When someone plays a piece on the piano, it’s usually obvious that they have practiced it beforehand, especially if it is a very difficult piece. But every pianist at some point looks at a piece for the first time without knowing it and attempts to play it. Sight-reading is being able to perform a piece the first time you see it. It is important for learning new pieces and it is often the mark of a more advanced player if they can sightread well. It is also an important skill for accompanists and professional musicians who need to learn several pieces at once.
Sight-reading takes time and effort to develop, but it is rewarding once mastered. Imagine being able to sit down and play a piece of music the first time you look at it, or at least being able to quickly recognize the notes you will need to practice. You will be able to focus more on other aspects of practicing such as dynamics, technical difficulties, and phrasing.
What Does it Mean to Sight Read Music?
Sight-reading is being able to look at music you are not familiar with and play it with accuracy. It may sound daunting but it is possible to improve this skill whether you are a beginner or an advanced player. Depending on your level of playing, you may be able to sightread pieces only up to a certain difficulty, but most pianists can sight-read to some degree.
How easily you can sight-read ultimately comes down to how quickly you can recognize the positions and patterns of notes in music. This is generally the process of reading music but sight reading takes the accuracy of the notes played to another level. The key to sight-reading is that it is being able to play music you have not practiced. If you watch someone play a song while reading the music and they are able to play it fairly well you may not be able to tell if they practiced the piece previously or if they are just very good at sight-reading.
How to Improve Piano Sight-Reading ?
In order to improve your sight-reading, you must be proficient in reading music notes. Practicing strategies for generally reading sheet music will help you read music notes faster. But as you try to sight-read more advanced music, you will need to be able to recognize patterns in music quickly.
This is similar to what it’s like to be able to read words quickly. When children are learning to read, they take time to sound out each letter and figure out what the different parts of a word are individual. As our reading skills improve, we don’t identify each individual letter to read. We actually often recognize the shapes and patterns of words to read faster.
In music, being able to recognize chord shapes and note patterns is what will enable you to read faster. You can do this by doing focused practice with specific chord patterns or exercises. But the best way to get better at sight reading is to find a collection of music that is relatively easy for your skill level and try to play through it without stopping.
Beginning to Sight-Read
Before you can start sight reading, make sure you can recognize notes easily if you are a beginner. You can do this by picking random notes out of a piece of music and seeing if you can find them quickly on the piano. You could also try using music note flash-cards. You can check out our article about reading sheet music here.
If you can identify notes quickly, then you can work on recognizing patterns in notes. This is very important to sight-reading well. These patterns might include intervals, chord shapes, scales, and common left-hand patterns, such as Alberti Bass.
When you sit down to sight-read a piece, there are a few things to take note of before playing.
- Take note of the key signature. Determine what key the piece is in and what the accidentals are.
- Look at the time signature and determine the meter of the piece. If there is a tempo marking, take that into account as well.
- Scan the piece for any parts that may be especially difficult and try to plan how to approach them in the piece.
- Try to start playing at a tempo that you will be able to maintain throughout the whole piece. Don’t start too fast.
Once you have taken a few minutes to do this, you can begin attempting to sight-read the piece.
Piano Sight Reading Exercises
The best sight-reading practice is to just do it- try to read through pieces that you aren’t familiar with and see how far you can get through the piece without stopping. You may make several mistakes at first, but the goal is to try to keep going and not take pauses. This is why it’s important not to start too fast.
A key concept to learn is to use notes you already know in the music to find the position of other notes on the keyboard without individually deciphering them. For example, if you see a note that is a third above middle C in the music and you know what a third is on the piano, you can simply play the note that is a third above middle C without specifically knowing that the note is E. This method of determining the position of notes relative to the notes around them is usually a quicker way to decipher music than reading the individual notes.
Here are some patterns to practice recognizing in music.
It is important to know what different intervals look like in music, both in chords and between separate notes.
All of these intervals start on C, but it is important to also be familiar with what they look like starting from other notes too. This is to show you the distance between the notes for each interval.
This is what those intervals look like starting from C as separate notes.
Practice finding these intervals in music you would like to sight-read.
Next, you’ll want to be able to identify chords, broken chords, and their inversions. You can check out our article on chord inversions here.
Let’s look at this sequence of notes.
The first set of eighth notes contains a C major triad followed by the single notes C, E, and G. We can see that each of those single notes is the same as one of the notes of the beginning chord. Even without knowing what the initial chord is, you could determine that the following three notes after the chord would be the same notes as those of the first chord, but played separately in ascending order. Making this deduction would save you time while reading the music.
For the next set of eighth notes, we see an E minor chord followed by the single notes B, G, and E. These are again the same notes as those that make up the chord, but this time they are played in descending order. You could again quickly determine that the last three notes are the same as the notes of the chord, but played separately in descending order.
The last set of notes shows a C chord in first inversion (E, G, C), followed by single the notes G, E, G. We can see the three single notes after the chord are the same notes as the bottom two notes of the chord, played alternately. By using the chord as ‘anchor notes,’ you can figure out the notes after the chord without having to ‘manually’ decipher them.
Practice looking for chords in music and seeing if you can quickly find notes around the chord based on the notes of the chord.
Arpeggios are often used in the left hand as accompaniment and in the right hand to add to the melody.
Here is an example of an arpeggio pattern in the left hand.
If we look at the intervals in the arpeggio, the first four notes are separated by a third, and third, and a fourth. If you play those notes together, they are G, B, D, and G, and they make a G major chord.
If you know this, you can quickly find all the notes for that measure.
The second set of notes is similar. They all belong to a four-note C major chord, so you can easily find all the notes for that measure as well.
Alberti Bass is a pattern that is often used in the left hand. It is named after 18th-century composer Domenico Alberti who used it extensively in his music. It is used when the notes of a triad are played in this order: lowest, highest, middle, highest.
Here is an example of Alberti Bass.
Every four-note group follows the pattern, and each group contains the notes of a triad chord. The chords used here are C major, F major first inversion, D minor, and D major 7.
Music is written in countless ways, so many times there will not be a clear pattern to follow. However, by being able to recognize the patterns that do exist you will be able to free up ‘brain space to figure out the notes that don’t follow a pattern.
How Long Does it Take to Be Able to Sight Read Piano Music?
The time it takes you to get better at sight-reading will depend on your current level and the difficulty level of the music you are trying to sight-read. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t able to sight-read well or at all the first or second time you try.
It is a skill that takes practice and experience to develop. The more music you are exposed to, the more musical patterns you will be familiar with, and the quicker you will be able to sight-read.
Take 10-15 minutes of your practice time to sight-read music. If you do this consistently, you should start to see improvement in your sight-reading abilities in a matter of weeks.
Sight-reading can be challenging for beginners. It can even be challenging for advanced players if the music they are trying to play is within their skill level normally but beyond their sight-reading abilities.
When students attempt to sight-read pieces, they will often pause to figure notes out. This is part of the learning process, but the goal of sight-reading is to play the piece as close to performance speed and accuracy. As you are practicing sight-reading, try to keep going and not stop if you make mistakes.
It is important to note that this is the opposite of what you want to do for normal piano practice. The goal of normal practice is to refine a piece that you are becoming more familiar with. The goal of sight-reading practice is to get comfortable playing music you are not familiar with making as few mistakes as possible. If you practice diligently you may eventually be able to do things like play as an accompanist with other musicians. But even if that isn’t your ultimate goal, sight-reading will make you a better pianist and more capable musician.