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I'm mostly self taught with the piano. I've only played for ~12 months.

When I learned began playing, I didn't learn which notes were in what position on the staff (I only recognize a couple of notes instantly).

Instead, I typically play using the intervals between notes starting with the beginning. So instead of thinking C->E with my right hand (c position), I know I began with my thumb on the C key and move two up to play the next note with my middle finger -- I typically won't recognize any successive notes.

But my real fear is that this method is damaging for me in the long run -- Is this a bad way to approach reading music? Will it be a big detriment if I want to improv?

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Knowing intervals in music is a great start, but in my opinion, the ability to look at a piece of sheet music and immediately being able to pick out notes is very important, if not essential. Believe me – when you get a note 3 ledger lines up in the treble clef, you don't want to count up a 17th before you realize it's an E.

As for the second part of your question, it depends on what you mean by improvisation. If you mean playing off chords played by fellow band members, reading sheet music doesn't really apply to that. However, if you're improvising off a baseline on a piece of sheet music, you'll want to be able to identify those notes as quickly as possible.

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hahaha I've been taught traditionally, and I still have to use the interval method when I get past 2 ledger lines! – Babu Jul 30 '11 at 23:30

I suspect everyone begins identifying notes like that. Just spend more time with music, recognizing the notes instantly will come naturally, like how you don't have to sound out words letter by letter anymore as you read this text. There's only five lines after all, so if you really wanted to, you could make flash cards I suppose...

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Don't need to make them, just download them: :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 7 '15 at 9:53

Being able to play by intervals is fantastic for sight-reading and transposition, as well as for improvisation. It'll give you a good ad-hoc appreciation for harmony and chords.

In the long run, knowing the note names will be useful as well. As improvisation is usually based around chords, being able to identify the notes of a chord around a named note will help greatly.

You could try drilling where certain intervals will take you, both on sheet music and on your keyboard (for example, all the different fifths: C-G, D-A, E-B, F-C, G-D, A-E, B-F#), but as the example shows this can get a little technical (why B-F# and not B-F? It has to do with the number of semi-tones between the notes). However, in this way you could build on what you already know to shore up the weaker places.

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Doesn't really matter how you read as long as you do so correctly. In my opinion, the best way to improve your sight reading skills is to play through a hymnal with four-part accompaniment. Do a few a day for a year and you'll be a pretty decent sight reader. After that, buy some Bach chorales to read through.

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