10 Tips for Sight Reading Music

10 Tips and Tricks for Sight Reading Music

Sight reading seems to be one of those challenges that either a beginning musician loves or has recurring nightmares about. For those of us in the latter category, we’ve consulted with music educators who specialize in the important skill of sight reading music to make it less scary and (maybe even) a little enjoyable!

Practice beforehand…

Time signatures and key signatures are, well, key to being a successful sight reader. For a quick review of how to understand time signatures and key signatures, check out our basic sheet music reading primer.

First, familiarize yourself with and practice a wide variety of time signatures so that you’re ready for any situation. You can mask a mistake in pitch much easier than one in rhythm. As the saying goes “always count… never stop.” Here’s a website we found with helpful, free rhythm exercises.

Another suggestion is to print out some free manuscript paper. Write out various rhythms of half notes and quarter notes in 4/4 time. Next, do the same with quarter notes and eighth notes, then eighth notes and sixteenth notes. Play each of the rhythms as you write them or count/tap/verbalize them out loud, and mix-and-match them as you go along. That way, you’ll familiarize yourself with how they look on the page and you’ll be prepared to perform each rhythm in any context.

Next, memorize your key signatures! A tip for reading SHARP (major) key signatures is to look at the last sharp, and move a half-step above that. In this example, your last sharp is a C, so a half step up from C-sharp is D, meaning your key is D Major.Sharp key signatures

A tip for reading FLAT key signatures is to look at the second-to-last flat (reading left to right). In this example, your second-to-last flat is E, so you’re in E-flat Major. The exception to this rule is F major (or D minor) which only has one flat (B-flat).Tip-for-reading-flat-key-signatures

Then, be sure to know your scales  forward and backward. Practice singing or playing your scales, while reciting (or thinking of) the name of each note as you play it.

Along those lines, learning to sight sing, even if you’re not a vocalist, will help you sight read music for any instrument. Phrasing, intonation and musicality are universal, and sight singing will help you practice those without having to concentrate so closely on what your hands are doing.

Also be sure to practice, practice, practice sight reading music without looking at your hands. Knowing the feel of your instrument’s keys/frets/fingerboard is essential to sight reading music because your eyes will be focused on the piece. Sight reading is like training for a marathon, you need to continuously practice your skills in order to keep them. But, in the end it will pay off! Sight reading is one of the greatest musical joys you will ever experience!

Right before playing…

It goes without saying that first you’ll want to look at the piece. Tap out the rhythm, including rests, then read through the notes and follow the overall structure so you’ll know where to go at repeat bars, D.C., Codas, Segnos and the like. Mentally commit changes in key or time, as well as accidentals, dynamics and other markings. If you’re allowed, make helpful marks on your sheet music in any spots you anticipate having difficulties. Never leave home without your handy sheet music pencil!

Next, sound the piece out in your head. Pay attention to patterns, including scale and arpeggio fragments. If you recognize patterns ahead of time, the notes will be much easier to sight read, and it will free you up to focus on other parts of the piece.

The best musicians study the music closely before playing. The reason they sound so good when they sight read a piece for the first time is because they’ve already studied the sheet music. While the director is handing out the sheet music, the best musicians are secretly scrutinizing it, studying the road map, looking for potentially awkward passages, tapping out rhythm, trying out fingerings—all without playing a note!

 When you begin the piece…

Don’t forget to breathe! It sounds silly, but sight reading music, especially under pressure, can be daunting. Breathing can help you keep tempo and follow your phrasing. For winds players and vocalists it’s even helpful to mark where you plan to breathe beforehand.

Similarly, try to relax and concentrate. Keep your eyes on the page, even if you make a mistake. Don’t correct yourself, just keep moving along. We promise, it will get easier!

In review, our 10 Tips for Sight Reading Music Are:

  1. Familiarize yourself with a variety of rhythms.
  2. Memorize key signatures at-a-glance.
  3. Know your scales forward and backward.
  4. Practice playing without looking at your hands.
  5. Practice sight singing.
  6. Take a minute to examine the piece you’re sight reading. Tap out the rhythm, read through the notes and follow the structure.
  7. Mentally commit changes in key or time signature within the piece.
  8. Make markings on the paper (or on your tablet/iPad), if allowed.
  9. Sound the whole piece out in your head, recognizing patters.
  10. Breathe, relax and keep going, even if you make a mistake.
  11. (Bonus tip) Never leave home without your sheet music pencil!

Do you have additional tips for sight reading music that you’ve found helpful? Do you have a sight reading success story to share? Please let us and your fellow musicians know in the comments below!

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27 comments

  1. The most hardest tip is number 4, it is really hard to play not looking on your hands, but it is really so. It’s like basketball, don’t look at the ball, look what is around you. The same is here, don’t look at your hands!

    • Jack

      When playing accordion, you Cannot look at your hands!

      • Bill D

        Mostly true! You really get a sense of feel for those 120 basses and chords. But I see amateurs “rubbernecking” (ouch!) to see the keys on the piano side. Those are also the ones who change bellow in/out mid-phrase.

    • I have played the piano all my life: for my personal pleasure only! It became my substitute artistic outlet when I could no longer dance ballet. ( I am a Ballet instructor by profession.). In Sept2014 ( 8 months ago) I had a STROKE! Lingering effects have made sight reading significantly more difficult as I lost coordination on my left side so “finding” the correct keys via muscle memory has been slow to come back and is frustrating!! Anyone else gone thro a similar situation?

      • Jodi

        Learning another instrument (recorder, clarinet) that is held differently than the piano can benefit some people. The recreation of fingering will help the brain with remembering those fingers. (Stroke can cause your mind to ‘forget’ that hand/foot exists.) Then switching into the piano after practicing the other instrument. A recorder can be bought for less than $25, often. I hope this helps. Oh!! Also, use a rubber or foam (not plastic) ball. Push each finger of that hand individually and look at the hand while doing so, then switch to not looking while pressing. Good Luck and Have a Marvelous Day!

  2. Beth

    I would add the importance of instantly recognising intervals for pianists and vocalists. It’s incredibly helpful to know the shape of an interval in your hand or the sound of an interval (5th, minor 3rd, etc.) before you sight read.

    • Margaret Devere

      Not just pianists and vocalists. I’m a brass player and I swear by intervals. Longer comment below.

  3. I would add practicing harmony reading (and playing various chord voicings) – many composers have their favourite chord voicings/cadenzas (e.g. Mozart) – study them and they will be ready in your hands whenever you play this composer.

  4. Practice Cadences and listen to the voicing s… Once you know some cadences such as I IV V I etc, You will be able to pick up music faster as most classical pieces end in a standard cadence.
    Also, understand that MOST pieces will only use the 7 notes of a particular scale. Anything outside of those 7 notes is a variant and you can look for those those notes as you are sight reading.

  5. Flutes rule

    Learn to read ahead and look out for places to breathe for wind players. Clues might be a rest and possibly a long note. I find that seeing the shape of the melody can be helpful as well. Get a great teacher.

  6. Get a fake book for your instrument, pick a waltz and a 4/4 song each day – 1. clap the rhythm, 2. block the chord progressions. THEN play the song half speed with no stops. Do this EVERY DAY with a different set of songs each day. When you sight reed 2 songs per day for a year – WOW – you will see what improvement you can accomplish.

  7. I think practicing sight-reading is important. Sometimes I just sit down at the piano, pick a random piece, and try my best to play it. These tips help, and the more you grow accustomed to sight-reading, the better you’ll be at it.

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  10. Practice makes you, if not perfect, then better. I learned how to play the piano and guitar. I think I played them rather well, the only thing was I never learned to read sheet music. Both my teachers refused to teach me when I couldn’t learn. The reason I couldn’t learn was because I was to lazy to practice. I didn’t want to read some piece of paper, I didn’t believe it was necessary.

  11. In high school, we had to sight read our sheet music and I was never good at it. I basically faked it. How can I overcome that strategy because I would like to get better at it. I understand the notes, beats, letters on the grand staff but when it comes to figuring out were Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do is, I am clueless without hearing the music.

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  13. jack

    Sight reading on accordion can be very difficult. Especially when there are a lot of chord changes involving the left hand. Sometimes the left hand makes more movement than the right hand.

  14. Margaret Devere

    For a brass instrument (also probably woodwinds, but I’m a brass player), don’t depend on the names of the notes (A, B, C, and so on) and knowing the appropriate fingering. Instead, know what an interval looks like on the page, and know what the equivalent interval is on your instrument. So you can go up a a third or down a fourth without knowing that it’s a D or a G or whatever, and not thinking about the fingering.

    I don’t know how to develop this, but maybe just play intervals on your instrument over and over until they’re automatic.

    This is useful in several ways:

    – Faster reading in general
    – Easier to play by ear and change keys — play something in C, then in G
    – Easier to change clefs (my instrument, the euphonium, is in concert pitch in bass clef, but in Bb in treble clef. So the fingering for a C is different in the two clefs. What were they thinking? :) )

  15. Margaret Devere

    It’s often more important to keep the beat going than to play the right note.

    Use your instincts to choose the note to play when you’re not entirely sure. For example, something written in the key of C will emphasize the notes C, E, and G in certain places in the phrase or strain. In other places in the same piece, the notes D, F, G, and B will be used a lot. These are standard chord structures that you can hear even if you don’t know anything about music theory.

    Even if you don’t play the note that’s written, you have a good chance of playing a note that sounds okay.

    • Margaret Devere

      Wanted to elaborate on my first statement above. In ensembles, it’s absolutely critical to keep the beat. So, if you can’t read/play all the notes, play the notes on the beat. Or play the first and third. Or just the first. (This won’t work for the melody line, of course:) )

  16. Margaret Devere

    Read ahead. Always know what’s in the next measure or two — ideally, the whole phrase. Don’t just read the note that you’re playing.

    Recognize common patterns on the page and play the pattern, not the individual notes.

    This applies to common patterns in general, and also to common patterns within a single piece. Many pieces feature XYZ in this measure, and then a few measures later, the same XYZ but maybe up a third. Or maybe in double time. ROPO (read once play often)

  17. Margaret Devere

    This is an elaboration on a couple of my previous comments.

    Many phrases are built around standard sets of notes. For example, they’ll end on one of the notes, or runs will end on one of the notes. These sets of notes are (usually) based on the key signature of the piece.

    You can develop your ear to know what these notes are, and then you’ll have a better chance of playing the right note or at least an okay note. No music theory needed.

    An exercise:

    Assume you’re playing in the key of C. Play these sequences, one right after the other:

    C E G C
    C F A C
    C E G C
    D F G B
    C E G C

    Now close your eyes and play them.

    Now do the same thing for the key of G:

    G B D G
    G C E G
    G B D G
    A C D F#
    G B D G

    And work your way through all the keys. After you get the pattern, don’t write out the notes — find the correct note using your ear. After a while, your fingers will come along automatically.

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  19. I play the piano, and I think the toughest thing about it is sight reading. This article helped a lot.

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