Practical Sight Reading Tips You Can Use Today To Improve Your Sight Reading

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Sight Reading : Elusive But Essential

Sight reading is the ability to read the music notes off the score. Needless to say, it is a very valuable skill to be obtained by any musician.

A good sight reader can easily read off notes from the score and play it on their instrument of choice – such as the piano . The experience is like reading a book out loud ( the musician reads the notes on the score and play it for all to hear ) .

In this article, i will provide you with practical tips that you can use in your practice room today to improve your sight reading ability gradually. However, there are some assumptions before you begin:

  1. I am writing this article with a piano student in mind. The skills can also be applied to any other musicians.
  2. You need to have reasonable level of piano playing skill as a foundation for sight reading. Skills may include proper finger technique, knowing how to read music notes on the treble and bass clef, understanding some basic markings on the music score such as dynamics and time signature.
  3. It is also good to have some basic music theory knowledge – knowing what are chords, the different degrees of scales and knowing the basic cadences in a phrase.

If you do not fulfill the requirement needed above, you may wish to check out my book on A Beginner’s Guide To Reading Basic Music Score to learn how to read music notes first.


Why The Assumptions? 

Knowing the basics of music theory is a pre-requisite to being a good sight reader. Why?

Music theory will teach you the nuts and bolts of how music is structured. It is akin to learning the basic grammar of English language. A good grasp of music theory will definitely make your life much easier at sight reading.

Think about it, how can one read a book if he struggles with recalling the alphabet. Likewise, how can one sight read if he struggles with finding the letter names?

However, if you do struggle with finding letter names, read the bonus section of this article on what you can do now so that you ,too, can learn how to sight read eventually.


Step 1: Have A Ready Supply Of Easy Music Scores 

Before you get excited and start banging your keyboard, it is important to state that having the right level of music scores to practice is crucial at this stage. For example, If you are a student of about Grade 5 level, try your hands on a Grade 1 piece. The idea is to start with the easiest pieces and gradually work your way up.

You can refer to my article on my suggested websites to find music scores online.


you can simply get your hands on some basic sight reading books designed specifically for this purpose.

one such example would be: Sight reading , Level 1 by James Bastien

This is an example of what you can expect to see in that book and personally, i think it is a good place to start as it provides short excerpts for you to focus on reading the notes. It also comes in different levels to cater to learners of different sight reading ability.




Step 2: Have A Quick Overview of The Score

Now that you have a score flipped to the excerpt you wish to attempt, it is important for you to get an overview of the score before you begin playing. So what should you look out for?

  1. Clefs used
  2. key signature
  3. Any special indications ( such as dynamic markings )
  4. Any extra accidentals ( sharps and flats ) added in the coming bars
  5. Rhythm


2.1 Clefs Used

For piano students,  it is sometimes taken for granted that the top staff represents treble clef whereas the bottom staff represents bass clef.

In many beginner pieces, music scores does seem to fit into that stereotype. However, do not assume that it will always be that way.

Personally, I had came across sight reading materials with both staffs in bass clefs or treble clefs. This will affect how the music notes are read. So, always pay particular attention to the clefs used on both staffs.


2.2 Key Signature

After knowing the clefs, check whether does the piece require any accidentals ( sharps and flats ). These are usually indicated by the key signature at the start of the piece immediately after the clefs.

Know what music notes require you to play in the black keys so that you are mentally prepared when you do come across the notes during sight reading.


2.3 Any Special Indications

Check the extract for any special indications such as dynamic markings. Are you required to play loudly or softly at specific section of the music?

Are there indications that require you to slow down or speed up?

Were there any other indications required by the composer?

Make a mental note of these indications before you play so that you will not be caught off guard when you do come across it.


2.4 Any Extra Accidentals

Next, while you are looking out for special indications, also look out for any added sharps or flats to the piece.

Reason is the same as the last sentence in the previous paragraph.


2.5 Rhythm

This last step is slightly more challenging. Take some time to examine for any complicated rhythm used. You may want to try to hum the tune to hear how it sounds like before actually playing it.

If you do need help in your sight reading of rhythm, you can check out this article by LeonHarrell on How to Practice Sight Reading in 15 Minutes A Day in Just 4 Steps . Particularly, check out the section on the Eastman counting system.


Step 3: Play The Excerpt 

Now that you had completed the preparatory works ( as specified in step 2) ,it is time to play it.

Here are some tips to help you along:

  1. Do not bother to repeat the notes when you make a mistake. Just carry on.
  2. Your first priority should be to ensure the continuity of the rhythm.
  3. Always make sure your rhythm is played correctly.
  4. When you had played the extract once, move on to the next.
  5. Do not make the mistake of memorizing your practice piece. This is a practice on sight reading and not memorization.
  6. Do not use pedal when you first start.
  7. Practicing sight reading should be a deliberate task you set aside daily for.

Remember, the techniques you used to memorize your pieces to play for your exams or performance is different from the techniques required for you to learn sight reading. 

If you find yourself being able to play the sight reading excerpts by muscle memory, it is a sign that you should move on to the next piece.


Step 4: Rinse And Repeat

Set aside 10 mins or so per day for sight reading. Repeat Step 2 through 3 and eventually you will be a proficient reader. These were the techniques my teacher had taught me many years ago and I had great success with it.

Give yourself time. Take it easy and keep going.

If you need some motivation, check out my article on motivational quotes to help you get going!


Bonus Section

Reading music is a bit like doing pull ups. To a beginner, step 2 through 3 is like telling them to do 10 pull ups a day.

How can a beginner even benefit from this article if they struggle to even start?

Ask a body builder on how to achieve your first pull up and they will probably tell you to do something unrelated like push-ups. The idea is to build enough strength for you to be able to do your first pull.

The same idea holds true on the piano. Like the body builder example, my first advice for you ,if you are really struggling to sight read, is to write down the letter names as shown below:

This exercise on writing letter names will help you to develop necessary skills to read music notes. Only then will you be able to move on to start your sight reading practice.

So, how do you know you are ready to start your sight reading practice? Simple. By writing letter names continuously, you will reach a point where you can recognize certain notes on both clefs. For example, you will reach a point where you just know that the first line in bass clef corresponds to the letter G or you will know where the middle C is.

When you reach that stage, you know you are ready to start sight reading proper.




*Watch my online piano tutorial videos to learn how to play piano without reading a single music note. If you are interested, grab a copy of my personal tips on piano playing and hand coordination and let’s begin! Through the video tutorials, you will also learn proper finger technique – the requirement specified in my 2nd assumption at the beginning of this article.


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