythms become more complex, involving simple syncopations. There is more frequent use of harmonic intervals and chords.
It is most important that students be in the habit of looking at the beginning of each piece, checking for the clef, time signature, key signature and dynamic level. (Some pieces have both hands playing in the same clef.) Students should be alert for an occasional change of clef, key signature, or time signature part way through a piece, along with changes of dynamics.
Recognition of patterns that repeat or recur are an important key to effective sight reading. A repeating pattern is one that is the same, measure after measure. A pattern that recurs is one that reappears after one or more intervening measures. The easiest to find are accompaniment patterns. For example, the accompaniment of an entire piece may consist of three or four different broken chord patterns that are used many times. The accompaniment patterns are usually in the bass clef and may be one or more measures long.
After learning to recognize accompaniment patterns, the student should learn to find and recognize individual notes, melodic intervals, harmonic intervals, chords, note patterns, rhythmic patterns and patterns of phrases that repeat or recur in a piece.
At early levels, melodic patterns are usually two to four measures long. The pattern may begin and end anywhere in a measure. When identifying a melodic pattern, the eye should look for a sequence of various intervals that recur later in the melody. The rhythm can also be a clue in finding such a pattern. The student should be shown how slurs and phrase marks help in recognizing melodic patterns. (The same is true of accompaniment patterns.) Organizing melodic patterns also introduces the student to musical form, such as A-A-B-A, which is useful in learning and memorizing.
Sometimes, all notes in a pattern are the same except for one note, often the last note. Other times, the note pitches are the same, but the rhythm is slightly changed. These may be called similar patterns.
Knowledge of scales and scale fingerings is very helpful in sight reading. Many times, a melody may contain several notes of a major or minor scale.
Intervals of 2nds
This interval is often tricky to read correctly. Something that is good for the student to know: the lower note of a 2nd is always on the left side of the stem. This is true whether the stem goes up or down. Therefore, it helps the student to always read the lower note first.
Repeated Notes in Adjoining Intervals
The student should be taught how to compare adjoining intervals to see if any notes are the same. Explain that: 1) the repeated note may be at the top or bottom of the intervals. 2) there may sometimes be a rest or bar line between the repeated notes. 3) the repeated note may be found three or more times in a row. 4) the repeated note may be at the top of one interval and the bottom of the next interval.
Repeated notes can also found in adjoining chords. The repeated note may be at the top, middle or bottom of a chord.
Intermediate Levels (Early Intermediate through Upper Intermediate)
At this level and beyond, along with elements mentioned previously, there are many factors that continue to grow in importance as sight reading aids. The common denominator is recognition, training the eye to quickly recognize these elements and to use them to help read music faster and with better fluency and accuracy.
Leger Line Notes
Chromatic Scale Patterns
Sixteenth Note Groups
Dotted 8th + 16th Note Groups
Recurring Rhythm Patterns in Melody and Accompaniment