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I find it hard to read a staff and play it on the keyboard fluently.

The most common scene for me is that I read one note on the paper and then lower my head and find out the location of that note and knock it.

It seems even harder when playing chord and reading and playing with both two hands.

I wonder that is there somebody can play a complex new staff rhythmically?

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One of my piano teachers could play virtually any piece just by sight reading. Ridiculously impressive stuff. – Matthew Read Dec 17 '12 at 19:59
I know a wise elder person (medical doctor by training) who reads symphony scores for pleasure, and he is not the pretentious kind. So yes, I think some people can. – Drux Jan 1 '13 at 19:21

10 Answers 10

up vote 42 down vote accepted

A skilled sight-reader surely can (except if the piece is really difficult). And they can do more, for example they can read the music and play it in a different key, or they can read a string quartet (that is, four independent staves with three different clefs simultaneously) and play most of the important things in it, and so on.

Not every good pianist is a good sight-reader, though; the skills are quite separate from each other. I myself am able to play for example most of Grieg's lyric pieces prima vista - on first sight, and I can do some transposing on the fly, but I know similarly skilled pianists who are much better sight-readers than I am. Like every other skill, it's a matter of practicing.

Some of the first things we were taught in our sight-reading class were:

  • Keep the rhythm! You can play wrong notes (or, preferably, skip them) but you cannot lose the rhythm, especially when playing with others. The audience will also much more easily spot wrong rhythms than missing notes.
  • Know what's important in the piece. Usually, the most important notes are the bass and melody. If you can't read a chord or a difficult passage quickly enough, skip it, or simplify it.
  • Don't look at the keys! Keep your eyes on the score all the time and your hands close to the keys so that you can feel which keys to press.
  • Learn to read groups of notes instead of single notes. For example, you can learn to just see that there's an E flat major scale there and a second inversion of a D minor chord there. It saves an enormous amount of time for decoding those important "didn't expect that" turns.
  • Read ahead. This is very difficult but also very helpful. On average you should probably read about one or two measures ahead of what you play. For me that's usually less, which causes hiccups when I can't decode the notes fast enough.

So, quite a bit of sight-reading actually boils down to knowing the keyboard and the building blocks of music very well, and being a good cheater :^)

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Good answer. Note that sight reading is part of the skill set taught and tested in the ABRSM grading scheme, so if you use a 'mainstream' teacher in the UK you will practice sight reading. I expect other countries are similar. – slim Dec 17 '12 at 10:20
It's really helpful. I think I need to be more patient on sight reading. Thank you very much!! – Robot Dreamer Dec 17 '12 at 11:40

When you began to learn to read, you would do it one letter at a time, and one word at a time.

"Tuh Huh Eh -- The ... Cuh Ah Tuh -- Cat ... The cat ..."

... and so on.

As you improved, you'd speed up. You'd begin to recognise whole words at a time, then whole phrases. Now you can look at a page of writing and read it aloud at normal speaking pace.

If you learned a new writing system - say Cyrillic or Japanese Hiragana, you'd be back to the letter-by-letter slow reading style, but with applied practice, you'd improve and you'd be able to read Russian or Japanese text fluently.

Music is just the same. You are currently at the note-by- note "C.A.T. : cat" stage. If you practice, you will improve. You'll recognise (for example) a D, F#, A triad on the stave, and just play it. You'll recognise common rhythm patterns, and be able to play those too.

Like reading text, there's a sliding scale of complexity. A reader at a certain level might have no trouble reading Dick and Jane, literature aimed at children or tabloid newspaper articles, but would struggle to read an academic paper or James Joyce's Ulysses.

It's just the same in music. At the Dick and Jane level (for piano), would be a melody line with no accompaniment, in C major with no accidentals. Moving to a key with sharps and flats, a piece with accidentals, a simple left hand part, more complex rhythms and chords, and you make the job harder.

Different people have different preferences. I am not a fluent sight reader. I'm not even a particularly competent reader of sheet music. But I can play tunes by ear, and improvise chordal accompaniment.

My mother has no idea how to play a tune by ear nor construct a chord sequence to accompany a tune. She doesn't learn pieces from memory. But give her some sheet music, and she'll play it by sight.

I have a feeling that my mum represents the majority of "traditional" pianists - the people you find accompanying school choirs and playing church organs all over the world.

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You are right, I should learn it step by step saying "It is the first step that costs troublesome". Thanks! – Robot Dreamer Dec 17 '12 at 12:09

My two main instruments are piano and violin - and I must admit that while I'm a similar level on both, I find sight reading much easier on the violin than the piano. There's certainly an additional complexity with the piano in that there's two staves to keep track of, but does this mean it's impossible to do well?

Of course not :-)

However, this doesn't just come naturally to most people as they're learning the piano - it requires dedicated practice set aside for sight reading to build up the skill. There's been many good points made here already, I'll just add one other important thing that helps me - and that is to recognise patterns. Not just in notes, but in rhythms as well, and (if you really want to show off) in the dynamics. These things often work in set ways, and if you can look ahead and process blocks of these patterns quickly, you can work out what to play much more easily. The other side of the process of course is having your fingers find the keys quickly, smoothly and efficiently without looking at them - in order to be a good sight reader at piano, you really must be able to avoid looking at what your fingers are doing!

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Yes I had a friend in high school who could sight read Rachmaninoff and other advanced scores, but he couldn't play from memory and didn't know how to play by ear.

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Inversions and chord progressions will increase your sight reading. Take the inversion of the (I) Chord of C major : C E G – (Root position) . The (1st Inversion) [E G > C] be it left or right hand or both [EG > C] will always move to the right of the piano. The (2nd inversion) [G < C E] be it left or right or both hands, [G < C E] will always move to the left of the piano. Treble and bass clef reading will greatly increase recognizing these patterns.
Chord progression is another sight reading boost. You have the Primary and the Secondary Chords. You begin with the (I) Chord and you end with the (I) Chord. In the course of the music you will either go to IV chord or V (these are the Primary Chord Major I, IV & V). You may even run into II Chord (these are the Secondary Chords minor, vi, ii, iii). (Remember, in a major scale, the 2nd degree is a minor and the Secondary Chord) However, if the 2nd degree is changed to a major chord (II) then you can look for the V7 chord every time because it will progress to the V7 then the V7 will progress to a (I) Chord. And towards the end of the piece you will almost always run into the V7 Chord because V7 always progresses to the (I) Chord. There are many progressions and you will spot them once you embrace them.

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I have been playing the piano for 45 years. I have the ability to play well by ear anything I hear but also I was trained from age 4 on classical music. The reason I believe I sight read about any piece of music is years of practicing. Eventually it becomes habit. My eye hand coordination has become second nature. Do something long enough you will figure it out but remember I have 45 years of practicing. Thousands of hours and I still play every day.

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About a year ago I decided to start working on sight-reading. I'm a professional jazz musician and that I have two degrees in music composition already. I have been hired a lot to read music because I'm fairly proficient at it. But I always wanted to get to a different level. One thing I have found, is that it's important to read different styles of music. I found that reading Jazz transcriptions vs music with square rhythms such as Bach or Mozart is is a completely different experience. Or reading Scott Joplin as opposed to Bartok is really different. The techniques involved in all those types of music are also very different. The most important thing I have learned in this most recent Journey is that there is a similarity to reading words and books and paragraphs Etc to music... Notes pieces and phrases. I think the most important Discovery I have made, is that, similar to reading out of a book, it's about getting the larger Musical ideas in my head. When I see music and I see a whole as a unified whole piece of information, I seem to be able to read it. I can't tell you how to achieve that any more than to just to read a lot of different things all the time with a metronome....

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Slim mentions a theory of mine.If one has a 'good ear ' one can play without reference to the dots, however, if carrying a tune is not so easy, one would rely on sightreading.Basically, most people are initially better at one or the other, and that strength will get stronger as the other weakens, often as it's not needed in the musical path one follows. Having played with hundreds of musicians over the years, most fall into one camp or the other. I can count on one hand those who are equally good at sightreading AND busking .That's not to say that sightreading can't be improved on - it's certainly worth the effort !!

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That's got a lot to do with experience though. If you start learning music from paper, from dots on the page, you're going to have a heck of a time later learning to play by ear. If you start playing by ear, you're going to struggle to learn to sight read later on. Of course, everyone struggles with both to start with, and then struggles again to learn the other - most people's fluency with one or the other just reflects the one they started with and will generally stick to. – Matthew Walton Jan 6 '14 at 11:56
Which is pretty well as I said, or tried to say.If one works better, a performer will stick to it to the detriment of the other. – Tim Jan 6 '14 at 13:51
Well, sight-singing (singing from written music you haven't heard before) is an important skill that combines reading and aural skills. There's some significant overlap here--if you know on sight what a passage is going to sound like, that can help perform the passage on an instrument. – Bruce Fields Feb 15 at 13:57

Good and great answers. To be able to sight play at first sight, one needs to work on how to play the piano without looking at what the two hands are pressing. Secondly, recognizing notes that belongs to each keys and finally to work on intervals between keys, this aspect mostly concerns church pianists and for those who love to play hymns.

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I don't understand the relevance of church/hymns. – Tim Jan 6 '14 at 13:53

One of the greatest hindrances in accompanists is not a lack of reading notes and rhythms, but rather technique. Once you get to a certain level, sight reading at advanced levels will require competence and familiarity with different techniques. Since speed is usually the culprit, recognizing certain techniques in advanced music will provide a greater capacity to sight read a larger variety of music. Hence, the more new music you can get your hands on, the better.

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