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What Is Sight Reading?

By Lily Ruha
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sight reading is the act of performing a musical piece by reading a written score, usually without having previously seen or practiced the music. When first learning how to sight read, students typically are encouraged to focus on accuracy and tempo. Mastering sight reading usually involves daily practice, trial and error, persistence and the help of a skilled music teacher. Considered by many musical experts as one of the most important musical skills, knowing how to sight read music allows a musician to perform in a group and play complicated compositions.

Learning sight reading involves reading and playing musical notes. Essential to the process is accurately playing each note that is displayed on the written score by focusing on the score rather than the fingers. Students typically begin by playing simple pieces in a slow tempo and progress to more complicated compositions. In addition to accurately playing the notes displayed on the musical score, performing in the right tempo is a fundamental part of sight reading. The learning process typically involves choosing unfamiliar pieces and refraining from stopping in the middle of them, regardless of any errors made.

Becoming proficient in sight reading requires tenacity and guidance. Practicing daily is important for learning and retaining knowledge of musical notation. Persisting despite constant mistakes made in the early learning process requires a long-term commitment to the task. Working with a music teacher typically accelerates the process by providing explanations about musical notes, rhythms and tempos. Practicing without a teacher can potentially lead to incorrect interpretations of written scores.

One of the benefits of sight reading is the ability to play with other musicians. Although some musicians can easily duplicate music by ear, knowledge of musical notation makes it easier to join a band or orchestra and quickly master new and unfamiliar musical pieces. The ability to sight read music typically is a requirement for admission to many music schools and ensembles.

Sight reading also allows for mastery of complicated music. Many talented musicians are able to perform simpler pieces by ear, but an accurate performance of unfamiliar and more involved compositions generally requires the ability to read notes. Learning to play more advanced compositions at first glance often requires understanding of harmonic and rhythmic patterns, as well as the use of other methods and devices such as counting, tapping the foot, conducting or the use of a metronome to mark time.

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Discussion Comments
By Wisedly33 — On Sep 23, 2014

I play piano, and my sight reading is good, but sight reading doesn't help at all when I'm playing with other musicians who can't read music. We just agree to play something in a certain key, and then we do it.

Even in places like Nashville, a lot of musicians don't read music, but they learn new music and play together all the time. They know the notes and the keys, but nothing about transcription. They use the numbers system to learn new music. I've used it too, and it does work. The number 1 is always the base note. If the song is pitched in the key of "E," for instance, then 1 is always "E." And it goes up and down the scale from there.

Sight reading is a handy skill to have, but the same results can be achieved by other methods.

By Scrbblchick — On Sep 22, 2014

Well, there's sight reading like the article discusses, and there's real life sight reading for those of us who are not professional musicians, but may be called upon to play or sing a song we're not familiar with, and we get the sheet music, hum it through once or twice and then off we go!

This has happened to me in church. I've been leading the singing and have suddenly been handed the number to an unfamiliar hymn. What to do? Change the hymn or read it on the fly? Most of the time, I read it on the fly. I don't play any one instrument very well, but my sight reading is pretty good. I can usually make it through a song if the musicians know it and can keep me on tempo.

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