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For a long time I have wanted to learn to sight-read piano music, and made a few a ttempts, but failed.

The most important reason for these failures, I think, is that I have no interest whatsoever in performing music1, whereas all the resources I have found for learning how to sight read (particularly teachers) are entirely focused around performance, and relegate sight-reading as a secondary aspect and/or by-product of learning to perform.

For example, I have attempted a couple of times to take lessons from piano teachers, with the express purpose of learning how to sight-read, but these teachers have not known how to address this aim without putting me through the standard sequence of learning a little repertoire, etc. As a result, I learn no sight-reading at all. (I guess I have too good finger-memory and/or too good an intuition for the music, so after a couple of rounds I no longer require the score.)

My goal to be able to play a piano piece, however intricate, at first sight, even if my lack of dexterity forces me to play it at an uneven/halting tempo, and/or in an utterly mechanical way.

How can I achieve this goal without embarking in training whose primary aim is performance (for an audience, however modest)?

Is there any learning method for sight-reading specially designed for the non-performer?

May there be a subpopulation of piano teachers (maybe subscribing to a particular philosophy of teaching the piano, or catering to a particular type of student) that may be more responsive than the norm to this non-standard objective?

1I want to sight-read for the same reason a non-actor who loves theater may want to learn to read: to have another way to approach and appreciate theater. My interest in sight-reading is as a tool, a "scope" to direct at music, to, literally, see it in a different way. Maybe even to compose.

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Very difficult question ! I went, years ago, to several teachers who obviously couldn't answer it, and now I teach, I'm searching for ways that mostly elude me.Hope someone answers succinctly –  Tim May 1 '13 at 15:36
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Find some sort of graded curriculum or anthology that you haven't yet played, and try sight-reading a few pieces to figure out what level of music you can currently sight-read to your own satisfaction. Work on sight-reading at that level for a while, then move up when you're ready. Once you get a sense of what scores at your level look like, you can download a lot more for free at imslp.org if you need extra material at a given level (which you will, since you can only sight-read a piece once). By the way, a good teacher should be willing to address a student's individual goals! –  terpsichore May 4 '13 at 3:40

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

You probably do need to commit some pieces to memory, and here's why.

As a fluent reader of English, when you see the word "penguin", you don't process each individual letter in your head. You see the whole shape of the word, and immediately get a mental image of a black-and-white bird.

When you were a child, learning to read, you did process each individual letter one-by-one, and it was by doing that over and over again that you eventually built up the short cut of recognising the whole word.

As an adult, if you encounter a brand new word, you might process it letter by letter. You might break it into recognisable chunks. But you'd use your experience to quickly add it to your vocabulary, and from then on you'd recognise it instantly.

The principles are similar for reading music.

As a beginner, you might look at a bar of score, and think "OK, the first note is three lines up, so that's E,G,B ... B! Then the next one's two up, so that's a D. B D. Then down three... um, A... B D A.

Now, if you learn that piece my memory, but always play it with the notation in front of you, you'll learn to instantly associate the shape those three notes make on the stave, with the corresponding notes on the keyboard (you will, of course, have to adjust for key signatures).

The key here is that when that pattern appears in other pieces which you are attempting to sight-read, you will still recognise them and be able to play them.

The same goes for rhythm. At first it's quite a struggle to work out how a written rhythm will sound, and you'll have to spend some time tapping out the beats and trying to fit the written notes and rests around them. But the same patterns of rhythm come up over and over again, so once you know how a particular rhythm sounds, you won't have to work it out from scratch again.

Most music is made up of a lot of familiar patterns, along with occasional unfamiliar snatches. Like reading a novel containing the occasional difficult word. To sight read reliably, you need that vocabulary of patterns.

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+1 . . . Bravo! –  luser droog May 2 '13 at 2:34

I endorse Slim's answer. Knowing the main scales( major and natural minor,perhaps look at harmonic minor) will enable you to put the right hat on for each tune.When you see 3#,and they'll always be the same 3, you know it's in A maj. or F# minor.In A, for example, there'll be maybe more A notes and the tune will generally have F# C#and G# instead of F C and G.The chances of having to read Bb or Eb for example, are pretty small !Being aware of these sort of facts will hopefully cut down the number of errors in sightreading.

As a teacher, I find sightreading to be the hardest part to teach.How can it be practised at home ? When a pupil reads something new, he has no idea if what he's playing is correct, unless he knows it - then it's not sightreading! Much better done with another player present, to guide and confirm. Knowing chords and arpeggios will help immensely - if the same tune as above, in A, is looked at, it will usually reveal harmonies of A maj., D maj.,and E maj.Maybe F#m will appear etc., so if one knows the notes which form each chord,and which chords are in each 'key family', it'll help.
Try to reference each next note to the last,e.g. C-D is right next door, a tiny move, whereas C-E, on adjacent spaces, will need a jump over the neighbouring D.This has to be better than saying "this is C, where's that on the keys, this is D,where's that.

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I also have to secondate slim, but would like to add a bit. Im my opinion piano is the worst common instrument to learn sight-reading, since there are so many notes. (Harp would be similar and organ would be worse with the additional pedal voice.) So to come down to a managable amount of information you have to abstract significantly like, "oh we are modulating to the dominant chord here", otherwise you have to decode each note by itself, which is likely to take so much time, that the melody flow in your mind breaks down. Situation would be easier for a wind instrument, where the is only one note at any given time.

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Maybe it's got 88 keys/notes, but what's wrong with just using 2 octaves above and 2 below middle C? Or even less, the notes contained WITHIN the stave.That way, it's no better or worse than a guitar, clarinet, trumpet.......The bigger problem is that it expects you to play different things with each hand, using treble and bass clef dots to read.Most other instruments use ONE clef (and can't play chords),thus one note only at a time. –  Tim May 1 '13 at 17:20

You're probably going to have to explain this in more detail:

My goal to be able to play a piano piece, however intricate, at first sight, even if my lack of dexterity forces me to play it at an uneven/halting tempo, and/or in an utterly mechanical way.

Playing it haltingly is not playing the rhythm and possibly wrecking the harmony. Rhythm is often more important than the pitches used...

With music, you're either playing or composing. So I assume you're interested in composing? If so, split the song into melody, supporting chords and percussion. Also look at the rhythms used. To see how the components of the song make it "tick".

But, honestly, if you can't play SOME music (at least)... You may not have a good "base" for composing.

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The first step in learning to sight-read is to read music, a lot. If you feel like you don't need the music anymore after a few playthroughs, test that assumption by writing out the whole piece from memory. I would encourage you to continue to look at the music while playing even if you do have it memorized though.

Having a deep knowledge of theory will help because you will see harmonic structures and patterns more easily and don't have to pick out notes.

Also important in sight-reading is knowing how to keep going when you make mistakes. Our tendency is to stop and correct when making mistakes. A good sight-reader won't let a missed note disrupt the pulse and flow of the piece. The goal is uninterrupted playing from beginning to end.

I don't know of a way to divorce sight-reading from performance though, since obviously you have to play the piece while you're reading it. If the goal isn't to play a piece even moderately well, then what is the goal? I would also suggest that being able to sight-read well requires being fairly accomplished on the instrument.

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Agree with not stopping: play on, warts an' all.This is usually the reason people play the first part of a learnt piece better than the rest. Played it most.But when you've sightread a tune 2 or 3 times, after that it's not really sightreading.Suggest you leave it alone for a week and then try it again.Then it's not from memory. –  Tim May 1 '13 at 17:13
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This. Keeping going through mistakes, even botched mish-mashes, is the surest way to sight-reading proficiency. The music marches on, whether you can handle it or no. Eventually you learn to read ahead a measure or two and plot out your fingerings even while you're playing behind what you're looking at and digesting. –  Robusto May 2 '13 at 11:20

In order to sight read music you need to build up a learned repertoire of common finger patterns. The best way to start to do this is to practise playing scales and arpeggios, however you must read the scales and arpeggios off the music when you are playing them. For sight reading it is very important to get a good eye to hand recognition, and if you play scales and arpeggios without reading them off the page you don't learn the instant pattern recognition that is needed for good sight reading.

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The only useful tip I have ever received about sight-reading I got from a guy who is the best sight-reader I know. He said to learn to play without looking at the keyboard. Just look at the written music. He would even go so far as to put a blanket over the keyboard and play with his hands under the blanket to practice.

I have tried to do this and have gone from being a terrible sight-reader to a moderately adequate one.

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Thanks! I would choose your answer if I hadn't already chosen a different one! –  kjo Jun 5 '13 at 13:33

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