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I'm in a tricky position. I've been playing guitar for around ten years and am fairly good at improvising and tinkering around on a piano, too. I understand sheet music, I can decipher it, but I can't sight-read it. I'm aiming to change that.

The issue I'm finding is that I'm really good at transcription, and as such if I'm playing a piece I already know, I generally find that I've worked out the next part before I've read the sheet music.

Even if it's something I don't know that well, after a half-dozen times practising a part, I'll find that I've memorised it, and as such am not looking at the notation but using my ear to determine where I'm going next.

I'm trying to overcome this situation, but I'm struggling to think of a proper way to do it. I'm perfectly capable of sight-reading guitar tablature, and I'd love to get to a similar position with the piano, but I'm finding that my memory is being somewhat arrogant, and causing me to rely on it and my ear, rather than reading the notation until it becomes second nature and I'm more able to sight-read it.

Any tips?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The issue of learning quickly and then playing "by ear" isn't so much of a problem, since every musician, after reading and practicing from notation for a particular piece of music, will "chunk" it and no longer be reading every single note on the page. Even when sight-reading for the first time, a pianist isn't going to read "C-E-G", they're just going to read "C-major triad". The same applies, in sequence, to larger chunks of material.

If you want to specifically practice sight-reading, use only music that you've never seen or heard before, practice from the notation until you don't need it, and then move on to the next example!

Some tips and reminders for doing this:

  • If you can only play it when looking at your hands and not at the music, you don't know it well enough. Make sure you can play it without looking at your hands--use the music as a target even if you don't think you need it at that point to train yourself for the habit of following notation. (This applies to both guitar and piano.)
  • Make sure the music includes things beyond the noteheads, including dynamic and articulation markings, and make sure you execute all of those properly before you move on.
  • Make sure the examples you practice from are relatively short, so you don't get bogged down in any one particular piece.
  • Try to practice sightreading music that is within your "Zone of Proximal Development" -- in other words, music that is too hard for you to play perfectly at once, but not so hard that you can't master a short example in a few minutes. Increase difficulty as necessary.
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Two answers:

  1. As others have suggested, practice reading as reading. I used to go through books of keyboard sonatas by baroque composers I'd never heard of, just learning to read the patterns.

  2. My problem was the opposite: I knew enough music theory to be able to reduce most tonal music to a skeleton and "fake" my way around the hard parts. The solution for that is to read through modern and atonal music. If you're a keyboardist, get Bartok's Mikrokosmos: very simple technically, but I guarantee your ear will not be able to anticipate the next note with this stuff!

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I play the violin and have a similar problem. I personally like this music game for android.

It asks you to play notes on your instrument and gives you feedback to tell you when you are doing it correctly. I would highly recommend it to anyone trying to learn to read sheet music or trying to improve there reading abilities.

The game isn't perfect I have noticed it incorrectly identifying notes occasionally, however it gets the job done.

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