About Sight-Reading Music

Are you intimidated by the idea of sight­ reading music, finding the skill to be intimidating and unattainable? This podcast episode explores how you can get started with learning this skill through musicality training, and the endless benefits that this ability yields.

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Today I wanted to talk about sight reading – a musical skill that a lot of musicians find intimidating, difficult, or even impossible.

On our last episode with Ben Parry we talked about a particular kind of sight-reading: when a choir singer looks at traditional sheet music they haven’t seen before and can directly sing the notes on the page. But sight-reading is something that’s useful beyond classical music, applies on any instrument, and although I’m going to be talking in terms of traditional “score notation”, everything we’ll discuss is relevant for chord charts, lead sheets, guitar tab, or any other form of written music.

Sight reading is a valuable skill for any musician to add to their toolkit, and learning to do it doesn’t have to be dry or difficult. Today I’d like to share with you three ways that musicality can enhance and accelerate the process of learning to sight-read for you.

First of all, let’s make sure we’re clear: Sight-reading is different from simply reading music.

Reading music means you can interpret the written symbols on a page and know the musical notes they represent. You might sit down with a piece of sheet music and spend 30 minutes deciphering it note by note – and you are reading the music. But that’s not sight-reading.

Sight reading music means you play it as you read it. You’re essentially performing the music directly from the page, the first time you see it. That obviously requires a much greater familiarity and speed of reading music than the slow-methodical “figuring it out” which also counts as reading music.

Learning to read music is very quick. You need to understand the concepts and the symbols but you don’t need to practice it very much to say that you can read music and to take that skill to any new written music you encounter.

Learning to sight read music on the other hand takes a lot of time and practice to master. This is why it’s typically included as a short test as part of an instrument exam, you get given some notated music you haven’t seen before, normally at a level a couple of notches below what you’ve been carefully learning to play for the exam, and after a short amount of prep time to examine the sheet music you’re asked to play it.

Learning to sight read music is traditionally just a process of repetition. You practice it as a skill in itself, and your brain gradually gets faster and faster at translating the visual symbols on the page into the correct movements of your fingers on the instrument.

This is a pretty well-established process and it works fine. There’s a website I recommend for learning this way, SightReadingMastery.com. They have a really nicely designed database of exercises to take you from the very basics through to quite advanced sight reading, on a variety of instruments. So check out SightReadingMastery.com for lots of material to practice with.

Today though, I wanted to help you see beyond this traditional approach by asking the question: what does this have to do with musicality?

This isn’t the “Music Podcast”, it’s not the “Sight Reading Podcast” and it’s certainly not the “Pass your music exams Podcast”! So why are we talking about sight reading on the musicality podcast?

Well, apart from the fact that being able to sight read is a valuable skill for any well-rounded musician because it unlocks such a vast treasure trove of music to you in books and downloadable sheet music, for you to instantly play and add to your repertoire. Apart from that very good reason to learn to sight read, it’s relevant for musicality because the way to accelerate learning to sight read is to work on actually understanding the music within the symbols.

Traditional sight reading is very mechanical. You mentally translate dots and squiggles on the page into the corresponding finger motions and you reproduce the music with your instrument.

But wouldn’t it be better if those dots and squiggles meant something? If you actually had a deep understanding of why it’s those particular dots and squiggles that are on the page?

As you’ll know if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, we’ve set up Musical U as the home of musicality training online, and so to help explain the musicality of sight reading I’m going to share with you three ways that Musical U’s training can help you become a better sight reader – even though we don’t specifically have any sight reading material inside Musical U at all.

The first way Musical U helps you sight read is the one that’s most relevant to what we were talking about with Ben Parry: and that’s the pitch skills needed to interpret written note pitches. If you’re a singer then learning to sight read is actually a much bigger challenge, because you don’t just need to know which fingers to put where to produce the notes on the page – you actually need to know in your head how those notes should sound. It’s 100% up to you to produce the right pitch for each note – that’s quite different from say piano, where you see a written “C” so you press the “C” key on your piano keyboard and you know the right note pitch will come out!

So the first way musicality training can help you sight read is by training your sense of relative pitch. We have two methods for this at Musical U, intervals and solfa, and whichever you pick they both enable you to look at the dots on the page and imagine in your mind how those notes would sound. So that’s obviously hugely useful for a singer trying to sight read – but it’s actually really valuable for any instrumentalist, because imagine how much more musical you can make your performance if you could actually hear the music in your head before you play it, rather than having to wait until your fingers hit the keys to know how it will sound.

By developing your sense of relative pitch and practicing the skill of audiation, meaning imagining music in your mind, you become able to just look at a page of sheet music and hear the right note pitches in your head.

Of course there’s another dimension to every note on the page, and that’s rhythm. This is the second way musicality training can help you with sight reading. At Musical U we have a “Speak Rhythms” module which is essentially the rhythm equivalent of what we just talked about for pitch. We teach two methods you can use to look at written rhythm notation and hear in your head (or speak out loud) how those rhythms would sound. So combine this musicality skill with the relative pitch training and you can look at a piece of written music and hear exactly how those notes should sound, both in their pitch and in their rhythm.

Pretty cool, right? I know that for a long time I thought it was astounding to imagine that some expert musicians could flick through sheet music in a shop and would actually be hearing that music in their head as they looked at the page. And that other singers in choir with me could be handed new sheet music and immediately sing their part, even though they’d never heard that piece before.

With your pitch and rhythm ear skills connected to notation the way we teach it at Musical U those seemingly-magical abilities are well within your reach.

The final way that musicality training helps you with sight reading is the most closely related to what I said about understanding the music you’re sight reading. The pitch and rhythm skills are great for translating what you see into something you can hear in your head. But you don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the music at all, just how it would sound.

One popular technique for speeding up your sight-reading is the idea of “chunking”, where instead of reading one note at a time, you break up what your eyes are taking in into “chunks” of several notes at once. And this is where musicality training can really help. Imagine a bar of piano music, for example, played both hands together with the left hand playing chords and the right hand playing a melody. Without musicality training you might have to decipher a dozen different notes for the left hand and another half dozen for the right hand. But if you’ve studied melodies and harmony the way we teach them at Musical U then you could glance at that same bar of sheet music and immediately see that actually it’s just two chords in the left hand, C major followed by F major, and it’s mostly just a little section of the ascending melodic minor scale in the right hand. You’ve converted a large number of dots into a few simple concepts – and not only do you know how those sound in your head, but you’ve played them so many times that it’s easy to just run your hands through playing them, without having to think about each note in turn.

An equivalent on guitar would be if for example you’d done some training on scale degree recognition and learned particular fretboard patterns for common scale types. You could glance at some guitar tab and instead of just seeing an overwhelming assortment of different fret numbers your eyes would perceive the underlying shapes and patterns and you could immediately make your fingers do the right things – again, without having to think through it carefully, one note at a time.

Or supposing you’re a rhythm guitarist presented with a new chord chart. Without musicality training you might look at the page and see 20 or 30 different chord symbols you’d have to play through and pay total attention to every change. But after training in chord progressions and song structure you could look at that same page, immediately see that there’s an A section and a B section, and each one is a simple 1-4-5-6 progression in a particular key. Again, you’ve distilled down a large amount of information into something you could say out loud in a sentence or two, making it dramatically easier to play through – and, by the way, dramatically easier to memorise, another skill that can otherwise be very slow and challenging for musicians to learn.

So musicality gives you the insight into the underlying structures and patterns that music is made from, and that lets you translate what initially seems like a ton of information notated on the page into the simple, larger chunks it’s composed from. That lets you more easily play it on your instrument because your brain has much less to juggle and you’re able to take advantage of all the practice you’ve had playing those same chunks in different music before.

So those are three ways that musicality training can really speed up the process of learning to sight read music – as well as making it a lot more rewarding and enjoyable, and letting you make your sight-read performances sound much more musical too.

On this show we talk a lot about the ear skills of music and things like playing by ear and improvising which don’t require you to read music. But that doesn’t mean that the other, more traditionally-taught skills aren’t incredibly useful too. So if you’ve shied away from sight reading because it seemed difficult, or you’ve been learning but finding it slow-going, please do check out SightReadingMastery.com for some step-by-step practice material, and explore the three ways that musicality training can help speed up the process and make it a whole lot more fun too.

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