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 There are also way more studies out there than I would have guessed – more than 90, in fact (though many are unpublished dissertations).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.

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