A General Guide to Piano Sightreading

What is sightreading?

Literally, sightreading is reading music at ‘sight’ and playing music that is unrehearsed or practised.

Why is it a useful skill?

There are a number of reasons why developing sightreading skills is necessary and useful:

  • Sightreading gives you the ability to ‘try out’ and hear pieces before learning them (how did musicians choose music before the days or recordings?)
  • It speeds up the learning process as not everything has to be worked out as you go along. For example, recognising shapes and patterns, such as broken chords and scale passages, means these can be interpreted by the brain quickly and easily
  • It encourages you to ‘hear’ the music in your head. This is excellent aural training. Say, for example, you are in a music shop and want to buy a new piece of music, how do you know what it will sound like first?
  • It is very useful if you wish to sit and play with other musicians (or pianists) just for fun – jamming sessions, for example

Why is sightreading so difficult?

Who remembers the time when we first learnt to read and how difficult it was? Most people will have, of course, forgotten. Was it because we were very young and didn’t question things then so just got on with it without realising how difficult reading and writing was? How often do we read words in our daily lives? We don’t ‘sightread’ books or newspapers – we just read them.

Sightreading is just reading music, as reading is just reading a book. It’s difficult because we don’t do it often enough for it to become second nature, or “easy”.

When reading words, without realising it we are always reading ahead. As an experiment try covering up 3 or 4 words in a sentence ahead of you reading it. It’s quite amazing what our short-term memory remembers and processes in a very short period of time. When reading music we also need to be looking and reading ahead.

How do I get better at sightreading?

Like everything else in life, nothing comes easily unless you PRACTISE. Learn to read ahead, starting with one note ahead at first, slowly, then 2, then 3, etc, and gradually build it up until you are looking one or two bars ahead. It’s also important to practise ‘hearing’ the music in your head before playing it. Start with a single melody of a tune you know and follow the shape and pattern of the written notes. Once this becomes fairly easy, learn to recognise and sing intervals but remember to sing them from the lower note up, as well as from the upper note down. Again, start simply – Play and sing ‘C’ then try to sing the next note up, a second. Then try a third, fourth, etc, before working down from C.

The following is a plan that can be followed in order to start improving your sightreading at the piano. The more you work through this list the quicker it will become, eventually becoming second nature:

First thing to notice is the Clefs. Is it treble and bass, treble and treble, or bass and bass? It’s incredible the amount of times this is missed by musicians. Next is the Key. I don’t believe it’s particularly useful to sit and work out if it’s a minor key or major key. In reality you only need to know how many sharps or flats are used. The third element is Time. When sightreading becomes more proficient this element becomes important in the interpretation of the piece as it helps set the mood and ‘feel’ of the music.

Next stage is to identify Shapes and Patterns. What this means is looking for any elements throughout the whole piece (make sure you scan the whole thing and don’t just concentrate on the opening) that are recognisable patterns or shapes. This could be arpeggios, broken chords, scale passages, sequences, etc. It can also include rhythmic patterns. These all help get a better ‘feel’ for the music before touching a note.

The third stage is finding the Character and Mood of the piece. Look for as many clues as you can find. I would start with the title. This can give all sorts of ideas as to what the music should sound like, even if it’s an abstract name like ‘Allegro’ as this tells you it’s fairly fast and lively. Check the speed indications at the beginning too as, again, the composer can relay a lot of information from this word or series of words. Dynamics are also important here – does the music start loud or quiet? I would also check any obvious articulation markings throughout the piece. Is it primarily Cantabile, or staccato? All of these elements help create an impression of the piece before even touching a note.

Not strictly necessary, but useful, is playing the piece in the air, off the keys – Air Piano. This gives you the opportunity to imagine what the piece is going to feel like under the fingers before finally committing to the keyboard. Always make sure you set a realistic tempo before beginning and, whatever happens, stick to it. Air piano is your opportunity to play the piece perfectly as, in reality, you can’t go wrong.

The final stage is GO FOR IT! Set your tempo again and try to ‘feel’ the piece before launching straight into it. Remember, though, that once you start, NEVER STOP! Once you’ve played a note you cannot change it so move on. If a note is wrong, ignore it and immediately put it out of you mind. Remember, think and look ahead. You are not ‘practising’, you are just ‘reading’. Do you stop when you fluff or mispronounce a word in a book? Mistakes don’t matter – continuity and fluidity do.

When chosing music to sightread, just play anything. If it’s too difficult play it slowly and one hand at a time. Offer to accompany another musician – a singer or an instrumentalist – then you don’t have the luxury of being able to stop. Play through an anthology book of random pieces. Play through old ABRSM piano syllabus books of any/all grades. The more you do it the better you will become. Remember, practise makes perfect.