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If there is one essential skill musicians cannot go without it’s the ability to sightread. Sight-reading at the piano is particularly important from an accompanists point of view. This is why I’ve put together this complete guide on how to improve piano sight reading.
You can learn how to improve piano sight reading with these 19 tips
- Memorize Key Signatures
- Figure Out The Meter Of The Music
- Work Out The Rhythms
- Sound The Music Out In Your Head
- Identify Difficult Spots
- Look For Repeated Elements
- Memorize Chord Shapes And Scales
- Keep A Steady Tempo
- Try Using Solfege
- Do A Quick Harmonic Analysis Of The Music
- Read The Music Ahead
- Don’t Look Down At Your Hands
- Work On Short-Term Memory
- Never Stop In The Middle Of Sight Reading
- Listen To More Music
- Invest In An Ear Training Course
- Be Patient
- Develop A Plan Of Action
- Practice Sightreading Every Day
Having this skill is also helpful for learning new music, getting reading for piano auditions, and much more. There are many other ways to improve your sightreading, so I’ve put together a complete list of 19 sight reading tips and tricks that you can try. I use these methods every day I practice and truly believe these can help you improve your music reading skills too.
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1. Memorize Key Signatures
When a pianist plays the wrong note because of a missed sharp or flat, it’s almost always due to them skipping over or not understanding the key signature of the music. Most novice pianists make this mistake, but it can be easily avoidable and prevent mistakes in the future.
Key signatures are an essential foundation of any piece because they provide important instructions on what notes to augment and what the harmonic analysis will be(more on this later).
For example, it would be much easier to read a passage in D major if you could quickly recognize that from the very beginning. Skipping over the F sharp in the staff, however, will almost always yield an incorrect f-natural if no accidental is marked in a particular measure. A mistake like this would change the entire harmonic mode of the piece; something no pianist wants to do.
There’s no one way to go about learning key signatures, but I’ve found that key signature flashcards are a quick way to memorize them. After using flashcards for a while you’ll be able to instantly recognize how many sharps or flats are in the key signature and make a quick determination of what the piece is asking of you.
The other idea is to simply learn the order of sharps and flats using the circle of fifths method. Just recognizing the key signature is not enough though, as you’ll need to recognize if the music in a major or minor key as well (more on this in the ear training section).
2. Figure Out The Meter Of The Music
Many sight reading mistakes can be attributed to not understanding the meter of the music. This goes a little beyond just knowing what the time signature is though. There are some passages of music that have accented notes, tenutos, staccato and other articulations that have a great impact on what the meter will feel like.
The piece may be written in 4/4, but feel like 2/2 instead. Likewise, something in 6/8 might have the feel of 4/4 depending on where the strong beats land, and if the off beats are accented. Then there are cases where the music is written in compound meter; something often associated with Chopin’s music.
As you scan through the music, analyze where those sections are and how it relates to the overall meter of the piece. Keep an eye out for sudden meter changes as well; especially when transitioning from an even meter to an odd meter and back.
3. Work Out The Rhythms
Outside of missing notes, rhythmic slip-ups are commonly associated with sight reading issues. This can be worked out though as long as you approach the piece with a rhythm first mentality.
One method I teach my students to do is to tap the rhythms of both hands when experiencing a piece for the first time. We call this “ghost playing” but it gives them a chance to work out the rhythms in their head, and feel the pulse of the piece.
This ties directly into meter as well; especially when it’s compound or shifting frequently. If they can tap it correctly multiple times, then it’s already being internalized. That way when they add in piano keys and fingers to the mix, rhythm is less of an issue.
When sight reading something new, I would encourage you to focus on the rhythms you don’t know well first. Look for those rhythms that seem to arrive abruptly or only occur once in a while. Those are likely to be the ones that slip you up when sight reading the piece.
It’s also a good idea to label all of the rhythms that are reoccurring. By doing this and polishing those rhythms in your mind first, it helps you to see where the really awkward sections of the music are.
Ultimately better rhythms come with more practice. Robert Starer has an excellent rhythmic training book that I highly recommend. It uses a progressive approach to developing simple rhythms into more complex ones. The more exercises you go through, the more easily recognizable those rhythms will become to you. A resource like this will greatly improve your sight reading ability.
4. Sound The Music Out In Your Head
If you can hear it, then you can play it. I ask all of my students to work through the music in their head because it’s really effective. This way when they are sight reading they can have an idea of where to place their hands, even if they didn’t quite read the note correctly.
The music that you read is all related through intervals, so hearing those in your head helps a lot. The trick here is being able to identify those intervals with your eyes and translate those to pitches. Knowing the key signature is the first step in the process, but developing your ear is really the only way to get great at this.
To help yourself out, I would identify the key signature, and then play the tonic pitch of the piece. From there you can assign scale degrees to the remaining pitches, or even use solfege(more on this later).
Perhaps the most difficult part with sounding the music out in your head revolves around leaps; particularly those that do not leap to the dominant or octave or third. With practice, your pitch recognition will improve.
To practice, you should begin sight reading simple arpeggios, or broken chords. Also, work in rhythms that use relatively small intervals; something not beyond a fifth, and that has an easily identifiable tonal center.
5. Identify Difficult Spots
Every piece of music has an awkward spot that presents some sort of difficulty. Sometimes it’s a rhythmic difficulty like 32nd notes, and other times it’s a random note or articulation. Below is a list of 5 common difficult spots that can make sight-reading tough for anyone.
Trills – Trills are really fun to play and very characteristic of Baroque repertoire. At the same time, pianists need to make a decision as to play it from the bottom note, or the note above. This can be figured out by reading the rest of the measure to see what pitches are there after the trill.
Lastly comes the timing of the trill as you want all of the notes to fit in the allotted space so that everything else lines up rhythmically. When sight reading something for the very first time, I would suggest simplifying any trills you have.
Syncopated Rhythms – Anything with syncopation is difficult if you don’t understand the meter. However, if you remember that these are essentially tied notes, then it becomes easier to work that rhythm out when sight reading. When you do recognize syncopated rhythms, consider playing those with a bit of stress to help you feel more solid rhythmically.
Tied Notes – Tied notes are pretty easy to point out, however, the ones that slip pianists up during sight reading occur between the last beat of a measure and the beginning of the next.
Rests – The quarter rest, half rest, and whole rest are pretty easy to identify and adjust to. Eighth rests and beyond do present more difficulties, especially when they are not frequented throughout the piece.
Tempo Changes – Seeing an abrupt change in tempo is kind of a rarity when sightreading short passages, but it does happen. An accelerando accompanied by notes you’ve never played before can easily be a disastrous scenario.
The best thing you can do is point out the tempo change from the very beginning, and then try to figure out what patterns and fingering happen there. Be prepared for slowdowns as well, and if you can sound those changes out in your head then it should work out.
6. Look For Repeated Elements
What happens once in a piece usually happens again somewhere. Doing simple form analysis can help you identify those measures that are similar and even verbatim. Take a mental snapshot of those and that way when you see those measures again you can feel confident in what you’re playing.
Sight reading relies heavily on your confidence as a reader too, and quickly identifying repeated sections is the easiest way to build on that. Take a pencil and label those sections with numbers or letters so that they stick out.
After finding those sections you only need to focus on the missing parts in the middle. This is typically where chord progressions that lead to cadences occur. The non-repeated parts are also prime locations for developmental passagework, unique chord changes, cadenza-like material and more.
I find doing this simplifies the piece and allows me to look at the music in different parts rather than one huge continuous work.
7. Memorize Chord Shapes And Scales
Too often pianists read sheet music as individual notes, and not enough as patterns. Music is really made up of a bunch of scale patterns and collections of chords. Over time, the more music you read the more you’ll start to realize what those patterns are.
In fact, you’ll start noticing common shapes in your music that you can eventually memorize.
For example, if you see five notes ascending in a row at intervals of a second, then you immediately know the fingering is probably going to be a basic five-finger pattern. Being able to anticipate that fingering removes half the thought process for sight reading.
The same can be said when arpeggios are present as well as well as chords. Visually you can start picking out octaves, chord blocks and more.
Once you’ve tied all of this in with the key signature, then your hands will simply know where to go without having to read each individual note all of the time. This can only be achieved with practice, so I recommend working on technical exercises like Czerny and Hanon which focus heavily on chords and scales in every variety.
8. Keep A Steady Tempo
Sight reading something at tempo is important, but so is accuracy. It’s never a good idea to play something new too fast. Besides, you’ll likely make most of your mistakes stumbling over your fingers. You can check out some best metronomes for piano here; they will help tremendously with this step.
Make sure to pick a tempo that you can execute evenly and accurately. For example, if you have a piece that combines quarter notes and sixteenth notes, then you should have a good idea how fast you can play those sixteenths.
Once you’ve figured that out then you can dictate the speed of the quarter notes which are much simpler to play. Before playing something new tap the beat with your foot or on your chest and sing it in your head too.
9. Try Using Solfege
Solfege is really popular among vocalist and those who do a lot of sight singing. Thinking of notes as letters and scale degrees can be hard to comprehend for some. However when it’s all broken down to Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Ti then it’s simply about matching locations of the pitches.
I actually have a piano student that solely learns via solfege and it works great for her. Doing so allows you to feel really comfortable in the key signature too. Combine this step with singing in your head too and it will surely help.
10. Do A Quick Harmonic Analysis Of The Music
Harmonic analysis is something many music schools focus on, and that’s because it’s extremely useful for sight reading. Being able to hear those harmonies, and pick them out when they come up can tell you a lot about the landscape of a piece.
When I’m sight-reading the first thing I do after locating the key signature is to find what harmonies are happening. In particular, I look for perfect authentic cadences, leading tones to tonic, and enharmonic tones. These are all indicators of what’s about to happen in the music and in turn, you can develop good fingering in direct response to those harmonies.
There are many ways you can do this, but sticking with simple Roman numerals is always best. If there are inverted chords you can use those as well, but I always find root position chords are the easiest to identify in a sight reading exercise. In some instances, I like to label scale degrees or intervals above the root of that particular harmony.
11. Read The Music Ahead
Looking ahead in the music is an acquired skill, and one every good sight reader should have. It’s very dangerous to trace your music note for note. Pianists especially should always be looking ahead to have an idea what’s coming. Below are a couple of key things you should focus on when looking ahead in the music.
- Changes to the clef
- Tempo markings
- Articulations and Trills
- Large Leaps
- Rhythmic Changes
So how far ahead in the measure should you look? The answer is somewhere around halfway. The more you practice this step the better you will become. Your eyes will have to also get used to quickly scanning both the left and right hand without losing concentration on what you’re currently playing.
12. Don’t Look Down At Your Hands
There are times when it’s okay to look down at your hands when playing the piano. Sight reading is not really one of those times though. Staring down at your hands means you’re not looking at the music at all. Therefore there’s no way you can be looking ahead in the music and that can surely cause problems.
If something interesting were to come up in the music when you look back up, it would catch you off guard in a bad way!
My advice to anyone sight reading is to think more about the feel of the piano keys and less on the visual. If you do some exercises that focus on feeling the distance between notes, then you can pull this off in any key. Developing a relative feel for all notes on the piano is a really crucial skill to have as a pianist.
For leaps, there’s, of course, an exception to looking down, but with some practice, you can also accomplish those without needing to look down at the keys. This is a skill that has to be developed through the practice of all kinds of repertoire and technical exercises; not just through sight reading.
13. Work On Short-Term Memory
Digesting sheet music in small pieces can help with memory (see how to memorize piano notes here). The same strategy can work for sight reading as well. To some degree, sight reading is dependent on memorizing small bits of music.
During your initial observation of the music look for things that your brain can easily register. Pick out the simpler rhythms like quarter notes and half notes and filter those out. The reason being, it’ll be easy to read those on the fly vs a more difficult rhythm.
When you notice a particularly difficult section, spend your time memorizing all aspects of it. This way when it’s played you’ll have some degree of muscle memory and visual memory already associated with that part of the passage.
14. Never Stop In The Middle Of Sight Reading
Those new to sight reading have a bad habit of stopping when things get tough. Stopping in the middle of the music to figure out the notes is not going to help you improve though. Instead, you should focus on continuing no matter what happens.
Even if you play wrong notes, continuing to play on will help develop your ability to be a more focused reader. Stopping only creates bad habits that are tough to fix later on. Here are some simple tips to sight read without stopping.
- Look ahead in the measure
- Leave some notes out
- Slow down the tempo
- Sing while you play
15. Listen To More Music
The more pianists listen to music, the more in tune they will be with the music. Try exposing yourself to all styles of music; not just Classical. You’ll find that many of the same elements pan across all of the genres.
Listening to music better trains the ears to recognize harmonies more quickly. If you can, try reading through sheet music as you listen to recordings. Over time you’ll develop a relative recognition of pitches.
16. Invest In An Ear Training Course
If you’re still having trouble developing your musical ear, you could always invest in an ear training course. A well-trained ear is a crucial part of sight reading so it’s really important for you to improve this as you go. I recommend looking at Marta Arkozzy’s music book that covers everything from solfege to music dictation.
17. Be Patient
Sight reading is a skill that takes time to develop. Trying to make it happen to fast can actually hinder your overall development of the skill. Learning to sight read too fast will create bad habits that are really hard to fix later on.
Instead be comfortable in knowing that sight reading is a long-term process. However, you can set many short-term goals along the way so that you can see the results as they happen. Be patient with it, and make sure to do quality sight reading as often as you can.
18. Develop A Plan Of Action
Sight reading is a task the requires a solid plan of action. You should always have a set of principles that you abide by whenever you take on that task. Here is a list of steps that I go through that is really successful. I think if you employ this then you’ll do tremendously well with sight reading.
- Look at the key signature
- Mark all accidentals (sharps or flats)
- Look for repeated rhythms and measures
- Identify all rhythmic difficulties
- Pick a good tempo
- Ghost play (silent play)
- Sound out the music in your head
- Play without stopping
- Reanalyze the passage, mark any mistakes and grade yourself
19. Practice Sightreading Every Day
Lastly, the most important thing you can do to improve your sight reading is to practice daily. This is something you as a pianist need to be consistent with; because that’s what translates to success in this skill.
Practicing can be all sorts of things; not just playing. Take some time to work through your sight reading method books, listen to recordings, and more. Pull out some random books and read through passages on your own too and continue to expose yourself to new musical material.
The more you practice your sight reading skills, the quicker the skill will come to you. Improving your sight reading is definitely worth it in the long run, and you will become a much better pianist because of it!