Some musicians have what seems like a magical skill. They can take a written piece of music they’ve never heard or seen before and just sit down and play it perfectly the first time. They’ve mastered the art of reading music.
This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years to develop the ability to sight read music. Even if you’re a beginning pianist, I encourage you to start the process now so that you can someday have the awesome benefits that sight reading will bring.
What Makes Sight Reading Seem Like Magic?
Sight reading is an extremely complex skill. It takes immense brain power. Some people make it look easy, but it certainly wasn’t easy for them to learn to do it! When you sight read you decode a very complex language. English and other written languages are one-dimensional. To read, you decode letters, words, or symbols written in a line. On the other hand, in music there are two dimensions. The horizontal dimension records tempo and the vertical direction records pitch. For multi-pitch instruments like the piano, you’ll even see stacked notes which are to be played simultaneously. When reading music, your eyes scan left to right, and also up and down.
As you’re reading a written language, you can pause when you want. Stop and take a breath. It won’t change the meaning, at least not very much. When reading music you have to keep your playing in time. Not only that, with an instrument like a piano, you can have both hands playing at the same time with each hand doing something completely different. You have to translate rhythmic language, pitch language, send it to both hemispheres of the brain and then out to each hand, don’t miss a beat, and keep in time. Sight reading asks a lot! It’s a very, very complex brain function that can take many years to master.
Should we just give up in the face of all this challenge? No! Instead, we must simply realize that this is a many-year journey. Do it right, and you can learn to sight read. Recognize the fact that it will take time, and begin today.
Why Learn to Sight Read?
Sight reading is a very practical and enjoyable skill. I paid my way through college using my sight reading skills as an accompanist for voice lessons. Sometimes the voice teacher would throw me an opera aria I’d never seen before, and I would have to play it on my first try. If I didn’t keep up with the singer, the voice teacher would not be pleased. The teacher wanted to focus on the singing without the distraction of a botched accompaniment. Fortunately I had already accompanied my high school choir for many years, and was able to do a pretty good job.
Another way that sight reading skills have been useful for me is in accompanying singers for musical numbers in church. People know they can come over before church on Sunday morning and run through the song a couple of times with me, then perform it during services. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the song before or not. We can put it together in less than an hour because I know how to sight read.
It’s also endless fun to be able to open a book of music, whether Christmas carols, Broadway tunes, hymns, folk songs, pop music, or anything else you’d like, and gather friends and family around you for a sing-along. Sight reading opens up a whole new world of musical experience for you and the people around you.
Building a Solid Foundation
One major reason that kids struggle with sight reading is that they don’t have a solid foundation. As I mentioned in a previous post on acquiring musical literacy, Kindergarten doesn’t start with reading full sentences. It starts with the alphabet. Even before that, the kids who go to Kindergarten are expected to have a pretty good grasp of speaking and understanding spoken English. Hopefully parents have spent many hours reading aloud to their child while pointing to the words on the page. This way they already have a sense that words flow left to right, and that letters have sound and words have meaning. We spend years building a foundation of language before asking children to read. It should be the same with music. You can’t take a child who is unfamiliar with music and music notation and suddenly ask them to read notes off the page.
PHASE 1 – Master the Basics Before Sight Reading
Know the musical alphabet, forward, backward, and in skips. Experienced musicians can all do this, but beginners need practice. It’s like memorizing math facts. Sure you could count on your fingers, but that really slows you down.
To help your piano student learn their way around the musical alphabet, play games. When our family is riding in the car, sometimes I’ll call out, “Musical alphabet backwards starting on E,” and my boys will say it. You can also play the Hoffman Academy game, Alphabet Towers.
Starting on any letter, students should be able to go forwards, backwards, in skips forwards, and in skips backwards. Why? When you start reading the staff, if you see a G, you’ll know that if you see a note a skip below that it will be an E.
Get to know the staff. There’s a whole lot of information packed into a musical staff. Students need to be able to identify line notes, space notes, treble clef, and bass clef. They should also know how notes relate to the staff, where are the high notes and where are the low notes, and what each clef means. To learn about the staff, watch this video lesson.
Practice Rhythmic and Melodic Dictation of Familiar Songs. Before learning to sight read, students should practice writing down the rhythms and melodies of songs they already know. For Hoffman Academy students, rhythm dictation starts with their first song, Hot Cross Buns.
When you first learn written language, what do you learn to write first? Your name. The most familiar word in the world. When students start out by writing down rhythms and melodies that they are already familiar with, music notation makes sense from the start. More than that, if they write it they remember it ten times better. Kinesthetic experience gets these complex concepts securely in the memory.
Practice Matching Sound with Written Music. Students should be able to hear a short melody and match it with what they see on the staff. This is a critical skill for sight reading. A great way to practice this is our Mystery Melodies Game. I also introduce this concept in the Mystery Listening Game Lesson.
Learn About Time Signature, Measures & Barlines. When sight reading, a musician has to keep in time. Just like you wouldn’t let your child start driving a car without first teaching them about road signs, you can’t expect sight reading to go well unless they know the road signs of the staff, which are the time signature, the measures, and the bar lines. I introduce these in Unit 3 in this video lesson.
Memorize Guide Notes. There are a few notes on the staff that students should be so familiar with that they know them really fast. If students can instantly identify Middle C, Treble G, and Bass F, and they also know their musical alphabet well, then they can easily identify other notes anywhere on the staff.
Why I DON’T use “Every Good Boy Does Fine”
When teaching the musical staff, I don’t use the familiar memory aid, “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” This is because it doesn’t teach an understanding of how the staff works, and therefore it is prone to break down. It’s a short cut that can backfire on you, and here’s why. On the treble clef you have “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the line notes, and FACE for the space notes. The bass clef has “Good Boys Do Fine Always” for the line notes, and “All Cows Eat Grass” for the space notes. Now you’ve got four tricks that you have to memorize, that you can get mixed up, and you still don’t know why the letter names for the notes are arranged this way.
Instead, if kids remember the treble clef was invented to show the G line and bass clef was invented to show the F line, then they have an anchor. Once they know the musical alphabet they can figure out any other note using the starting note of treble G or bass F. The clef is always there, written on the staff, to show them the way. I want them to understand the real principles going on. Once students have that solid foundation, go ahead and use the memorization tricks. It’s okay to take a shortcut so long as they truly know the map.
PHASE 2 – Simplified Sight Reading
Start with a one-line staff. With the Hoffman Method we introduce sight reading on a one line staff. Why? We want to make it easy enough so that kids feel like they can be fluent and confident and build success from the start. In order to do this we need to break this very complex task into small pieces and master them one at a time. We don’t use letter names when we first start sight reading because a good sight reader doesn’t need to name every letter. Instead, they see the relationships between the notes.
To some kids, even a one line staff feels like a challenge. We don’t want to overwhelm them. Before trying to play the notes on the piano, have your child point and say start, then repeat, step up, or step down for each note. Remember to have your child, not you, pointing to the notes. That way they own the learning. After your child has gone through the one line staff, naming the relationships between the notes, have them play on the piano while speaking the relationships.
Read a few lines on a one line staff every day. Point and speak, play and speak. Five minutes a day will bring a lot of progress. Be sure to celebrate that. Help your child realize what an amazing thing they are doing, turning symbols written on a page into musical sound that everyone can hear. For some interactive one-line staff sight reading practice, play the first levels of Staff Crawler.
Next, master the 5-line staff with no rhythm. The next step in sight reading is to read note heads with no rhythm markings on a five line staff. Once again, before playing, have your child point to each note and say whether it is the start, a step up, a step down, a skip up, or a skip down. Emphasize these relationships more than the letter names, because in the end it is the intervals between the notes and not the letter names on the staff that will guide their reading.
So what good are letter names if we’re focusing so much on intervals? Letter names tell you what note to start on. Because your child should be very familiar with the musical alphabet by now, it should be easy to find the letter name of the starting note.
After your child finds the starting note and has their hand in position, their eyes have to stay on the page. No looking at hands during sight reading. When playing repertoire, of course pianists should look at their hands, but when you sight read you have to look at the page. When my students look at their hands during a sight reading exercise I hold a book over their hands so they can’t see them.
If your child needs help tracking the notes while they play, go ahead and point for them. Have your child speak out loud while they play, one time using steps and skips, one time using letter names. Keep at it until your child can read pitches accurately from the five line staff.
Add Rhythm. Once your child masters reading pitches from the five line staff, it’s time to add rhythm. Follow these steps for a successful sight reading experience:
- Identify the time signature
- Count the beat and tap or clap the rhythm
- Point and speak steps, skips, repeats
- Point and name notes
- Play and name notes
- Play and count the beat or speak the rhythm syllables
Sight Reading vs. Learning Repertoire
Once your child has progressed through all the steps of phase 2, they’re ready to start reading actual music. At this point, keep in mind that there are two tracks of learning. The first one we started from the beginning, which is repertoire learning. Repertoire is the music you play, the pieces you learn to perform. You play your repertoire by heart, you love it, it’s for music making. A brand-new beginner in the Hoffman Method learns repertoire entirely by ear. This is faster and more efficient because new piano students are not ready to sight read! We want to get kids making music right away so they will love it and stick with it.
The second track is sight reading. A student who has been playing for six months is starting to really advance in their repertoire, but sight reading is still at zero. Many piano methods try to get sight reading to match repertoire, but this is not a good idea. Not even professional pianists can sight read pieces at their same ability to perform. Asking students to only learn pieces that they can sight read really holds them back in performance, which can lead to boredom. Asking them to sight read music that’s too difficult leads to frustration.
It’s important to have students playing at their performance level and practicing their sight reading at their true reading level. Students who are asked to read music that’s too difficult won’t progress as fast as students who are asked to read music right at their level. A typical student may sight read two to three full levels below their repertoire playing level. To help you choose the right level of material for your child to practice sight reading, find something that they can play successfully with a minimal amount of practicing. If it takes them more than one practice session to learn it, it’s too hard for sight reading practice. I like to have my students sight read something new every day, which means it needs to be easy enough to play with just a couple of tries.
PHASE 3 – Fluency in Sight Reading
Eventually you get to a point where your child can sit down and just sight read things. When I was 12 my dad would just have me open the hymnal and play something. In middle school and high school I got to accompany my school choirs, and in college I spent hours and hours every week playing music for voice lessons. All of that accompanying was a fantastic thing because it gave me the chance to do a lot of sight reading.
The best way to become a great sight reader is to do a lot of it. We know from research that for kids to learn to read literature fluently, one of the best things we can do is have them read for twenty minutes a day. They don’t practice reading the same page over and over again, they simply read, moving forward page by page. In the same way, sight reading skills improve the most when piano students simply move forward, reading material at their level, consistently every day.
Around fifth or sixth grade, most kids in school are done with easy readers and chapter books, and can start reading novels. From there it isn’t long before they can start to read the great literature of the world. It’s the same with music. Once you are a fluent sight reader, it opens up the whole world of great music. Now as an adult I can pick up almost any piece of music and sight read it, and it is so fun!
Remember these two things as you advance in your sight reading. First, be patient. It takes lots of time and practice. It really helps if you have daily opportunities to sight read new music. Second, learn to recognize musical patterns at a glance. You’ll eventually be able to take in several measures at once, just as you can recognize strings of words or even whole sentences in an instant. This really speeds up your ability to sight read.
Begin the Journey Now
The journey to become a great sight reader takes years of preparation and practice, but it is so worth it! Start now to move forward, wherever you are on the path. Be sure to build a good foundation with an understanding of the musical alphabet, the staff, and music notation. Practice writing down simple, familiar songs, and also listening to music while following along on the page. Master reading note heads on a one-line staff, then a five-line staff, then add rhythm. Last of all, when you begin sight reading regular music, remember to chose music at the right level. You will always be able to learn and perform music more advanced than what you can read, so choose simpler music for your reading practice.