Are Great Sight-Readers Born or Made?

I grew up learning music by ear, so when I first began playing in an orchestra and saw how some of my friends could simply look at a new piece of music and play it in real-time, I was totally impressed (and more than a little intimidated).

I did get better at it over time, but always thought of myself as a relatively poor sight reader. Of course I shouldn’t complain since I never really made a point of practicing sight-reading, but I always just assumed that I was a lost cause.

But is sight-reading ability really one of those innate qualities that we can’t change very much? Or is it a skill that can be improved over time with the right kind of practice?

Who knew?

As it turns out, sight-reading has been an area of research interest for quite some time, with studies going back nearly 100 years. There are also way more studies out there than I would have guessed – more than 90, in fact (though many are unpublished dissertations).

So this has led to a boatload of different variables – ranging from IQ to technical proficiency to improvisational ability – being studied as potential predictors or correlates (i.e. factors that might be related to sight-reading, but don’t necessarily make you a better sight reader) of sight-reading awesomeness.

All in all, this has resulted in a rather confusing area of the literature with no clear theory or consensus explaining the phenomenon of sight-reading, or what we can do to increase our (or our students’) skills in this area.

17 factors?

A recent study sheds some light on (a) the age-old debate about whether sight reading is an innate ability or if it is a skill that can be developed, and (b) what factors may be related to being good at sight-reading.

By pulling together all the relevant studies in the area, and studying them as a whole, the author was able to tease out some insights from the data that would otherwise be difficult to see if you were to look at each study separately.

Altogether, there were 154 variables across 92 studies, that had been associated with sight-reading in some form or fashion. There was some degree of overlap between variables, so most ultimately fell into one of seventeen different categories:

  1. Music aptitude (as measured by various musical aptitude tests)
  2. Music study (years of experience studying music)
  3. Music knowledge (e.g. theory class grades or scores on other tests of music achievement)
  4. Academic achievement (e.g. SAT scores, overall GPA)
  5. Ear-training ability (e.g. grades in ear-training class, dictation test scores, ability to play by ear)
  6. IQ
  7. Perception (some measure of how quickly individuals can perceive stimuli – like the Group Embedded Figures Test which asks you to find a simple figure hidden within a larger more complex figure. Sort of like Where’s Waldo).
  8. Psychomotor (reaction time)
  9. Sight-reading (how good you think you are at sight-reading, how much you practice sight-reading, or how many years of sight-reading instruction you’ve received)
  10. Personality (like the Myers-Briggs, or measures of leadership ability or even anxiety)
  11. Practice (amount of general practice time)
  12. Technical ability
  13. Age
  14. Attitude (interest and level of commitment in music)
  15. Early exposure (listening to music as a child, early parental involvement)
  16. Memorization ability
  17. Improvisation skills

The results

When you think about it, most of the 17 categories seem like they ought to be correlated with sight-reading in some way.

And as it turns out, most of them are. The strongest ones were improvisation skills (r=.65) and ear training ability (r=.54), followed by technical ability (r=.48) and music knowledge (r=.48).

Two factors were not related to sight-reading performance – attitude (e.g. how interested or committed you are to music), and personality factors.

Then there were some other categories that were statistically significant, but only weakly related to sight-reading ability. Factors like early exposure to music, memorization ability, and perceptual skills.

So what does this all suggest?

In reading through the results above, you may have noticed that many of the factors that are most strongly associated with better sight-reading skills, happen to be factors that can be improved with practice (hey, good news!). Meanwhile, the factors that are more characterological in nature, and not impacted much by practice – like attitude, personality, and perceptual skills – have weaker associations with sight-reading.

The implication being, that while there are some innate factors that may certainly contribute to being a great sight-reader, it seems that sight-reading is a skill that can largely be improved with the right kind of practice and skill development.

Indeed, there are indications from some experiments on sight-reading that working on ear training, creative activities like improvisation, and singing/solfege do cause our sight-reading skills to improve.

How, exactly?

It seems that we become better at guessing what comes next.

Or, as the author explains in more eloquent terms, “Cues in the notation and aural cues from the performance may interact with music knowledge during sight-reading, resulting in sophisticated guessing. Aural skills may make the performer more self- and musically aware, allowing the performer to quickly form expectations and predictions during sight-reading while also adjusting performance quality quickly.”

What’s next?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus in the literature about how best to improve our sight-reading skills in the most effective way possible.

But one thing that does seem clear, is that embracing opportunities to sight read, and making a deliberate effort to practice these skills, is just as relevant here as it is in any other area of one’s musical and artistic development.

I suspect musicians and teachers have a lot of insight in this area based on personal experience. So I’m a little curious – what are some strategies or exercises that you think are key in improving one’s sight-reading skills?

photo credit: Krypto via photopin cc

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63 Responses

  1. When I was in middle school, I became a pretty good sight-reader, mainly because I liked playing the piano, but I hated practicing, and I got bored playing the same piece over and over again! So I would go through our scores and scores of music, “playing” the songs I liked a couple times and then moving on to new ones. Of course, my playing had all sorts of errors in it, and eventually I did start taking lessons and actually work on improving different pieces, but all that time of just playing song after song definitely improved my sight-reading. On the other hand, I’m pretty bad at playing things by ear…

    1. Thank you for the interesting article and comments. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t sight-read at the piano. I remember at age 6 or 7 bringing home my new piano book after my first lesson and voraciously playing it through cover to cover. The pleasure I got from reading new music led me to do it constantly – we had stacks of music in the house and I played it all – classical, show tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan, hymns. I was blessed with supportive parents who could put up with the noise. Some music I played just for the thrill of getting to the end, like reading a really good page-turner and wondering how it will end. Tremendous fun! But some music gripped me and I learned to slow down and try to understand what the composer was trying to say. And so I learned to combine the mechanical aspect of sight-reading with the desire to understand the music and produce something beautiful. I’ve accompanied choirs since I was a teenager, and sight-reading has been an indispensable skill. A good accompanist needs to play those notes at sight on demand, and do it musically, and all while understanding how best to support the other musicians.

      As for how it’s done? I know I read music in chunks, noticing shapes and patterns. I’m always aware of the shape of what’s coming several bars in advance. If I can steal a few seconds before playing to flip through the music and check out repeats and key changes and other such surprises, that’s helpful. Sadly, I’ve never been able to play by ear (both my parents and my brother could), but my knowledge of music theory enables me to fudge it if I’m given guitar chords and a melody. And, though I pride myself on playing the notes as written, I’m pretty adept at simplifying any nasty bits that I can’t play at first sight, and also adjusting chords to fit my small hands.

  2. Interesting article. Thank you.
    In my experience, the more I sight-read, the better I get. I just see the notes and play them. No probs. It’s good if I don’t look down at the keyboard.
    If there are too many notes to play at once I give lots of bass and appropriate melodic cues. No probs, Of course one must maintain a steady beat.
    Sight reading is just like reading a book. Just do it. But……you have to work at it!!

  3. Fascinating! What a lot of variables.
    However, There are also the mechanical issues such as eyesight, and tracking. All the musicianship in the world is not much use, till you have developed the ability to read ahead of the note you are playing.

    1. How do you look ahead while playing something else? I have been trying to do that for a while now and I can’t get it. I also have a problem, which is more of the issue I think, of seeing the left hand and the right hand together at the same time. It’s like my eyes can’t see both at the same time. Do you have any ideas about how to go about this problem?

        1. Thank you for your reply!

          I don’t think that is my issue because I don’t usually look at my hands when I read.

        2. As well said by the article, you aren’t actually looking at the oncoming music, you are guessing it. You don’t see just one key at a time, you see a group of keys and play them in the same instant you realize what the symbols mean. The instant your hands are busy playing, your brain is free to go on reading and guess another group of keys. The improvement in sight reading is about the time you need to realize what the keys on the paper mean: the faster is the link between what’s written and what your hands do, the faster you read. It is just the same as reading books aloud. When you’re a child, you need time to understand what the symbol means, more time to express it with your voice. We are constantly asked to read aloud when kids for this reason: it must become automatic to you. The same is for music. You see the symbol, you are already playing it and go forth. Moreover, for example, when I play by memory, with no score with me, I’m always thinking at the music that will come next, while I’m playing something else. Something like that happens with the reading, I’m still playing this bar but I’ve already over seen the next one. Hope I could explain myself!

      1. Well, as you practice more, you will get a sense of keyboard geography, which means you know roughly where the keys are, so you wouldn’t have to look at your hands as much. I’ve been told by one of my piano teachers that I tend to look at my left hand more than my right hand when I play. Probably because I’m more confident with my right hand than my left hand… Sight reading has (surprisingly) never been a problem for me, but memorising a piece of music is… 😛

      2. Hey Sofie,

        I have the exact same problem, and I’ve been playing for years. Whenever I meet a good sight reader, they always say, “I don’t know, I’ve always been able to do it.” It’s pretty frustrating. In the mean time, I just keep practicing it. Still can’t do the whole reading ahead thing. I got so fed up with sight reading, I became good at chording instead. This way I can play a song quickly, and there’s a sense of accomplishment. I do think it improved my sight reading some what. You’re not alone in the struggle!

  4. Wonderful article! My teaching strategies include recommending close observation before starting to play – key and time signatures, repetitive patterns, line shape, unusual turns, range, positions on the fingerboard – and assigning sight reading for one minute (or more) a day to learn to get more quickly into the needed skill set.

    Being able to sight read opens doors for my students.

    1. I agree…Step 1 – study the music! This is especially important for those who play better by ear because once they have heard a note or rhythm pattern, right or wrong, they will most likely continue to play as they think it should be played rather than how the composer intends it to be played. I’ve spent time with all of my students on sight reading and I do not let them play their first note until they have studied the music. We look for “clues” and I say “Let your eyes be the boss first” and after you know the correct way to play…then “Let your ears be the boss!”

  5. Great article! I always find sight reading an interesting subject among my colleagues. I was lucky to grow up in Seattle where I participated in a program called “Chamber Music Madness,” led by former members of the Philadelphia String Quartet. We met on Sundays for 3 hours. The first hour we rotated in groups sight reading parts to string quartets with a coach. This not only exposed us to the repertoire that I am now dedicated to in my professional life, but also flexed our sight reading muscles beyond where I was comfortable; needing to rely on others while trying to imbue character and leading each other through transitions and sudden changes of tempi. The second hour we played chamber works/string quartets as a conductorless chamber ensemble-often more difficult works for sight reading like the 4th movement of Bartók String Quartet No.4. As a group we discussed how to understand the music integrally to better our sight reading and musicality in the pieces. The third hour was variable, but often we learned different dance forms together-really integrating rhythm into our body. I really believe that this program was what transformed my sight reading. It was something to look forward to with friends, the first time I ever “sang” pieces before attempting them on the violin, and a “safe” place to really learn how to sight read with the help of coaches and peers, all while getting to know THE BEST (okay, I’m biased 🙂 ) repertoire in classical music! For my own students, I try to incorporate this same sense of “fun” around sight reading, and to include pieces they aren’t working on into lessons so they really are trying to “learn” about pieces quickly with my guidance.

  6. Over my 37+ years of teaching, I have found that my best sight-readers are also those who read a lot of books. There seems to be some correlation between the different types of reading, letter-patterns forming words and note-patterns forming music. And when asked, those who gave difficulty with sight-reading music, including professional colleagues, admit to not being active readers of the written word.

  7. My five tips for how to practice sight reading:

    1. Go slow.
    slow enough that you have a chance of playing the entire piece perfectly the first time

    2. Don’t stop.
    you can’t go back and fix mistakes

    3. Use theory.
    recognize harmony and harmonic progressions. This is a huge part of “educated guessing”

    4. Look ahead.
    The farther ahead you can get, the more processing time you have.

    5. Make music.
    Dynamics, phrasing, timing, character, passion – these are all part of the music. Don’t let sight reading turn you into a soulless typewriter.

  8. I think your article points to the fact that sight reading ability correlates well with your overall level of musicianship. It’s more than simply finding the right notes. A good reader has the ability to quickly create a cohesive musical statement and incorporate the most important elements of a polished performance from the get go. Even if the notes aren’t perfect, the strong reader’s performance is convincing because it is more musically complete than the average reader’s.

    Good reading ability is a skill that also improves your general practice, as it gives you a clear picture of the result you’re looking for even before all the details are in place. Practice becomes more focussed and relevant.

  9. This is an excellent topic and brings just about everything to do with being a musician into the mix. Some odds & ends from about 75 years in music:
    1. I’d suggest that a real understanding of the music staff as a graph of sound is a starting point. (Example,When working with other musicians – accompanying church soloists, & random other experiences – I’m mystified why someone sings or plays a note higher, that is visually lower on the staff.)
    2. Learn what the orientation of your instrument is to the staff. Obviously it varies. This came home to me when, as a Master’s level keyboard (organ mainly) super-reader, I began classical guitar. Oh my! There’s a logic to be found, which has been a major life goal, but the mental framework gets somewhat topsy-turvy. (Have incorporated some principles in the beginning text I wrote, a later journal article, and working on a more extensive publication.)
    3. By all means, train the ear. Part of the reading challenge is looking at printed dots & lines and mentally transforming the image into sound AND physical/technical elements of your instrument. Over many years, I’ve found that translating the printed page to where you are or what to finger is the easy part. The realization of RHYTHM tends to be the most challenging.

    Complex as this sounds, it comes down to what other folks have said here: DO LOTS of reading, frustrating as it may seem at times. As experience grows, so will the understanding, reflexes, confidence.
    And a P.S.: I’ve heard it said that professional studio musicians are exemplary for “doing it all” – improvising (theory / ear involvement) AND reading. So it can be done.

  10. I tell my students that they need to read music the same way they would read any language. We don’t read individual letters in each sentence, we read groups of letters that form familiar words. T h i s i s t h e w a y m o s t s t u d e n t s r e a d m u s i c. In music there are also familiar words formed through harmonic and melodic contexts. When reading music we have to see these words instead of the individual notes that make them up. If we come across a new word in a book, we take the time to expand our vocabulary. We may need to expand our musical vocabulary to understand how to sight read better. Sight reading is really about knowing how to read a language and understand its grammatical syntax.

  11. I have actually never sight-read anything, and it was never presented to me as even being a thing when I was studying piano as a kid. Now, it seems like something the appeal of which I can’t even fathom. I’m now and have always been a voracious reader — and compulsive writer, as the length of my replies shows 🙂 — so I “should” be a good sight-reader, but I still don’t see the appeal and can’t quite grasp why it’s even a thing.

    I can see how some pieces of music are more amenable to sight-reading, but I still can’t get how one simultaneously has to play a piece of music sixteen bajillion times including bullet-time slowly to get it just right, but then there’s this magical switch you can throw in your brain called “sight-reading” that means you can also just look at it and play it perfectly without ever having seen it before.

    It just seems like one more stressful way to have to recite someone else’s dots, only without any proper preparation. “Real-time music” to me means improvisation. If that’s what you’re doing, and you’re just sort of roughly being inspired by someone’s printed score, just use a lead sheet or a chord chart, or use your ear. For spontaneous, real-time music making, a score seems to me the wrong tool.

  12. Thank you for the article. It seems that, while you list many studies and their findings, there is not an either/or answer to your heading question, “Are Great Sight-Readers Born or Made?”

    The college instructor of a player who won the audition for one of the major U.S. orchestras at the age of 20 cited several traits that she possesses:

    1. high intelligence
    2. great innate musicality, perhaps derived from two parents who are both accomplished musicians
    3. hard worker who embraces and never rejects a challenge
    4. (this is the most interesting one to me) superior hand-eye coordination (this orchestral musician is also an excellent, active athlete)

    Never having been satisfied with my sight reading (OK with single lines, more apparent in reading piano and orchestral scores), I’ve always attributed this to a piano teacher who, from the time that I was five years old, would play through the entire piece that he would assign me. With my absolute pitch, I would unconsciously “learn” the piece by my impression and memory of his performance rather than actually reading the score! Am I wrong in assuming that this circumstance impeded my sight reading skills to this day? In any event, when I began teaching others, I always played only the first few measures of any section so that the student would be forced to develop reading skills.

    1. I very rarely play a new piece for my students until after they have studied their music and discovered all of the clues they need to play it correctly. After studying the new piece we clap the rhythm ( or use a percussion instrument of their choice), read it aloud together saying note names and counting rhythm, or for more advanced students, outlining all of the intervals, chord progressions, repetitions, etc. basically analyzing the piece and imagining the way it will sound before making the attempt to play it. This frustrates some of my high energy students who want to just jump in and play it but most of my students know that they will learn it much quicker this way. My goal for all of my students is that they would become independent musicians who can go to the music store and pick up any piece of music at their level or slightly above and play it well.

  13. From the more recent scientific papers I’ve read, there seems to be two distinct traits that determine sight reading ability that I don’t see listed here:

    1) working memory (eg the number of different digits/numbers/characters/notes/motifs etc you can hold in your brain at the same time). It’s usually between 6 and 9 total.

    2) pattern recognition (eg the ability to group smaller units into a larger whole, such as being able to read several measures ahead by grouping familiar note patterns into musical “words” or “sentences”)

    Working memory isn’t something that you can improve very much (if at all) after your teens. However, you can improve your ability to make more efficient use of your existing working memory by improving your pattern recognition. This works best by exposing yourself to a wide array of samples from the relevant musical styles and composers you are sight reading from. Composers steal from themselves all the time, so if you want to get good at sight reading Bach, read a lot of Bach, etc.

    1. Thanks for the additional input, Ben.

      Indeed, I’d imagine that working memory ought to have something to do with sight-reading ability. The couple studies I’ve come across were a bit mixed, though, which I thought was sort of interesting in and of itself.

      I think the pattern recognition – like others who have commented about general reading skill – makes a lot of sense. Like speed readers, who can batch words together to form ideas in their head rather than having to say each word aloud in their heads, I imagine great sight readers can turn batches of notes directly into output from their instrument without having to process the music one note at a time.

      1. That’s interesting that the studies show mixed results for working memory. If you have a link I’d love to read more. I only know that working memory has been tied directly to musical performance of minimally rehearsed music. It also seems to me that pattern recognition and working memory are two sides of the same coin. Since pattern recognition is like the ability to remember larger numbers like 3.14159 (pi) as a single unit, it would allow you to hold numbers much longer than 9 digits in memory. It makes logical sense that pattern recognition could extend working memory for sight reading familiar musical sequences as well. Conversely, a lack of pattern recognition (eg breadth and depth of experience) could hinder a high working memory and skew test results leading to mixed findings.

  14. Great article, as always. And much enjoyed reading the comments as well.
    In my quest for optimizing sight reading for myself and my students I particularly try to make the fact conscious that we need to read ahead in order to be a successful reader. I have been tinkering with various ideas how to train myself and others to read at least a bar or two in advance. A colleague of mine says he reads a whole line in advance (!). An interesting thing seems to happen there as we must – in order to achieve this – do two things at the same time: read one thing while playing another (ie what we just read a second ago) from memory, similar to the Brain Game Dual’nBack.
    An eye opener in this regard was the work of Tatjana Orloff Tcherkorsky who I trained with in Europe on one occasion. Basically a bar (to be expanded later) is memorized while in a deep trance without playing on the instrument (just imagining to do so in detail), then it is played without looking at the music. With some practice whole pieces can be memorized like this very quickly. My sIght reading and memorization abilities soared. Quite fascinating and somewhat addictive because it really works, but it takes an enormous amount of discipline to keep it up. I always found it hard to sit in fornt of the instrument without touching it! I’d be very curious if Orloff’s work made it over the pond at all or if anyone developed it further. Maybe for a future newsletter Dr K (hint hint 😉 )
    Thank you all for the interesting discussion!

    1. I read reasonably well.
      One of the things I do is read from a hymnal, get the sound in my head, and then convert to gospel style, all while sight reading music I haven’t heard before.
      The two main things I’m doing are reading ahead, and playing by ear what I read. The playing by ear part involves recognizing chord structures in the music from experience, and then masking gospel chord structures and styles over that.
      It’s gangs of fun…

  15. Been reading the blog for a while and love it. Some ideas here: a friend once described sight- reading as a combination of ‘reading’ and ‘faking’ ( ie. improvisation). As many collaborative pianists can relate, when I would have to prepare accompaniments for 30-50 student juries. As I had no time to actually practice that much music, and I’m not a particularly gifted reader, I found that I became ‘in the zone’ in those times and read very well ( relying a lot on theory/musicianship and musicality), though sometimes I might not really even remember what I just played, even moments after it was done. I think mastering musicianship skills are critical- for a lot of music, there are only so many rhythmic or melodic/harmonic possibilities in a given bar (or even beat), and once you’ve mastered them, they are easy to read.

  16. I’ve certainly gotten a lot better at sight reading over the years and it has just come from the combination of practicing it and doing it. I’m still not a brilliant sight reader (especially being a guitarist) by any stretch but, I am confident that if a piece of music is not too rhythmically complex and doesn’t have a lot of chromaticism or accidentals (i.e. is for the most part diatonic) then I can get through it okay on the first go round.
    Like anything sight reading is a skill that you need to work on in order to get better at; I don’t think there is another answer to it other than that. The more situations you put yourself in where sight reading is involved, the better you will get. I try to make it point to sight read something at least every time I practice.

  17. Things that helped me become a good music sight-reader:

    -voracious print reading
    -solid early piano training, including harmonic analysis
    -interest in pop styles, transferring chording from guitar to piano

    Most important: invitation from 7th grade choir teacher to accompany choirs. Playing with an ensemble taught me how to keep a steady beat and keep going no matter what. I practiced the music at first. My knowledge of chord theory allowed me to choose (on the fly) the most important lines in the texture if I couldn’t play everything.

    From junior high through grad school and beyond, I accompanied choirs, instrumental and vocal soloists, music theatre auditions, music theatre rehearsals and productions, dance classes. Sight-reading was a great tool for chewing through a ton of repertoire quickly.

  18. Whenever I see “sight-reading” as part of an orchestra audition list I usually think it’s highly suspect, because what they’re actually saying is they hope you have a lot of experience and have played most of the repertoire before so that you will have played most everything and nothing will be new to you. As to REAL sight-reading, mostly you get experienced at skilled “faking” – having a pretty good idea of how music patterns are put together (scales, arpeggios, repeated bits)- you may miss a note or two, but you can keep going and get pretty close.

  19. I once had to play an early morning gig when I was very hungover. I thought it was a minor part but I was moved last minute to the lead playing several Irish pieces I had never seen before. When I looked around the audience obviously didn’t care so I felt absolutely no pressure.

    I amazed myself by sight reading the pieces at a blistering tempo. I think it is very interesting that the study found no correlation between interest in the piece and ability to sight read it.

  20. I think I’ve actually gotten better at sight reading since college – and mostly out of necessity! I play viola and gig a lot, so when someone asks me to play a wedding (meaning a quartet or trio), I’m usually going to encounter some new music – either an arrangement I’ve never played or a song I’ve never heard, and it’s expected for me to sight read it, and sight read correctly the first time. Because I’ve been doing this for a while, with all sorts of songs, classical to pop, my sight reading has improved significantly. And playing at a wedding, I can’t sit there and observe the song too long either. I have to be looking ahead as I play, recognizing patterns and if I do get lost, improvise until I can figure out where I am. So I have to say, from personal experience, just having to do it a lot will improve your sight reading – and having musical knowledge is also helpful.

  21. Still thinking about this — full disclosure, I’m not an improviser. Not on the piano at least. I can improvise chord changes OR melody, but not both.

    But … I keep seeing these trends in online discussions about sight-reading that always seem to go the following way:

    “I’m a bad sight-reader. I can hear a piece of music once and remember most of it.” “Oh, that’s too bad.”

    “I can’t sight-read. I have a really good sense of pitch and that gets in the way.” “What a shame.”

    Seriously, is this only sounding like “I can’t sight-read, I have talent” to me or does anyone else see this? Especially when we’ve also got people chiming in saying, “NEVER USE YOUR EARS!!!!!!” I feel like making that noise that Tim the Tool Man Taylor used to make on TV to denote confusion. Never use your ears? Are you kidding me?

    Like I said above, I can’t improvise chord changes and melody at the same time; that seems to max me out, at least for the moment. But I can’t shake the feeling that sight-reading is a way for people with bad ears who can’t come up with their own notes to do something in real time. Now, I know that can’t be completely right because I do know of one pianist who loves to sight-read and is very good at it, but who is a really good musician as well. She really seems to get a huge kick out of solving puzzles and noticing patterns in real-time.

    Nevertheless, I just can’t help but notice that in every online discussion of sight-reading, the two biggest obstacles seem to be a good sense of pitch and a large auditory working memory, and I really can’t help but side-eye any supposed “skill” that turns things like that into obstacles.

    I don’t think it’s exclusive of musical skill necessarily — like I said, that pianist that I know can do both very well. But it doesn’t seem to me to be a fundamentally musical skill, either. Maybe an athletic one — which may explain my total disinclination toward it; I’m a crappy athlete and always have been. And I think it was a handy skill to have back in the day, when you might buy a collection of John Dowland songs and work through them on a weekend night with a couple friends over drinks. But it still seems like improvisation’s poor cousin to me — a way to feel like you’re coming up with something in real time when you aren’t.

    1. Sight reading and improvising are 2 completely different skill sets.

      Do you know any gigging/professional string players? As a violinist, I make most of my living sight reading at rehearsals and gigs. It’s just an expectation with us (and nearly every other professional musician) that we be able to play, musically, whatever chart/piece placed in front of us.

      If a string player can’t sight read, I”ll never book them, and chances are most other players I know wouldn’t book them either.

      I teach sight reading to my private students – at the end of every lesson we spend a few minutes playing through new passages of a tune they’ve never played before. This gets them to recognize common rhythms, and melodic changes, which helps improve their ability to sight read.

  22. Thank you so much for addressing this topic!!! I am an excellent sight reader and I believe that much of my ability comes from having been put in a position to play something on the spot many times. Growing up in church, sometimes the “regular” pianist was out and I would be called on to play – for the choir, special music, etc. One time, the CD track for our choir’s encore for the Christmas program wouldn’t work and the director turned to me and handed me the music and proceeded to turn my pages. there were at least 1,000 people in the audience including at least one of my piano students!!! Her mother called me the next day to let me know that she and her daughter were impressed. That wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, but most of the other times previously were in practice situations. This is one great example of why it is good to have sight reading ability.

    I have also found that a higher sight reading “level” means that students can practice more efficiently. I tell my students that if you can sight read harder music, you can practice even harder music. Your practice level reading increases with your sight reading level. If you can sight read everything in level one, you can practice level two. But if you’re still sight reading level one when you’re practicing level three, you will spend more time practicing than if you were sight reading at level two.


  23. You know, in a way, what I think sight-reading is like is knowing your way around recording devices. It’s not fundamentally musical, but it is a survival skill that you must acquire if you are making your living performing music, especially with other people. That one pianist I know who can sight-read up a storm is a working pianist who accompanies people and performs, and who doesn’t always have the luxury of a lot of time to prepare things. She’s also ruthless about it; if there’s a particularly sticky part of a piece that she need more time to master … but she doesn’t have the time … she will rewrite that part to make it easier. That might not win competitions, but things look different when you actually have to do it for real.

    I guess I’m also not entirely sure what sight-reading is. It never seems to be defined properly in any discussion of it, like “perfect pitch.” People argue over it, and then eventually it comes out that no one has the same mental concept of what’s actually under discussion. For example, when I played publicly, I always had the score on the music desk, just because it was like a rabbit’s foot and reassuring to have there as a memory jog. I turned pages at the right places because my teacher said to do so, but I rarely consulted it. It was there if needed. Another musician might say that skimming over the score just before performing and sort of using it as a rough guide is “sight-reading.” Yet another would say that reading it cold is “sight-reading.” And that one dude upstairs in the comments apparently thinks of “sight-reading” as never hearing the score at all until you actually work through it after detailed study.

    I just don’t think we’re all talking about the same thing.

  24. I always enjoyed playing music on any instrument that I could get my hands on. I played by ear until I was about 12 years old when I finally had my first formal saxophone lesson. Music notation just always made sense to me and it never dawned on me that it was harder for some kids to read than others. I remember sight reading duets in high school with my teacher who said “You’re a great sight reader, way better than me”. It caught me completely off-guard as he was (and still is…) my saxophone idol! I have been teaching for a long time now and it seems some people just “get it” while others struggle. I suppose it’s a bit like math, you either get it or you don’t. In my case I was woefully inept at math. I went for extra help almost every year from 4th grade all the way through high school but alas, it never made sense at any level. I do love the challenge of sight reading and pride myself in the ability to get things right on the first pass. I recently returned from an artist in residency in Australia where I sight read a jazz chart at the same time that I transposed from Bb to It’s really just a parlor trick that can certainly be learned and honed. But if it does not interest you, it probably will seem more like a chore than a joy.

  25. For pianists, I would highly recommend a book called “Speed-Reading at the Keyboard” by Edward Shanaphy, Stuart Isacoff, and Julie Jordan. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but I imagine there still might be a way to track it down. Although I started working out of it when I was about 10, it’s appropriate for all ages, and is divided into several volumes of increasing difficulty.

    The book yields incredible results because it systematically develops all the skills of a proficient sight-reader. The different activities are:

    1. Flash pages: Reading musical units at a glance. You look at a measure or two for a couple seconds, look away and visualize the unit, then try to recreate it at the piano as best you can.

    2. Map Tone exercises: Spotting the most important notes in a piece at first glance. Sometimes you have to leave out notes when you sight-read, and the Map Tone exercises teach you how to pick the right notes to play.

    3. Reading pieces: short pieces to sight-read, with instructions on each piece for things to pay special attention to. There are also suggested metronome markings for a first and second reading. The pieces get gradually harder, and they represent a wide variety of styles that a pianist might encounter.

    After spending 10 minutes a day working from “Speed-Reading,” I went from hating sight-reading to loving it within a few months. I really hope that it is still possible to get copies of this book!

  26. I became better at sight reading after I’ve started learning the harp. My piano teacher taught me specifically that to be a good sight reader, I must always look a couple of bars ahead (as mentioned in many comments above). It has always been something I knew I had to do but had never really grasped. When I started playing the harp, though, due to its nature in fingering, where I have to place a fingers a few notes/bars in advance, it forces me to look ahead. Because of this, I no longer have the burden of making sure I got the notes I’m playing right, because my hands are already elsewhere, and I had to concentrate on getting the ones ahead. I also started to see patterns and intervals and not just notes. I have an oversimplified theory that similar to how we learned shapes, we no longer have to count how many sides the shape has to know whether this is a pentagon or octagon.. so we don’t need to read notes individually but as shapes and landscapes to be able to play

  27. I love sight-reading. I thought I was a good sight-reader until I began accompanying a ballet class, ha ha. “Slow 2/4 for stretches. Marzurka, now! 4/4, this tempo, go! Play SOMETHING, I don’t care what…just KEEP IT STEADY!!” For two weeks I came out crying, I had never developed such skills and was *not* used to being yelled at, either. But after about two weeks I caught on, and it was pretty fun having that check sitting on the piano every couple weeks. 🙂 I was in HS and having to play in tempo, up to speed, without stopping…an amazing challenge. It helped my improv, too, so I can see how the studies show the correlation.

  28. I am not surprised that ear training skills and improvisation skills are related to sight-reading skills. Dr. Edwin Gordon has done research into how we learn music, and has discovered that listening to a variety of songs in various meters, keyalities, genres etc has provided a wider, richer musical vocabulary. That vocabulary allows for more tools in the tool shed to draw upon when improvising and reading music. It provides a readiness to read and improvise. You can relate this to teaching children how to read. First we babble to them until they babble back, then we speak words until they speak words back, then complete sentences, etc. We never stick a 700 page novel in front of an infant expecting them to read. I often wonder why we expect young children to read and play at the same time with little vocabulary to draw upon.

  29. The value good of sight-reading skills is very evident on the amateur chamber music scene, especially when it comes to chamber music with piano given the nature of the repertoire. Working on a piece for a get-together would be a significant investment of time for the pianist and it is rarely decided what is going to be played ahead of time so typically there is no preparation. In many cases it’s not strictly sight-reading because the piece is often one that has been read-though before, but for the most part the piece is usually not something the players have worked up and have ‘in the fingers’. This is also often the case for gigging musicians playing lighter fare- minimal preparation & relying on reading. Sure good improvising abilities is good for filling in the gaps, but to me it’s hardly the focus. In my experience, good sight-reading is first & foremost the ability to interpret what is on the page to a fairly detailed level without prior familiarity with the music. A tremendously valuable skill in many areas of music that I’ve seen.

    I play in a community orchestra where several of the members came through the local youth music system that included a lot of group music experience, both orchestra and chamber music…. both environments that allow for a lot of reading….. and I am constantly blown away by their reading abilities. Our music comes from a group led by the same conductor so our parts are often full of interpretive notes that we should follow. When my orchestra reads though a piece for the first time many people are not just playing the notes but also able to incorporate the dynamics, articulation and phrasing as specified on the page. I had a stand partner who read through the 1st violin part of Hindemith’s Metamorphosen at a fairly fast tempo from the very first reading. Several practice sessions later for me of just learning the notes & I still could barely hope to play it as well as she did that first time. The benefits of good-sight-reading are obvious here.

  30. The article is very interesting. The findings you shared are a shock to me. I consider myself a good sight reader on violin, but not so good on piano. I’ve played piano longer than violin, about 3 years. My musical “ear” leaves a lot to be desired, and improvisation? Tried once in college, not a very happy memory.

    In Jr. high and high school, in orchestra, we did “practice” sight reading. The teacher would talk thru the score, point out passages that might pose a problem, rhythmically or technically. If it was rhythmic, we would clap the rhythm, if technical, we would finger the passage while, the teacher kept talking. He would note any repeats, dynamic changes. Then ask is we, the students had any questions. Oh and if we went to another position in the violins, he would offer a fingering to get there.

    Then we would play the piece, no stops. This was the most fun and challenging activity for me. Making a mistake was “ok”, just recover quickly and don’t lose the beat. To this day I love 1st rehearsals if the music has not been handed out before hand.

    Piano, I did not practice sight reading, so I’m not very good at it…

  31. I am interested in the factor of age on your list of 17, as I teach many beginners. I am assuming that the top sight-readers in these studies were older than 8, yet we teachers of beginning students are building skills for future advanced musicians. Young children’s eyes are not fully developed until somewhere between 8 and 12. For this reason, many young students memorize their music rather than read it, so they are essentially playing by ear. However, this kind of playing by ear does not lead directly to good sight-reading at the early stages and often interferes. Perhaps it pays off later?

    There is a prevalent belief that eyes should be moving “forward” in the music, yet I read of studies that proved this to be wrong. In fact, good sight-readers have “fast” eyes that can fluidly move in all directions through the music and, in the case of pianists, down to their hands. This goes against what we assume, that we should never look at our hands. When I work with students who have taken this advice very seriously, they have trained their brains not to use the lower quadrant peripheral vision. This part of the visual field is very important to pianists because it helps us know where we are on the keyboard.
    I recommend the visual exercises in Rebeccca Penney’s The Fundamentals of Flow in Music for musicians who have patterns of ocular lock.

    Also, chamber pianists are usually following the scores of their partner(s) as well as their own. This means that even more visual freedom is required. In most ensembles, errors are always the pianist’s fault, even when they are not, because we have to be able to assess where the errors have occurred in the score and do what we can to keep the music going. All of this takes fast eyes. I would imagine that the sight-reading skills needed for keyboard players are somewhat more complex than those for violinists, for example, due to the sheer number of notes and rhythms going on at once.

    I also think that fearlessness in a huge component for the musicians I know who are good sight-readers. I’ve been in situations where I was not the most accomplished musician – not the best at ear-training or improvisation – but I was the one who didn’t care if errors popped into my sight-reading, hence I was far more comfortable at sight reading than my more accomplished colleagues.

    How did I get good at it? I did a lot of sight-reading.

  32. Just as you would learn any language that uses pictograms, like Chinese: you learn to memorize the individual pictures, and then you will see patterns emerge. Children in China have to learn at least 6000 pictograms in order to master the language. Has nothing to do with intelligence, but sheer labor. With music, there are roughly 50 symbols that one might actively use. Not much. But it takes hard work. No one is born with the great staff in the head, not even me. (quote by Mozart).

    I’d say, give or take 2 years of study should be enough to learn to sight read. Given that one studies daily.

  33. That was a great article.
    I may have missed something, but I myself have noticed a correlation between musicians with good ears and *poor* sight readers. Not that you can’t find musicians who are proficient at both; but it is just my observation. Perhaps those with good ears are less determined to study sight reading. Or maybe there is an actual drawback to a player who has good ears that makes it much more difficult to learn how to sight read.

  34. I am a good sight-reader. I learnt by playing in my Fathers band. He would just put up a piece and we’d go. Hardly any time to checks keys, time or the roadmap…just count and go. Definitely straight into the deep end. I had to learn fast. We also practised this at home. Did this from age 14 to 21 approx…

  35. Hi! This has been an area of music that I’ve struggled with since starting piano two years ago. I’m in Grade 4 now (in music) , and still the only level of sight reading I can pass at is Grade 2…
    I have quite good ear for music, and can improvise pretty well when singing. However, for me, improvising becomes much harder on the piano as I have to think about more than one note and rhythm at a time. Playing the piano wasn’t really my choice at first- my mom sent me to lessons as a child and I stopped after a few years, only to start again, and I think I could’ve done much better doing a single line instrument…. However I do love piano music and I think it’s a great help with music theory to play the piano.

    Anyway, I’m grateful to have found this article, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s wondered if sight-reading is innate or whether or not I can make friends with my long-time enemy…. hehehee 😛

  36. My whole method is focused on teaching how to sight-read, while incorporating other aspects as well. I actually spend most of the lesson time going through very, very simple beginner’s books, have the students read each piece twice, whether they make mistakes or not, and move on so as to avoid memorization. Over time, their skills improve dramatically and I have been quite impressed with the results.

  37. I was curious if there were any studies on wether or not it requires regular practice to maintain sight reading skills, or if once you reach a certain level of proficiency you will always be able to sight read. If anyone has personal experience with this I would interested to hear that too. Thanks

    1. Interesting question, Aaron. I’m not aware of any research off-hand. Intuitively, I’m tempted to say that the answer is probably a bit of both. I’m sure some of the ability sticks even without regular practice, but I bet it would require regular maintenance to stay at the highest level. I never did get especially good at sight reading though, so I’m probably not the best person to speak on this…

  38. I am a pianist and I have been playing for almost 16 years. Ian going to tell you online word that will include everything you need to know concerning on how to get better at sight reading: are you ready for it?


    -under pressure, all your senses will stream towards that part of the brain and will work like computer plug ins. That way, you will remember better and more. It is all about memory

  39. Frankly, for me, the only factors that have impacted my sightreading in any positive way are:
    1. Technique
    2. (much less so, but enough to mention) developing better relative pitch so I’m more likely to perceive larger contours rather than going note by note, as some absolute pitch people are prone to doing and which will absolutely kill you if you are sightreading a piano score.

    Technique is the biggest one. Former Suzuki kid here–I got used to looking down at my hands while learning all my repertoire and for that and a few other reasons, my keyboard geography has always been a bit shaky when my eyes aren’t also looking down at the keys. My hands are small, too, so I have to move around a lot more than most. Most of the other factors you mention in this article are fine for me, other than these two, but I’ve particularly found that technical skills have by far the biggest impact. No one’s going to hire you to read audiobooks if you have a serious lisp–it’s not that you are a bad reader; it just sounds like it because you are lisping, can’t say your Rs, or whatever other speech impediment you may have.

    I’m a fairly seasoned accompanist and others seem to consider me a good reader–quite a bit of what I do is convincing faking on the fly, though. An extensive theory and composition background helps with this. I can basically hold up an audition room for singers, but don’t ask me to sightread the Figaro Act II finale or a Hindemith instrumental sonata fast movement.

    1. Nicole, thank you for raising the challenge of sight-reading with small hands! In addition to navigating the notes, we also have to decide, on the fly, what is and is not reachable for our hand-span. Then we need to come up with a solution – perhaps rearranging the chord, or letting the other hand help, or deciding which notes can be omitted the least conspicuously.

  40. I started to take piano lessons at the age of 5. I have a very good ear for music, and I would have my teacher play the piece for me before I left (Alfred Piano Series), and then hum the tune on the way home. Maybe play it once, and then come back the next week with it memorized whilst just looking at my hands playing, NOT the music. This went on for about 2 years before I changed to a new teacher, my old one stopped giving lessons. This new teacher caught on to my game, and she shut down my ear. We began to work on more and more theory and sightreading. My ear was still a crutch for me and still is, but I’m getting better. Funny how just 2 years of inappropriate learning can set you back so much, and thank the Lord that my new teacher stopped me from continuing my “thought process”. Hopefully, more and more practice will just make things better, but sightreading is difficult!

  41. Great discussion and article!

    It always makes me sad to hear people talk about the ear as a crutch or when teachers shut down the ears in order to foster sight-reading skills. I completely understand the importance of learning to read, however, I am a strong believer of the ear being an amazing tool and a talented ear should be fostered not shut down. (Really intrigued that the studies showed a high correlation of reading skills with a good ear and improv skills!)

    I had a similar experience as you, David. When I was little I could pick up what my brother was practicing and had a way easier time learning those pieces than others that were completely new to me. Once they discovered that, they did not let me play the pieces he practiced. So in my little kid’s mind it became: ear=bad. Must not use ears. A bit sad for a musician…

    Fast forward many years when I started to get into pop, rock, jazz, and improvisation. It took me years to peel myself away from the page, and to trust my ears or learn a tune by ear! For an improviser, the value of “internal hearing” – being able to hear something before actually playing it – cannot be overstated.

    I have been teaching classical as well as jazz and improvisation (and ear training and theory) for decades. And that “ear versus eye” battle has continued to strike a chord with me as I look to help others to read, transcribe tunes or ace ear training tests. I have come to the conclusion that the different channels do not need to fight each other but can rather help each other tremendously:
    For example, if a student presents with learning by heart rather than reading, then I have them write down from memory what they memorized by ear. Writing is a great way to learn reading.

    Similarly, I help people improvise by mapping out a small number of notes (a pentatonic for example), add rhythm and have them hear internally what they will play before they play it. My fretboard instrument (electric bass) is well suited to follow symmetric patterns and shapes on the fretboard, which is a great starting point for reading also. So, hear inside – play it – write it down. (backward-engineered sight-reading of sorts)

    Ears and eyes do not need to fight, ears do not need to be “shut down”. If one channel comes easier, it can guide the other, I think.

  42. Here is what I have observed about music after playing for just 3 years: We all have talents, some more, some less.
    Those with more are able to perform in all areas of music better, faster, with greater ease and they go farther than those with fewer talents. It is the same in the art world.
    Those with fewer talents must work harder, study more, take longer to understand and practice longer than those with greater talent.
    None of the above is incorrect so long as you keep one thing in mind: do you enjoy what you are doing?
    Sight-reading is a function of music study as are the other areas of music. Being able to sight-read, whether a gift or a labor of love, is only a means to an end – a tool, if you will, whose intent is to aid us in achieving our goal of playing music.
    Some of us play at Grade 4 and some of us play at Grade 8; regardless of where we fall in the grading scale we all have something to work on and as Shakespeare wrote,
    ““If all the year were playing holidays; To sport [play music]would be as tedious as to work.”

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